Focus: What's next for women? - Equality time, or so they would have us believe...

TEENAGERS

IF Emma Thompson came to your school and told you not to take drugs, would it make you more likely to turn out an upright citizen and pillar of society? The women's unit is hoping that it would; the promotion of positive role models is part of its drive towards helping teenage girls become high achievers. The names of actress Emma Thompson, ex-Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, heptathlete Denise Lewis and singer Billie are being bandied about as examples of successful women who will encourage teenagers to follow in their footsteps.

But how easy will it be to get teenagers to copy the clean-cut likes of Emma, Geri et al, rather than the hard-drinking, hard-swearing types like Zoe Ball and Ulrika Jonsson? After all, at school, the coolest ones are the ones smoking behind the bike sheds, not the swots at the top of the class.

Laura Harris, 16, who has just taken her GCSEs and is about to start studying for A-levels, believes that what is needed to help teenagers is more investment in state education. "It's even more important now to invest in the future. I'm at a school where we are pushed to over-achieve, but friends of mine who aren't pushed as hard are as intelligent as me but their GCSE grades were lower." She feels that positive examples can be highly motivational. "If you're presented with someone who has done well in their chosen role, like Anita Roddick, you'll believe you can achieve too. If you see there are already women in the Cabinet, you'll be more likely to aspire, to decide to study politics."

Laura says "any successful women" can be inspirational. "I never liked Geri Halliwell much before, but now she's doing something worthwhile as an ambassador, I think she's worthy of respect. And Princess Diana. She got out and did things, didn't sit there moaning." And, she adds, perhaps alarmingly, there is Courtney Love. "Everyone expected her to burn out, drop out of her band, become a hopeless heroin addict, but she didn't; she has come out on top."

Geoffrey Fallows, head teacher at Camden School for Girls, north London, feels that motivation is the key. "If teenage girls are underperforming at school, it is presumably because they prefer thoughts about starting a family to those of a career. We try to raise expectations, so that the question is not: 'Why should I go to university?' but 'What would I usefully do otherwise?'." He notes that caution may be needed in trying to promote role models, because of the ephemeral nature of fame - and the possibility of a choice backfiring. "You have to be careful, in case your role model is caught soliciting on Clapham Common. If you put people on a pedestal there is always the horrible possibility that they will fall off."

Sarah Pyper, editor of Sugar magazine, aimed at teenage girls, believes that role models are a powerful force. "Older teenagers wouldn't like to admit to how much they are influenced by the women they see in the media, in how they think and what they wear and do, but we can see it through the letters we get. Young teenagers in particular tend to hang on every word." But, she warns, attempting to exploit this could be very hard. "The trends change weekly. If you get it wrong you look stupid. I can see what the Government is trying to do, but government approval would take away half the glamour." At the moment, she says, All Saints are flavour of the week. "They are seen as cool, strong and talented. Our readers are not impressed with just their looks."

Billie, she feels, is not role model material. "Billie is popular, but she is seen as a friend, not someone to look up to." A role model, she says, needs to be a crucial few years older, but not so much older that she is out of touch. "Kate Winslet and Claire Danes have that touch of glamour. Kate has that 'take-me-as-I-am' attitude to body image, which is impressive."

Suzie Hayman is the author of You Just Don't Listen (Vermilion, pounds 8.99), a handbook for parents that aims to help them communicate with their offspring. She too feels that it may be an uphill struggle to get teens to admire and copy those figures the women's unit would like them to admire and copy. "Anyone in authority hasn't got a hope in hell of foisting role models on teenagers," she says bluntly. "You can manipulate their tastes when you create a girl band or a film star. You can sell them an image, but that's not done with positive aims in mind, and that's why it succeeds."

Teenagers, she says, make their own choices. "It doesn't have to be a star, it can be older girls at school or a cousin who's at university - someone who is successful." Most adolescent role models have to be "different and dangerous" - people your parents wouldn't approve of. "The task of adolescence is to separate from your parents, to pull away and be different. You are trying to decide who you are. You don't want to be the child you were, the child your parents made you. So the people who are most attractive are those who are rebelling."

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