International Women's Day 2021 #choosetochallenge
It only seems like yesterday that I was working with a group of schoolgirls on an IWD event in 2020. Speaking about Astor 100, women in literature and the #MeToo movement, it was amazing to spend time among such great company while getting paid for it too! A lot has happened since then, especially as we are coming up to a year since we first went into lockdown. That event was the last in-person job I worked before losing the majority of my income due to the university closure, not that I knew that at the time.
I really want to be consistent with my belief that everyone should have access to higher education, no matter their background, religion, race or class. University or technical training is achievable if you want it, and the financial difficulties faced by young people should be mitigated by the government where possible. However, I thought I’d take a break from the study skills blog posts I have been putting out over the last few weeks to reflect on two experiences from my education which inspired me to #choosetochallenge, even if I didn’t know it at the time.
Career Guidance Woes
In sixth form, we all had access to meetings with a careers advisor who worked as a support staff member in my school. I booked my meeting and attended with some ideas about studying history at university. After explaining my future plans, including some universities I would like to visit, the advisor proceeded to tell me that ‘there is no money in history’ and ‘I don’t think that you’re suited to a hard degree’. First of all, every degree is hard in its own right, so I don’t think that was an appropriate statement to say at all, but secondly, criticising my academic achievement whilst offering no alternative suggestions was disheartening and rude. I didn’t have the confidence to contradict the advisor, so I mutely agreed to think of some other options.
Safe to say, I never went back to speak with the careers team again and applied to universities the following year. Thankfully I didn’t allow myself to be put off from studying history, but my confidence wasn’t exactly at an all time high. I wish there had been someone there to let me know that I was good enough to pursue my dreams, as I think that would have significantly boosted my self-esteem before I went to university. Thankfully my university helped me empower myself by allowing me to study a subject that I loved full-time. Modules on women's history introduced me to socio-political interwar women's history, and gave me fantastic opportunities to travel and network with powerful women too.
I hope in the future I will be able to give advice to young people who are considering university in a much more empowering way, to support and encourage them on their path to a future career or vocation in a way I wish I had been encouraged by my school. Challenging my school’s expectations of me was the best thing I could have done at the time, so don’t let your school or college put you in a box.
Shyness and School Reports
The dreaded school report that came out at the end of the school year was the most underwhelming thing in the world. I never caused trouble, I handed in my homework and I was academically average, with a flair for music, so there was never much for teachers to say. My report was made up of pre-written statements that teachers put together in a paragraph, so all of mine said pretty much the same:
· ‘Hard working’
· ‘Pleasure to teach’
· ‘Kind and polite’
· ‘Completes work to a good standard’
Apparently though, there must always be a negative:
· ‘I miss Abbie’s contributions in class discussions’
· ‘Abbie knows the answer but rarely contributes in class’
· ‘Abbie is shy’
· ‘Abbie should ask for help when she doesn’t understand, so I can help’
Now let's be clear, I don’t regret being ‘shy’ in the eyes of my teachers. In fact, the teachers that knew me the best and took the time to get to know me soon realised that I wasn’t shy at all! I had lots of friends, had extracurricular activities on every day of the week and loved to talk about history and music. I knew how to express myself articulately and was an adept public speaker, never afraid to stand up in front of people, to read poetry or to sing. I don’t think being labelled as ‘shy’ limited me academically, but in hindsight it saddens me that I was written off as a quiet child, when in reality I had lots to give. I was quiet in class as I was polite, and often didn’t have the energy to compete with the big personalities in the room, or the children that simply didn’t behave.
I remember clearly that at parent’s evenings, my mum would rebuke teachers who claimed I was ‘too quiet’ by advocating for me. I don’t think that any child should be singled out for being ‘shy’ or underestimated because they weren’t loud or obnoxious. Constantly being overlooked for academic or progression awards was the story of my childhood and attributed (by teachers) to the fact that I never made a fuss or drew attention. My parents instead celebrated my extracurricular achievements, which came in the form of dance, violin and piano exams. I was never made to feel inferior, and I recognise I’m privileged to have had those opportunities in the first place. If I ever have children, I’ll make a concerted effort to make sure that being ‘shy’ in school is never a negative thing, and champion their social and academic achievement, just as my parents did for me.
This IWD, #choosetochallenge signifies how much there is left to do to achieve equality in the home and the workplace. My earlier education might not have been of the highest standard, but I made sure to make the most of the opportunities I was given to succeed. Whatever your situation, confidence in yourself goes such a long way into building up your self-esteem. If you take anything away from this post, it’s that life is what you make of it, and the two examples I have shared are just some of the barriers I overcame to become the woman I am today.
I wrote a post for my department for IWD 2020 about Nancy Astor and female experiences, if you’d like to read it, I’ll leave the link below: