Cheryl Giovannoni

Cheryl Giovannoni – ‘Women will shape the future. For the benefit of all’

Marie Claire speaks exclusively to CEO of the Girls' Day School Trust Cheryl Giovannoni on how to encourage the next generation of female leaders

‘If the girls in our schools are to storm new frontiers like never before, we have to equip them to change the world and create a better future, for the benefit of all.’

Such were the passionate words of Girls’ Day School Trust CEO Cheryl Giovannoni, speaking today at the GDST annual summit, alongside Afua Hirsch, Karen Blackett OBE about the challenges, but also exciting possibilities, that face the next generation. It already looks like change is afoot: in contrast to women in the past, a recent YouGov and GDST survey showed that that girls now would choose getting their dream job over having a family, and power-players Emma Watson, Malala Yousafzai and Michelle Obama were named as top role models

In her rousing speech, Giovannoni reminded the audience of the importance of women as leaders, in tech, in the economy and in the boardroom, as well as the fact that successful women of tomorrow will be those who ‘change the game and make their own rules.’

Giovannoni herself is no stranger to changing the game: she lives and breathes leadership. Before her role as CEO of the GDST, she worked extensively with global communications powerhouse WPP, which culminated with her role as CEO of Ogilvy & Mather (where she landed contracts with huge companies such as Pizza Hut and Pimm’s). Her previous roles have included European President of the global brand consulting firm, Lander Associates, as well as CEO of Coley Porter Bell, a consumer design and branding business.

Cheryl Giovannoni

On top of this, Giovannoni is also a keen proponent of mentoring, and offers her time and support for WACL (Women in Advertising and Communication London) and is a non-executive director of Fearless Futures, a charity that aims to encourage equality through its programmes for schools.

Now, as CEO of the GDST, Cheryl Giovannoni is responsible for the organisation that hopes to shape girls at 23 schools and two academies across England and Wales into strong and confident women. During her speech, Cheryl emphasised just how focussed the girls she works with are, recounting the anecdote of ‘when we asked our girls if they were optimistic about their future, over three quarters said yes… these are exciting times for girls. They are optimistic. They want action. They are taking action.’

Marie Claire spoke to Cheryl Giovannoni about the importance of STEM subjects, the effects of gender stereotyping and how to support girls in the age of Instagram.

When girls fulfil their potential at school, how does that affect their future prospects?

‘School is the launch-pad for the rest of your life. At the GDST, this means giving girls every possible opportunity to explore and grow their talents so they can step out into the world full of confidence and optimism for their future, as well as resilience to handle things when they don’t go according to plan. This means, always encouraging girls to be curious and resourceful, to be fearless and take risks. To try new things and get out of their comfort zone, in a place where they make friends for life and hopefully have fun.’

‘It is for us all to keep building girls up’

Nowadays, what is the biggest hurdle that girls face at school?

‘The most important thing we can do is to encourage a girl to have the confidence to find her own voice. Girls more than boys tend to hold themselves back and not speak up. In a girls-only environment, it is wonderfully inspiring to see girls take the lead in any role – they understand they can do anything they put their mind to and that there is nothing that they can’t achieve. It is for us all to keep building girls up – to encourage them to raise their hand, to speak out, that their voice matters.’

What is the biggest change you have seen in the challenges that girls face at school?

‘The exponential rise in social media has created a world that is so unlike the world most parents grew up in. Girls are bombarded every day with “perfect” images of life – ones that only include the best bits. It becomes very hard to maintain perspective of what life really is all about, with all its wonderful ups, downs and challenges. The pressure of that skewed perspective can be very challenging.

What can the wider world do to support girls at school?

‘It’s for all of us out there to support girls as they start out on their chosen paths after their career. We’ve recently heard the pitiful excuses made for not having women in the boardroom. I see girls every single day full of vitality and determination and I know that this is the generation that will change the world. All leaders out there must change their mind-set and start to create opportunities for women – if they don’t, these leaders will certainly miss out.’

What are the main differences in the challenges that girl and boys face at school?

‘Boys and girls face a number of challenges at school. Even before they enrol in school, girls – and boys – are subject to gender stereotypes. They are spoken to and treated differently. It impacts on how we see ourselves, determines our future aspirations and how we value ourselves. It seems to me that boys too can be held back by gender stereotypes. If men are supposed to be strong and silent, and good at maths, where does this leave the boy who is passionate and creative?’

Cheryl Giovannoni

‘In all-girls schools, nothing holds a girl back’

Research has shown that girls thrive in single sex schools – why do you think this is?

‘In all-girls schools, nothing holds a girl back. They receive an education that puts them front and centre, boosts their confidence and empowers them as they step-out into the world. They are taught to aim high and meet obstacles with resilience. They thrive because all roles are open to them.

In mixed schools, boys can often dominate in the classroom and assumptions of “girls’ subjects” and “boys’ subjects” kick-in, limiting their potential. All-girls schools do not bubble-wrap girls and shield them from the “real world”. Quite the contrary. They exist to inspire and enable young women to thrive in, as well as challenge and change, a society that is far from equal. At all-girls schools, girls step out into the world seeing themselves as nothing less than leaders or potential leaders. I truly believe it will be these girls who smash the glass ceiling, for the benefit of everyone.’

How would you encourage more girls into STEM subjects and careers?

‘Again, it goes back to instilling confidence in girls, that they can pursue any career they wish. One thing that is really important is to provide positive role models – to remind girls of the amazing women who have achieved incredible things. If she can see it she can be it. Seeing is believing and they realise there is no stopping them.’

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