Back in 2011, friends Becca Dean and Charly Young were working as secondary school teachers in some of the most deprived areas of northwest London when they noticed something about their female students.
“They were at a double disadvantage,” explains Young. “They were held back by expectations of them as a girl, about what they might want to achieve and how they ought to be behaving.” These expectations were held by the girls themselves as well as their families and wider communities. “That was having a massive impact on what they thought they wanted to go on to do, their willingness to take risks, and how they felt about failure.”
However, Dean and Young observed that the girls were also being held back by the lack of female professional role models in their immediate lives.
“They saw very few women around them in careers they were passionate about,” Young says. “Many of the women they knew weren’t working – to be fair, many of the adults weren’t working, full stop.” Those women who were working were generally, and legitimately, working purely “to bring in money, rather than pursuing things they found fulfilling”.
As a result of these two factors – gendered low expectations and a lack of professional adult women to look up to and seek advice from – many of Dean and Young’s female students had little to no aspirations for their future.
“They were absolutely fantastic when we were teaching,” Young says. “But by virtue of circumstance and gender, they felt they couldn’t do things that their wealthier peers and boys might do.”
Saddened by the girls’ ironclad belief that they would never go on to higher education or professional accomplishments, Dean and Young decided to introduce them to some of the successful working women they knew in their own social circles. In 2012, they set up a speed networking evening for 30 students, where the girls were able to hear from adult women in a range of careers, from midwifery to law.
“We were blown away by the impact that event had on the girls, and the way they started to view themselves and their futures,” says Young. “Suddenly, they were having conversations with women they could relate to, and that started to break down that barrier of it being impossible.
“They knew there would perhaps be more obstacles for them, but you could see them thinking: ‘Actually, hang on, I’m talking to this woman and she’s telling me how she did it. If she can do that, why can’t I do it too?’”
Inspired by the success of that one event, Dean and Young worked together to develop a more formal mentoring programme. After piloting the scheme successfully in their own schools, they began to expand the project to other schools and areas around the country, under the name of The Girls’ Network (TGN). By 2017, TGN had worked with 2,000 mentors and was helping more than 1,000 girls every year.
It was in spring last year that the two women got wind of the Stylist/Prix Clarins competition. Now in its second year, the competition is designed to give back to female-led charitable organisations, with the winning project receiving a prize fund of £30,000 to further its work. Encouraged by their friends and many of the mentors they worked with, Dean and Young entered The Girls’ Network into the competition – and won.
Almost a year on, Young says the prize fund was transformative for the project. “The money went to support a group of girls we wouldn’t have otherwise been able to provide mentors to, in remote areas along the south coast and in the north,” she says.
It also helped them roll out more workshops, focusing on issues such as mental health, wellbeing and leadership. The newest workshops are designed to help girls build up their confidence and public speaking skills – two vital elements of feeling at home in a professional environment.
“We talk to them about leadership itself: what that means and the different ways it can look,” Young says. “We tell them our stereotypical view of a leader might be a man in a suit, but actually that isn’t what being a leader means. We’re trying to be build a group of young women who feel empowered to lead, in whatever capacity that may be.”
Dean and Young appeared in the print edition of Stylist in June 2017 as part of their prize, and also received a bespoke mentoring session to help them plot TGN’s next steps.
“Everyone was so willing and generous with their time and gave us brilliant advice,” Young says. “Becca and I left the day feeling like our brains were so full of wonderful insights, but [the mentoring day] was really practical too. It wasn’t just about lovely big ideas; it was very focused on: ‘This is how you actually do it, and here are some starting points.’”
As far as the future is concerned for The Girls’ Network, the sky’s the limit. “We’re expanding the leadership workshops we piloted this year,” Young says. “We’re also looking at how we can use technology to help us reach girls in even more isolated areas – we want to do video conferencing as well as in-person mentoring. And we want to continue to grow in the regions we already have a presence in.”
Young has a piece of advice for other women who might be considering launching their own charitable endeavour.
“Focus on why you’re doing what you’re doing,” she says. “I think one of the things that made The Girls’ Network compelling [for the Stylist/Prix Clarins judges] is that it came from something Becca and I were very passionate about. That genuine passion and drive has helped bring to life what we’re doing, and helped us connect with people.”
If you’d like to enter this year’s Stylist/Prix Clarins competition or nominate someone else, apply here by Wednesday 28 March.
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Images: Sarah Brimley for Stylist