Girls are growing up in a "moral abyss", according to Girls' School Association President Dr Helen Wright. She argues that “it is time to take up the drawbridge on the liberal dogma of the past” and that “the amorality” of shows such as the X Factor lead to “bullying and arrogance” being glamorised.
Wright’s conference speech has generated a populist headline that might otherwise have focused on her call for the government be careful in “drawing us in the independent sector in to bolster their new academies or to prop up other failing schools”. It’s a diversionary tactic that has also been used by ministers in recent times.
But development of broader youth policy or improved empathy with today’s teenage girls has been largely absent. This week, home secretary and equalities minister Theresa May will take time out from the UKBA crisis to launch the latest survey by Girlguiding UK. It is an excellent data source for understanding the complex world of today’s teenage girls and includes some very challenging reading for ministers across Whitehall.
At the Treasury, they may not be surprises to see that almost half (45%) of girls aged 16-21 think that the spending cuts are unfair and will harm vulnerable people. As George Osborne prepares his autumn statement, he might also reflect on the fact that slightly more (48%) say the government spends on the wrong things. But the most interesting findings related to their concerns.
School is the major source of unhappiness for younger girls but it is money worries and the lack of a job that is worrying older girls. And who can blame them, when youth unemployment is at an all-time high?
Almost half are keeping their problems and worries to themselves (47%) and almost as many skip meals (42%). In the country where teenage girls drink more than teenage boys and drink more than the rest of the world, the survey shows that more than half (62%) of 16- to 21-year-old girls think that “getting drunk with friends is fun”. But more than a third (35%) say that they often drink more than they’d planned because their friends are drinking too. And more than one in ten (12%) think that ‘a good night out is one where you can’t remember anything the next day’.
So are the media are to blame, as the headmistress suggests? Well, girls are indeed becoming increasingly disillusioned about the media’s portrayal of women. Over half of those aged 11 to 21 disagree with the statement that ‘girls and young women are portrayed fairly in the media’ (55%, increasing to 69% of older girls), while just 23% are in agreement. Last year, views were split, with 27% agreeing and the same number disagreeing, while almost half were unsure. Almost all feel that TV and magazines focus too much on what women look like instead of what they achieve (90%), and 82% think that there’s a lot of pressure on girls to wear the latest fashions and have the latest gadgets.
But is it their fault or are they reflecting broader trends in society? Just over half of girls believe that women have to work much harder than men to succeed (57%, rising to 70% of those from ethnic minorities), that there aren’t enough female role models (55%), and that women do not have the same chances as men (53%). This is the generation for whom progress towards closing the gender pay gap has stalled.
It is undoubtedly tough growing up as a girl but are government doing enough to help? The Home Secretary could have more to offer at this week’s launch and the forthcoming youth policy is an opportunity for ministers to think about the different issues that affect teenage girls and teenage boys. If you had to pick just two, youth unemployment and binge drinking would be far more important than X Factor.