Education, together with role models and the golden years at school, significantly influence the career progression for the majority of women in business, according to new research by Birmingham firm Friend Partnership. Sarah Evans, former Principal at King Edward VI High Schools for Girls, considers why.

Last year, Denise Friend, founder of accountancy firm Friend Partnership, embarked on a major piece of research, that set out to uncover the challenges, opportunities and major influences for today’s working women.

The research was run in partnership with King Edward VI High School, and as former Principal, I was invited to play a part in shaping the research and to analyse its findings.

I was delighted to be involved, and unsurprisingly, especially keen to ensure this important piece of research aimed to uncover the impact of education, teachers, and role models on the lives and career progression of women in business today.

When I was Head of King Edward VI High School for Girls, the career advice I gave to girls was to continue their academic studies as far as they possibly could. Whatever the job market throws at you, no one can take away your educational qualifications. Though education is by no means the only factor influencing career progression, it certainly plays an important role in enabling women to reach senior positions, and our research certainly supports this, finding that more than two-thirds (67%) of female business owners have an undergraduate degree.

Teachers have a significant role to play in guiding the career choices of female students – with approx 13% of survey respondents naming a teacher as a role model at age 18.

However, by far the biggest influence on career choices is parents. A child whose parents are doctors is 24 times more likely to become a doctor than a child whose parents aren’t. Along with teachers, parents are the stable presence for most children. It is perhaps not surprising that 20% of survey respondents cited their mother as a role model at age 18. A parent is bound to have more influence than the hour spent with a chemist, an engineer or a banker in the school’s careers programme, or even a week of work experience at a local firm. However, it is not just the jobs of a child’s parents that have an influence, it is also the work/life balance the child sees at home. A mother who stays at home can influence their children’s choices as much as those doing a paid job.

How can schools expand young women’s horizons?

Career education now starts at an early stage, through school visits to workplaces such as fire stations, theatres and factories, which serve to introduce young women to job roles other than those of their parents. As young women get older, the focus is on helping them to understand their own strengths and the pathways that lead to their chosen career, if they have one.

Most young people start to make significant choices which may influence their career paths at 13 and 14 years old, when they make their GCSE subject choices. Schools will be the influencers here, and this often equates to what produces the best results for OFSTED and in turn, pressures young people to get the highest grades possible, particularly if they are aspiring to competitive areas. But this ignores the idea that our young women should follow their interests and passions, and not simply pursue subjects that will get the schools, as well as the universities, the grades they require.

Losing talent

Interestingly, at the latest Women and Work All Party Parliamentary Group, Gillian Keegan MP, explained that there are four main points at which we lose talented females from the world of work, the first being subject choices at school. By limiting their subject choices too early, young women no longer benefit from the core principle upon which our national curriculum was built, which was for it to be broad and balanced, and lose out on opportunities to be creative and acquire the cultural capital needed to navigate this complex world.

My experience of talking to bright young women about the sort of life choices they may have to make in their early- to mid-careers is that it usually draws a blank.  In good schools, and particularly single-sex streamed schools, girls don’t face much discrimination, have the freedom to develop their learning and interests, and have their voices heard in the classroom. This leads them to believe that they can have it all. It is only when they reach the workplace that these issues start to hit home.  It is then I believe that the careful mentoring by older people needs to start, to guide young women successfully through the options.

Many women taking part in our research speak of the lack of careers counselling in the early years of a career. If they do receive support, the discussions they have may still vary considerably to those young men may be having. The choices men and women make about their adult life are influenced by many factors, and too often schools are blamed for low and unrealistic expectations.

In my experience, schools do a great deal. But the role of parents and guardians is huge, and there is much responsibility on employers of young people also, to coach and empower their young female employees.

Full findings

The full findings of the brand-new research – ‘Women in Business – can we truly have it all?’  – will be unveiled at a reception event at King Edward’s High School for Girls, Birmingham, on the 15th May, where a number of the women in business who have taken part in the research will share their stories, in a bid to show that balance drives a better working world, and their views on areas where employers can improve.

For each completed response to the survey, Friend Partnership made a donation to Birmingham Children’s Hospital to commemorate the work of the late Dr Stuart Green, former head of the paediatric neurology department at the hospital.