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The Female Lead: 60 World-Leading Achievers on a Mission to Inspire

Meryl Streep, Christine Lagarde, Karlie Kloss and more reboot the idea of role models

Launching just a few days after the 2017 Women’s March, The Female Lead project could not be more timely. It celebrates the achievement of 60 leading entrepreneurs, business and political leaders and figureheads from culture, science and sport in a book of their own words – with portraits by photographer Brigitte Lacombe, also, fittingly, a leader in her field – and accompanying short films.

Among those taking part are: the actress Meryl Streep; Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund; Mhairi Black MP, who took her seat in the UK Parliament aged 20; the space scientist Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock; model and code-learning champion Karlie Kloss; and Lady Barbara Judge, chair of the Institute of Directors.

The Female Lead is the brainchild of Edwina Dunn, who co-devised the Tesco Clubcard and rose to the top of the data science industry years before the term ‘big data’ was in vogue. 18,000 copies of The Female Lead book will be distributed to schoolchildren in the UK and the USA, along with teaching materials.

‘This isn’t divisive or a criticism of anything, it’s a new way to navigate, a new perspective on what it means to be a woman today’

The project will be supported by the founding sponsor, Investec Private Bank, who will work with Edwina Dunn and The Female Lead team to prolong the impact and influence of the project beyond the launch of the book.

Says Ryan Tholet, head of Investec Private Banking UK: “Investec is a different kind of private bank and one that supports clients with a ‘challenger’ mindset; a mindset embodied by Edwina and the women within The Female Lead. As the father of young children, I am thrilled that this issue is being ‘challenged’ and that there is now a resource dedicated to strong and fearless women around the world.”

Says Dunn: “We’re going to use the books and materials to help young people in schools understand how they can use them in their lives and careers, to build confidence, self-belief and energy, towards whatever their purpose becomes.”

With all that The Female Lead entails, Dunn wants to inspire young people, and girls in particular, by showing them role models outside of the norm. The participants in her new project enabled this, she says, “by being open, by sharing things that never usually get revealed in other interviews and by showing that, for all their success, they started out as fairly normal people.” For example:

Meryl Streep: “I didn’t always want to be an actor. I thought I wanted to be a translator at the UN and help people understand each other. In a way that’s what I’m trying to do as an actress – to get deep into someone else’s life, to understand what made them feel the way they did and compelled them to move in one direction or the other…what interests me, and what interests the actors I admire most, is to understand something about yourself and other people.”

Christine Lagarde: “Success… is also about teamwork. Helping others, being helped, operating with others on your team is critically important. [Don’t] just assume that you can succeed on your own. I would also say: reach out to other women, including more senior women who have succeeded, and ask them for advice, for support.”

Mhairi Black: “I think it’s good to try things and, if you’re good at them, to keep going and see how far you get. I’ve always thought that, no matter what job I ended up doing, it would be working with people because that’s what I enjoy. Inequality of any kind is the thing that really drives me. I always look at who’s losing out and why. Everything that I am interested in, be it foreign affairs or welfare reforms or LBGT issues, boils down to the fact that there’s an injustice happening somewhere.”

The Female Lead was born four years ago, Dunn recalls, in “the idea of women looking in the mirror, and what they saw. It was the result of a long observation on my part, really. Young girls imagine they’re princesses and wear something pretty and go up on their toes. When we get older, on the whole, we get quite critical. That change interested me – my job has always been about people’s behaviour, what motivates people.”

From there, she commissioned hundreds of interviews with women around the world, which became the What I See Project: an archive of the interviews. But, says Dunn, “I couldn’t explain to people why I felt this was so important.” Two years ago, meeting with an editor, Bea Appleby, enabled Dunn to “clarify it as more of a campaign, with a purpose, a mission. We wanted to promote women from business, science, sport, creativity and humanitarianism – from everywhere – as role models. That became the foundation of the second part of the campaign, which became The Female Lead.”

Dunn, working with Appleby, decided to collect stories, take photographs, make a book and films too that they could “share these with young people, girls and boys, so they could identify better, more easily, with a diversity of female role models.” Social media and surveys show that boys choose their heroes and exemplars from sport, culture, business and elsewhere. For girls and young women, that group tends to begin and end with celebrities.

“We know we’re challenging people with this,” says Dunn. “We picked women who were incredibly different, in terms of age group, locations, careers. We want girls and boys to realise that they can have a favourite from our women who calls to them and says what’s in their head.

“When I did all the work in data science, I learned that there is no such thing as the average customer. And through The Female Lead, I have learned there is no such thing as the average successful, fulfilled woman. There are many ways of feeling and being that way, and that’s what we want to showcase. The intellectual and passion diversity is exactly what we wanted to show.”

Dunn’s belief in The Female Lead is powerful, and she understands how a message for promoting women can be misinterpreted as one that does the opposite for men.
“It’s important that we say this isn’t divisive, because it isn’t. It isn’t a criticism of anything, it’s purely a new way to navigate, a new perspective on what it means to be a woman today.”

“We know what we’re doing isn’t easy,” she continues. “But we need to tell young people how easy it can be to give up at a first hurdle or first negative reaction, and how to deal with failure and rejection, And in the case of girls and young women in particular, this is all about saying to them, ‘If you want to be treated equally, understand how strong you have to be. Ask for help, never stop learning. You can’t be the weaker sex, you have to be responsible for moving yourself forward.’” An onward journey that only becomes clearer with the significant help of The Female Lead.

The Female Lead by Edwina Dunn, with photography by Brigitte Lacombe, is published by Ebury Press on February 9. To nominate a school to receive a free copy, and for more information, see www.thefemalelead.com