No more Miss Nice Gal? Is it OK to be scary?

  During August this year Sheryl Sandberg was on the cover of Time magazine with the headline, ‘Don’t hate her because she’s successful’. When I read that article online it led me to another that outlined seven traits of successful women leaders. I have a love-hate relationship with these kind of articles: Love because it is always interesting to read another take on women in leadership. Hate because more often than not these articles focus on what women in particular can bring to their work as leaders. Weirdly I don’t see as many articles on male leadership. Odd that. Two of the seven traits in this article intrigued me more than the others. Firstly, Assertiveness. The article chooses to frame this in the terms that a successful woman leader will be prepared to say no, will not be taken advantage of and will be prepared to argue her case. What struck about these was that each suggestion appeared to assume that the woman started from a disadvantaged place. 

The second trait that I thought was interesting was Aggressiveness. Again the article suggested that this was in terms of ‘constructive aggressiveness’ going on to use the word ‘feisty’. Now I’m a big fan of the word ‘feisty’ in the right context, but can’t help feeling that women in leadership is not that context. It has the smatterings of angry pup about it, that I think implies that any kind of female aggressiveness is the workplace equivalent of Scrappy Doo.  

More interesting was reading an article this week in Grazia magazine asking the question why women are afraid of being scary at work. It’s an interesting read focusing on the concept of the ‘dominance penalty’ & a Harvard study which suggests that if women are tough at work, displaying ‘leadership qualities like strength and decisiveness’ (Emma Barnett, 5 October), then they can expect to be disliked. I think this is equally true in an education setting, women in leadership are incredibly supportive of each other, but it tends to be about encouragement & overcoming obstacles, but what about taking a different tack? What about asking the question is it bad to be too tough? It’s definitely an uphill struggle if you bring together the supposed successful traits of women leaders, plus (dare I say it) a tendency of articles on women in leadership to focus on ideas such as How do we manage it all? Being brave enough to speak up and not being negative about ourselves. Isn’t it about time we acknowledge that, along with Barnett and architect Zaha Hadid on Radio4 this week, it is OK to be scary if scary means being tough enough to stand up for truth and fight for your values. Is #WomenEd ready to get scary and…even have a go at reclaiming the b word. One thing that did make me smile on the traits page was a quotation from Tina Fey – ‘Know what? B*****s get stuff done’. Too much?

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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.

It’s time to speak up & say something interesting

20140203-150601.jpgI recently watched a short clip on television that introduced me to The Bechdel Test. This was not something I had heard of before, but was fascinated to discover that it was a very simple test that was applied to films concerning their treatment of women. This was popularised by Allison Bechdel in 1985 and consists of three simple rules:

The film must contain:

  1. Two named women who
  2. Talk to each other
  3. And the topic of their conversation must be about something other than men

Really simple you might think, but when you see some of the films that fail this test it does make you pause for thought. These failing films include recent box office hit, The Wolf of Wall Street, not surprising perhaps, but other films that fail are Slumdog Millionaire, Shrek, The Bourne Identity, Ghostbusters, Wall-E, the Pirates of the Caribbean films, Men in Black, Shawshank Redemption, Up and Toy Story. Why don’t these films have a female conversation in them? It could be because the setting wouldn’t allow it, but when you look at the list that doesn’t explain them all. There are many great films that fail this test. Their failure needn’t detract from their greatness, but it is a bit sad when it seems those you made the films thought that women have nothing interesting to say. It reminded me of one scene from Sex and the City where, yes many, many conversations were had about men, but many were not. This one scene had an exasperated Miranda who wanted to share her joy of her new Palm Pilot whilst the others wanted to discuss boyfriends. Is that really all women can talk about?

Whilst watching the latest Celebrity Big Brother I was amazed that the issue of sexism was such a strong theme throughout its run. Whether it was the naive craziness of the Lee Ryan love triangle, with grown women fighting over a very silly man, or the confidence of Luisa which others either found disgusting or threatening. Now I am not condoning all the moral choices that were discussed during the programme, but I was amazed by the way the public hated Linda’s moaning ways and yet were happy to make Jim, who had spent the majority of the programmes bad mouthing many of the women, although all the men were ‘honest’. This seemed to culminate in a heart to heart between Jim and Luisa, which was brilliantly commented on my Allison Woolley (Education Editor from the Guardian) when she said:

@alicewoolley1: Jim telling Luisa she needs to tone herself down and pretend to be less assertive. Classic sexism. #cbb

This just seems to reinforce the idea that women should pipe down. This comes at a time too when I had read a great blog from @Chocotzar (http://chocotzar.wordpress.com/2014/01/27/i-would-if/ ) . She talks about the patriarchy of Teachmeets and of Twitter itself. She touches upon an idea that has been raised before, that not enough women are prepared to speak up on Twitter. There have many well-publicised cases of women being trolled, not just by men, but by other women as well and this is thought to have put many women off from speaking up. This makes me feel very sad and the notion that women have nothing to say or are frightened to speak and I find this far more worrying a prospect than a young girl twerking on a music video award show.

In days when some are remarking on the lack of women role models it is worth taking time to think about which women are speaking up and what are they saying? Any young woman looking for a role model should really look no further than Malala, a young women with plenty to say, all of it inspiring. Great news indeed that she has just been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She is not the only role model available to young women. In other spheres Jennifer Lawrence is carrying films as the lead taking on strong roles such as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, a character with a story that is not just about her relationships. Jennifer Lawrence herself has challenged some of the stereotypes wrapped up in the body image of the Hollywood ideal. Lena Dunham also has brought a refreshing depiction of life as a modern young woman. Dunham herself as writer, producer,director and actress should be inspiring young women that if they do not feel that they are being represented to go out and write their own stories.

20140203-152524.jpgI could list the inspirational figures of yesteryear, but as educators we need to lead by example and show what is worth speaking up about today. Whether you agree that the educational world on Twitter is patriarchal or not, it is still worth speaking up,whatever your gender and speak up for positive role models and the beneficial effect they and we can have on young people.