If the shoe fits: reflections on women in educational leadership

 One of the lovely things about being a deputy head for me was the annual trip to the deputy head conference. Yes, it was a nightmare of organisation and I missed it more than once because of a last minute crisis, but it was so good to meet up with peers and exchange our stories. Of course there were some useful (& not so useful) talks, but it was helpful to hear how others tackled the countless challenges we faced during our jobs. What often surprised me though was how there was rarely anything put on about going for headship. So, imagine my delight when one year there was a panel of Heads – all female, no less, put together to share their wisdom with us on the process of becoming a head. Even now, a few years later I can remember what they said and can sum it up in two main ideas. How do you successfully apply for headship? Firstly, you need a good mentor who nurtures your leadership and makes contact with others on your behalf. Well, I was stuck with that one. No mentor in sight and definitely no one acting on my behalf, perhaps even the contrary. OK, onto the second tip. Their suggestion? Kismet. Luck. Right time and right place. No wonder that, as I looked around, my table full of fellow deputy heads they were all muttering under their breaths. No offence to those Heads that gave up their time, but their chatting to us was genuinely uninspiring. Feeling definitely disheartened by that experience, particularly as it was the end of the conference and the way we going to be sent out into the world, I decided that that couldn’t be it. So I nervously sought out the closest I would have to a mentor, another Headteacher involved in the conference, who had kindly suggested headship to me in the past. Perhaps she would encourage me before I set off back to my daily routine. I can honestly say I was very nervous waiting to talk to her, she had a high profile and was someone I respected in the education world. She did speak to me and I shared my difficulties and worries for my career. She made several suggestions to help me, but I’m sad to say that that was not what I remember most clearly. Now it was the end of the conference and I was all packed up and ready for the drive home. I was not dressed in full working attire clearly, but my education hero brought her advice to a close, looked me up and down, told me to sort myself out and the way I looked. As it went on I felt crushed, but I think the list involved my clothes, hair and losing weight. That was what I needed to do for headship. I thanked her, went straight to the hotel car park and cried in my car. I wonder how many aspiring men are told to do that when they say they want to go for headships. Now don’t get me wrong, I am fully aware of the need to act, think, look and speak as a professional. By this stage in my career I had already worked for ten years in the City in London, so knew that smart clothes were expected and had even got into the habit of regular manicures!  I was also aware of the need to be fit and healthy to cope with the demands of the job. Already my hours were long and I knew that if you didn’t eat properly you would run out of energy all too quickly and of course you wouldn’t fit into a Jaeger suit! I didn’t dispute what she had said, my hair did need cutting! However, what depressed me so much about that was this was how women were encouraging women to be leaders. 

What do I take from this somewhat sorry tale? Well it did make me question whether I would ever be the kind of leader they wanted. Would my face fit, even with a new haircut? If you get a chance, have a look at photographs taken at Headteachers’ conferences. Although this is very silly, it is quite interesting to imagine, if you cut your head out of a photo and stuck it in there would it match the others? It’s nice to think that the odd eccentric and maverick can get through the recruitment process, but the photos can sometimes suggest otherwise. I wasn’t sure I could adopt the headship camouflage.

Did it put me off educational leadership? Absolutely not. I love the process of leading others and I love learning more about educational theory. I have to say that the experience above and plenty of others have even made me more fascinated about the headship recruitment process hence me embarking on a doctorate to study this further. This is because I believe that to say to a room full of deputies that a mentor and luck is what you need is not enough. Even at my current stage of studying I would have a lot more to suggest if I stood in front of them today. However, I do believe that mentoring is something that is lacking in the education profession. Firstly, because too many leaders equate mentoring with teaching, when very different skills are required. Secondly, because we only have to look at the business sector to see that mentoring someone in terms of their career is a much bigger commitment than many are prepared to take on. The irony is that with some of the school associations, when you become a new head you are given a mentor but not before!

What does it tell me about women in leadership? Well I don’t think we are treated equally. There are countless articles telling women what they can bring to leadership with all of their feminine qualities, assuming of course that we are all the same. There are expectations out there for us. How we look, how we act, and what we are interested in. Perhaps somewhat controversially I am also going to suggest that it is also expected that we will be married and have children. Many leadership perks of headship that are offered are aimed at that kind of woman: ‘the family accommodation’ (if residential), ‘the reduction in fees for offspring’ (if fee paying). Someone suggested to me that I should take ‘an aspiration to do a doctorate’ out of my headship application as it would be seen as a distraction from the job, and implied that it was a shame that I couldn’t put down that I had any family. Crazy, because children actually give you more time apparently!

There have been some excellent blogs recently about the need for women to have greater faith in their abilities and apply for more jobs. This is so true and backed up by research data on women in leadership. So why don’t they? I have encountered a diminishing sense of ambition amongst women I’ve interviewed. The most obvious reasons have been relationships and having children, and not, as often suggested, a glass ceiling. One bright, enthusiastic young teacher told me that she used to be quite ambitious but after moving in with her boyfriend she now just really enjoyed getting the dinner ready. And great for her if that’s what she wants to do. Perhaps, dare I say it, you can’t have it all without some sacrifices here and there. Why do we expect that we should? Men don’t have it all. Managing your personal and working life is tricky and is highly likely to result in difficult life choices or at the very least responsibility sharing amongst couples. If you haven’t read ‘Lean In’ by Sheryl Sandberg then I would recommend you to do so at this point.

It always saddens me when I have encountered a kind of anti-feminism amongst the young women I’ve taught. Perhaps it’s because they think it means not getting married, studying Maths and Stem subjects, studying engineering and/or computing at university and having short hair. Is that because that’s all they hear? I’ve always felt that feminism meant equality. Having a fair shot at things. I’m always a bit suspicious of something that is special and exclusive and admittedly sometimes educational leadership can come across a bit like that. I was lucky that someone, incidentally a strong female leader, thought I would enjoy learning about educational leadership. She was right and there should be more women like her encouraging women like me to discover just how fascinating it is; how much there is to learn from others and to keep their ambitions high. I’m delighted that there is now a Women in Education movement on Twitter. I have to admit I’m not keen on the idea of a Ladies Room, but the more we can do to encourage all of those who aspire to leadership – male or female, to discover whether it is the right path for them, the better.

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One thought on “If the shoe fits: reflections on women in educational leadership

  1. Thanks for this, a very thoughtful post which highlights barriers women leaders face. I’m glad @WomenEd is seen as making a positive contribution – hope you’ve registered for 3rd October – @LCLL_Director

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