Following an excellent @SLTchat this evening hosted by one of the women who is pioneering the @womened Unconference in October, I sat in my mid-July humidity-induced stupor, thinking it through. There is something about thinking in pyjamas that is such a luxury when you are a teacher.
I wanted to unpick why it is that women are less likely to be on senior leadership teams. It is a complex issue, endorsed by many statistical studies. We cannot deny that the workforce is predominantly female and yet, senior leaderships teams are statistically more likely to be male. Now, before you all jump at once, no, I’m not going to go into the evidence here (look it up and come back to me) and no, I’m not saying that all leadership teams are dominated by men. I am saying that we have a problem that can be attributed to many things. As with most complex social issues, we can’t pin down one reason why it is the way it is. But we can start to think about what happens in the mind of a female leader when she is seeking promotion, or when – more pertinently, she doesn’t feel like she can.
When I was twenty five, I wanted to be a Head of English. This thought came from a miserable kernel of ambition I have nurtured inside my ribcage for most of my life and an unfortunate stinging remark by a male headteacher – “I don’t think you have any leadership or management qualities.” Cue inner fury/despair. I decided to leave this school and seek promotion in that way you do when you are young and think if you leave a job, you’re irreplaceable. I had been heavily involved in the leadership of the English department at that school and was the second in charge. It was time to move on and yes, prove that I could lead and manage. And of course, the school would crumble without me. Probably.
So, I dusted off my interview skills. I applied for Head of Department posts and I settled on a school I thought was really going somewhere. I wanted to work there – mostly because of my magpie instinct. Shiny and new has always been appealing for me and this place was shiniest and newest. Little did I know that it would be the worst decision I would make in my career. They didn’t appoint me as the Head of Department, but instead, offered me the post of second in charge.
This is one of those moments you look back on and think – was I actually deranged when I said yes? Had I temporarily lost my mind? Had photocopier fumes, coffee and East London smog addled my brain? I wasn’t desperate; I could have stayed at my school, I could have applied for other jobs. Something inside me was convinced that I wasn’t good enough. So I took the job and worked with a Head of Department that was eventually ‘managed out’ because he was lovely but incompetent.
But it took three years before that kernel of ambition re-lit itself. Three years in which I could have made real progress in my career but I didn’t.
This is one story of many and I am not about to argue that women’s careers stall because they make bad, wounded-ego decisions and take roles that they shouldn’t. I am saying that might be one reason why some women don’t make the progress they want to. It takes confidence to stand up and say that you are worth more than a school is offering. I didn’t have that then. It has taken years to get myself to that point.
Discussions about women who think they can’t have children and a successful career make me want to weep and yet, there is something entirely familiar about that feeling. I don’t have children, so I can’t provide an authentic, first person view of what it might feel like to want children and stay in a profession that moves so quickly that even taking a day off can feel like a lifetime.
And there is what I want to explain. I imagine – and correct me if I’m wrong and this is just my own paranoia playing out on a page – that the thought of being on a leadership team in a school and stopping to have a child is frightening. I imagine it is a bit like the modern phenomenon, FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) – the reason why we stay glued to our phones and Facebook and Twitter because if you stop, you might miss something really big. Take that feeling and apply it to a school. You go on maternity leave at a school and half the staff might leave (not because you aren’t there, I hasten to add, that’s just silly). They might not be there when you get back because – and this is the crux – schools carry on whether you are there or not! Policies and practices might be different. Alliances might be formed without you. Relationships might strengthen and it might be hard to get back into your old role, part time or full time.
Successful women want to be seen as reliable and present. In schools, whether we like to admit it or not, we judge people on how long they are in the building. So another fear relayed to me by a female colleague who has just announced her pregnancy – I might have to leave the building to pick up children and therefore, people might judge me for not being as hardworking as they are. It almost does’t matter if colleagues are judging or not, it seems that it is the fear of judgement that puts some women off the whole decision.
All of this comes down to one thing: confidence. I don’t deny that very real barriers exist for women who want to balance home life and career – lack of flexible working hours or part time posts, perceptions of women in leadership (ball-breaker, bossy vs emotional/fluffy), but there is one thing that is in us to control. That is our ability to step outside of our own timidity and move towards what we want with confidence. That is one barrier to success we have the power to remove.