These girls can

Ex-teacher Natalie Rodden and former D&AD senior programme manager Kati Russell set up The GirlHood in order to introduce girls from low socio-economic backgrounds to the skills they need to make it in the creative industries. We asked them about the aims of the organisation and the wider issues around diversity in both gender and class

We asked the women behind The Girlhood, ex-teacher Natalie Rodden and former D&AD senior programme manager Kati Russell, about the organisation’s aims and the wider issues around diversity in gender and class.

What are the barriers to young women from disadvantaged backgrounds coming into the creative industries – are they cultural, is it about lack of role models? Access?

A recent report by the Warwick Commission – Culture, Creativity and Growth – found that young people from low socio-economic backgrounds, regardless of gender, are the least likely to enter into – and the least likely to succeed in – the creative industries. Access, culture and role models are essential in breaking down these barriers because, at the moment, if you see yourself as different (be that down to class, ethnicity, gender and even geographical area) the industry seems a very far off, mythical place.

We’re interested in instilling creative resilience in young people. Making them aware they have the capacity to produce and create their own culture, rather than just seeing themselves as the audience or amateur. There has never been a better time to be a young creative, with so many tools at their disposal. But, when considering this as a viable profession, there is a big question mark over whether they have the knowledge, opportunities, confidence and financial capital to take it to the next life-changing level. Unfortunately many of them don’t.

It’s also about personal resilience. In education, and in life, girls in particular are rewarded for being compliant. Compliant girls become risk averse and being unable to take risks limits your chances of being a great creative. We need to work with girls from a young age to empower them to walk their own path, try and fail (probably many times) and then succeed. Give them their own creative voice, so they can realise their creative potential and their potential market value and shout about it.

In terms of role models, right now boys are having a tough time of it too, the pressures of ‘masculinity’ are becoming ever more prevalent. They are starting to face the same issues that have historically been applied to girls – limiting gender stereotypes. The reason we chose to launch The (gender-specific) GirlHood was precisely because of this enduring history of inequality, that has left us with a huge deficit of female role models, an under-representative female creative workforce (women make up just 20.3% of ad creatives globally) and a narrow selection of cultural products for girls to consume.

Can you explain the idea behind The Girlhood and its aims?

We believe that when girls create culture, they create change. The GirlHood was created to provide an alternative cultural feed, one that girls (11–24yrs) can interact with and explore in relation to their own values all the while being introduced to creative practices and tools they can use to improve culture, from the inside out.
We publish digital content, provide learning experiences and create resources for schools by inviting amazing people, from within the creative industries, to contribute content that can be shared, explored and then re-imagined by our young audience. Inspired by magazines like Riposte and The Gentlewoman, we wanted to create something that elevates the women behind the work as well as the work itself. We believe that ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ and are addressing this by creating a broader spectrum of cultural products for girls to digest, as well as showcasing an array of role models for girls to aspire to.

By focusing specifically on girls, The GirlHood provides young women with a safe space to explore some of the very personal issues raised in this conversation, which can often include issues around self-esteem, ‘casual’ (but still harmful) sexual harassment and the limited cultural view of them and their life chances.
Our aim is to get a richer mix of healthy, happy and confident females in to the industry, so we have a richer mix of work being produced.

Your first GirlHood project was at the last Women of the World event – can you describe what you did there and what the outcome was?

WOW happens annually at the Southbank Centre. It’s a celebration of women and girls that mixes positive recognition of people and projects with talks and events around current issues being faced by females around the world. We were excited to be asked to take part as it meant working with 100 girls, aged 11–16, from across the UK in one room.

The aim of the session was to ask the girls [some of whom are pictured here] to consider what it meant to be a fearless female and to introduce creativity as a commercial practice. We’d invited some incredible fearless females from industry along (from Saatchi & Saatchi, Work Club, usTwo, Let’s Be Brief, Brothers & Sisters) to help us deliver the workshop. We shared The GirlHood’s values, practices and – with the help of Jo Wallace, creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi – we explored copywriting and photography as a creative tool. The big challenge that we had for our audience was to get them to re-shoot Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ campaign – in just 20 minutes, with a camera phone and paper and markers.
The work was amazing, we had some blossoming copywriters in that hall. Some serious fearlessness was on show and it was coming from such an honest place, it was humbling. We quickly became aware that, given the space and the understanding, girls can go from consumer to creative in a short space of time. On exit, 83% of the girls said they would consider a career in the creative industries. The role now of industry is to ensure that this transition will be welcomed and supported.

Photos: Belinda Lawley, Southbank Centre WOW festival

Is there a way in which such projects can be integrated in our schools – what are the barriers to making this happen?

Unfortunately schools are highly politicised, and often insular environments. Teachers are constantly fighting a battle between the need to produce results and the responsibility of producing well-rounded young adults. The two don’t always work hand in hand, especially when budgets and time are stretched and a school’s success depends on them getting 60% A*–C in their GCSE results (which, in challenging areas, is a massive issue). The increasing pressure around exams is starting to tell on students. According to the recent Exam Factories? report (National Union of Teachers), children as young as 10 are said to be “in complete meltdown”, in tears, or feeling sick during tests, being pushed along by competitive parents. Add in all the pressures that come with adolescence and it’s no surprise that there are serious concerns around the mental wellbeing of young people.

We think there is a better way of preparing students for life beyond the classroom. Our combined teaching and industry experience gives us a unique perspective on what can be done to address this disconnect between education, industry and life. However, we appreciate this won’t be a quick fix. What’s needed are creative solutions that can be applied now, to make some immediate improvements, as well as long-term innovations that will embed change. Play in Progress (Rodden and Russell’s social enterprise which runs The GirlHood), and The GirlHood, cater for teachers, schools and future employers, by creating learning resources that draw upon industry practice but that are still mapped to the curriculum. By finding the middle ground between creative education and the creative industries, we hope to engage learning providers and employers in more meaningful ways that work for them. We want to use our insights to create a cultural change that will last.

How are you going to roll out The GirlHood in the future?

We’ll be launching our first GirlHood brief around ‘Brave Femininities’ this September. Whether you’re male or female, and would like to respond in your chosen creative discipline, we’d love to hear from you. We’ll also be selecting particular works, profiling the people involved and sharing their stories with the young women.

We’re also hyped to say that The GirlHood will be going on tour, travelling across the UK next year. We’re passionate about widening access to creativity geographically, as well as across the gender and class landscape … probably because we’re a couple of Midlanders. We’ve faced the logistical and financial realities of getting to London and know how difficult it can be – especially for those from lower income backgrounds. We love London and believe it is the beating heart of the UK’s creative industry but we can’t wait to see more and more opportunity open up, in different areas for different people, as decentralisation starts to evolve. We want to promote creative diversity and a culture that celebrates difference. So, to do this, we’re launching a crowdfunding campaign this autumn, which (of course) we’d love everyone to donate to. We’re aiming to visit at least four locations, with up to 50 girls participating in each event, to work on what our brief, ‘Brave Femininities’, means to girls and young women from across the nation.

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