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I often talk about the importance of positive role models for our students regardless of the gender of the role model. 

However, there is particular strength in providing students the opportunity to meet and talk to female role models, in careers that traditionally have been male-dominated, to enable our students to visualise the process and see what challenges were overcome and what success can be achieved. We are indeed grateful to many of our former students in a broad range of careers who, each year, speak at an assembly or come to our Career’s Expo to talk to our students.

At the Cooerwull Day Assembly, earlier this term, at which we celebrated the School’s 119th birthday, former student Alicia Loxley (Class of 1999) was the guest speaker. It was wonderful to welcome Alicia back to Ivanhoe Girls’ and to hear her talk about how she purposefully navigated her way from a Journalism Degree at RMIT to become a lead newsreader on Channel 9. She gave our students some important messages about being proactive and the importance of work experience and volunteering in organizations in which you would like to ultimately work. She also talked about being brave and courageous in taking up opportunities that require a person to move from their home base to take up an exciting opportunity in a new city or State. She is an inspiring role model for our students.

Alicia Loxley speaking at the 2022 Cooerwull Day Senior School Assembly

Coincidentally, the value of female role models for girls was the topic of the recent Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia research article entitled,  Girls’ schools resist the hidden curriculum in ‘the public pedagogy of role models’. The article addressed the benefits and misconceptions about role models and referred to the research by Michele Paule and Hannah Yelin of Oxford Brookes University, who challenged the reader’s thoughts on the ability of all female role models to provide positive role modelling for girls as they start to consider their career paths.

According to Paule and Yelin’s (2022) study, they noted that simply holding up celebrities and women in leadership positions as role models, fails to challenge the traditionally “individualist, authoritarian, and masculine themes present in frameworks of leadership”. That is, the work environment, the leadership structures and gender constitution of leadership teams, the processes for appointment and many other factors can also strongly influence girls’ perceptions of how likely it is they will/can be successful in a range of male-dominated work domains. The researchers go on to say that it is more important for the role models to talk about their personal attributes and dispositions, such as confidence, determination and courage that lead to their success, than simply what it is like to be in a male-dominated work environment.   

Interestingly, Paule and Yelin reported they found that ‘celebrity role models’ are not as relatable or able to effectively motivate and engage young students as are female role models who come from family or school connections or through other close community connections. They reported that girls need to be able to see themselves as possibly making the same journey as their role model to success and often the success of celebrities seems intangible and illusive and therefore largely unattainable to the student, albeit no less interesting.

Further discussion on this topic in Paule and Yelin’s report provided well-known examples of the often “hostile conditions faced by influential women in the public eye”. Australia’s first female Prime Minister is one example whereby more media time was spent on discussing personal matters such as Ms Gillard’s choice of jackets and why her fruit bowl was empty in her “barren” kitchen than they did about her policies, her achievements or her positions on important national matters. History shows that female role models in the media spotlight are held up to more gender stereotypical scrutiny than are male counterparts thus diminishing in part their effectiveness to be engaging and positive role models for girls.

As was noted in the Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia report, “the sustained discrimination and misogyny” that young aspiring girls witness of female role models in the media spotlight can send powerful messages about “ inherent risks associated with living a woman’s life in the public eye”. However, the author goes on to encourage girls’ schools to ‘stay the course’ citing the positive story of the eight successful female ‘teal’ independent members just voted into the Australian parliament. 

Five out of the eight are graduates of girls’ schools while girls’ schools make up just 2% of schools in Australia. The author explains that “girls’ schools are at the forefront of gender equality, deliberately challenging gendered norms and purposefully building girls’ confidence — determined to furnish students with both the conviction and self-belief to see the risks of public life for women, feel the fear, and do it anyway.”

Dr Deborah Priest

Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia (2022),  Girls’ schools resist the hidden curriculum in ‘the public pedagogy of role models’,  Issue 9/2022: June 9, 2022
Paule, M., & Yelin, H. (2022). “I don’t want to be known for it”: Girls, leadership role models and the problem of representation’. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 25(1), 238-255.