How do we avoid disenfranchising future leaders?

I recently read an article discussing Clarks shoes. A girls’ range, which features hearts inside and is called Dolly Babe, has now been discontinued following complaints. The boy’s range, which features footballs inside, is named Leader and it remains in stock.

Controversy over genderised children’s toys and clothes is nothing new, and many weighty people have commented on their horror at the Dolly Babe name. I am delighted that the line is being discontinued. But my horror at the Dolly Babe label is almost overshot by my horror at the seeming lack of complaints directed at the boy’s line.

Do none of the people who object to young girls being referred to as babes’ also object to the appellation of leader’ being reserved only for young boys? Looking at the language used for girls and not the corresponding language used for boys seems, to me, to be missing half the battle. I have had many conversations with women in their 20s and 30s who lack confidence and drive in their leadership. The problem is not simply the labels they have been given, it is the labels that they have been denied. It is great that young boys are told they have the potential to be future leaders. I just wish that young girls were told the same.


And this isn’t just true of women. It is clear that from a very early age, there are 101 little everyday places where middle-class white boys are told they are future leaders, but people from a minority ethnic background, from a low-income background, even from particular parts of the country are not given this same encouragement.

"The problem is not simply the labels they have been given, it is the labels that they have been denied. It is great that young boys are told they have the potential to be future leaders. I just wish that young girls were told the same."

While a shoe range is not to blame, it is an indication that society still, from a very early age, gives a different message to different people about what they can achieve in life. Is it any wonder that the majority of leaders are white middle-class men when they have been raised from birth to believe that they have that capability? Is it any wonder that leaders from other demographics are lacking, when they have not been raised to have that same self-confidence?

We are facing this challenge in our public leadership programme. We are aware that the majority of people on our public leadership list are professional white men. We are making efforts to change this – we have held events with groups of young black leaders and reached out to the Esther Collective, part of Girls’ Brigade. We have challenged supporters to invite women leaders to our events and later this year we are running an event with the One People Commission’s young adults forum. Our advisory group includes inspiring leaders from across the diversity of the Church. But while we can proactively reach out to leaders from diverse backgrounds, our efforts will be fruitless if, from a young age, whole sections of society have already been pushed away from leadership.

So while we challenge ourselves to diversify the leaders we are in contact with, we also challenge you: are you ensuring that your sector of influence is not supporting stereotypes of leadership? How are you equipping emerging leaders of all backgrounds?

Psalm 22:6 says, Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it”. I don’t object to girls wearing hearts on their clothing. I do object to them being denied the opportunity to wear footballs. We must do more to ensure that we are raising a future generation of diverse leaders – leaders of both genders, from all ethnicities and from all classes and wealth brackets.