I decided to go out on a Tuesday night in the middle of exam season. Before you get carried away with a largely inappropriate vision of me out on the proverbial, my days of wearing purple wigs and sashaying the night away to trance music are long behind me. My idea of a night out these days involves some sort of teaching event that carries the promise of a glass of wine or two and sure enough, one came along last week in the form of a panel event organised by Teach First on ‘Women in Leadership: Education, Business and Beyond’. I was happy to accept their invite to be a panel member, alongside Hannah Wilson, one of the co-founders of the WomenEd movement and Henrietta Baldock- Chairman of European Financial Institutions at Bank of America Merrill Lynch – one of Teach First’s partner organisations. We were ably chaired by Fiona Rawes, the Director of Community Impact at Teach First, who ensured that as many voices were heard as possible at this important event.
We dealt with two official questions on the night, as well as a raft of well-thought out and provoking ones from an audience that was made up of about 100 women in teaching and business and precisely 2 men. Hannah and I wryly noted that had the event been entitled: ‘Leadership: Education, Business and Beyond’, there may have been a greater balance between male and female delegates. I do wonder whether taking out the gendered title at these events is the right thing to do. We were due to talk about the lack of female headteachers and how to raise aspirations in the girls we teach. To me and many of the women in the room, this isn’t an exclusively female issue. As the night progressed, the ideas became more and more central: for more women to enter into positions of responsibility in schools, in businesses and in politics, support from male colleagues is essential.
When I left, I realised we had covered so much in the time given to us as panellists that it would be hard to capture all the ideas and questions in one place. What I can do is provide a run-down of my points in response to the main questions. And possibly leave with you with more questions to consider.
Recent figures, released by the Future Leaders Trust, show that the overall proportion of women taking on headteacher positions is not reflected by the number of women in the workforce. A government report on the school workforce in England, issued in 2014, showed that the state education sector is 74% female, yet only 65% of headteachers are women. If these percentages were equal, there would over 1,500 more female headteachers in the UK – a number that the Future Leaders Trust believes could potentially fill many long-standing headship vacancies.
Recent research by the Guardian showed there are more men called John running FTSE 100 companies than all the female bosses put together. Among chief executives and chairs of FTSE 100 companies, there were 17 men called John (or Jean) – and seven women.
What in your view is the most important way we could influence a change with leadership positions?
In a groundbreaking study in 1975, Don Zimmerman and Candace West tracked the interruption rates in conversations between men and women. The study can be read in its entirety at the link provided but the findings can be summarised succinctly in these tables:
Source: Zimmerman/West, 1975
Interruptions are interesting interaction mechanisms. They serve to assert dominance and control in a conversation. Ask a Year 10 student how Lady Macbeth asserts her dominance over her husband in Macbeth and she will tell you that she interrupts and questions. It is ironic that she is seen as a manifestation of a witch for doing so and ‘corrected’ at the end of the play for her foolish attempt to control her husband and usurp the Elizabethan natural order. The rota fortunae turns. Exit Lady Macbeth. And yet we have a study here that shows that mixed gender conversations are rife with interruption.
How does this contribute to our understanding of where all the female headteachers are? I explained that the results of this study, and all of the subsequent studies that proved the same phenomenon, are still being played out in education institutions and businesses today. Women make up the majority of the teaching workforce and disappear as you climb the ranks into senior leadership, headship and governance – a fact reinforced by Warwick Mansell in The Guardian here. If the daily experience of leadership in schools for women is working in environments not only physically, but verbally dominated by male colleagues, then why would anyone want to do it? It is exhausting and demoralising. And we might not even be aware of the issue and the reason why.
Rather than just pose the problem and pondered, I spoke about solutions. The solution doesn’t involve flinging down your meeting agenda and storming out of the room, neither does it involve shouting louder than your interruptor. It is the rain that grows flowers, not the thunder (thanks Rumi). Women have to train themselves to deal with interruption so they can be heard.
If this was the only problem then we’d be fine because women would just do this and make progress. I talked about ‘Askers and Guessers’ at the WomenEd Unconference in last year and I came back to the topic on Tuesday night. I read Oliver Burkeman’s article in The Guardian a long time ago and was citing the concept of Askers vs Guessers as his idea. Only on re-reading the article last week did I notice that the original idea came from Andrea Donderi, a woman, on a discussion forum. Irony klaxon.
The idea is simple. And it resonates with me as a female leader so completely because I am a Guesser. I have waited for promotion and hoped someone would notice my work and assumed that if I just worked harder, longer, better, then I would be promoted. And I stalled. This wasn’t a result of male oppression. This was me, not realising I could move into being an Asker.
If we want more women in headships, or being CEOs of MATs and global banking institutions, we have to coach and mentor them to be confident Askers.
Looking to the next generation, it was reported last week that sexist bullying in schools is inhibiting girls from putting up their hands and speaking out in class because they fear appearing “swotty and clever”. Teach First works in collaboration with other organisations on The Fair Education Impact Goals. Goal 3 is – Ensure young people
develop key strengths, including resilience and wellbeing, to support high aspirations.
A recent report on data taken from pupils at Teach First partner schools explored this too – When asked if they felt comfortable asking questions in class, boys’ replies were between 8 and 11 percentage points higher than girls’. When asked “I am confident in my ability to learn what is being taught” girls’ responses were between 5 and 6 percentage points lower than boys.
What can we do to as figures of authority – mentors, line managers, teachers etc – to ensure we foster self-confidence and high aspirations in girls and young women?
I did almost fall out of my seat, so keen was I to answer this one.
Young women already have high aspirations. The evidence shows that girls have systematically reported higher aspirations than their male peers for years. They outperform boys. The issue is not in aspiration. Somewhere along the line, those aspirations fizzle and it is job as educational professionals to work why a girl who aspires to be an astronaut at the age of 10 not only fails to become one, but actively rejects the idea that she might be one.
I go back to interruptions here. Because the study on interruptions does not apply only to adults in educational or corporate environments. Kieran Snyder has continued to look at the phenomenon since Zimmerman and West started the process. In this article
, we can see that the interruption process – the assertion of dominance in conversation and discussion – starts at a very young age. Snyder discovered the pre-schooler girls are much more likely to be interrupted by their male peers and the more boys there are, the more the interruption rate goes up. How does this apply to teachers? I was astonished to read that teachers reinforce the model of interruption
in the classroon and reinforce gender stereotypes – both belittling female ability in the STEM subjects and belittling male ability in languages and arts. We are literally creating exactly the kind of society we want to avoid.
Is it any surprise then, as the article from Kieran Snyder suggests, girls are 1.5 times more likely to study STEM subjects if taught in single-sex environments? I can imagine that the gender stereotyping, the interruptions, the fight for dominance, is less of an issue. I am conflicted on the benefits of single-sex education, but these ideas are hard to ignore.
I made my views clear on how we raise levels of confidence – and I think this might be the basis of another article entirely – but we are not going to foster self-confidence if we send girls home en masse for uniform infringements. The recent sending home of 29 girls because the length of their skirts didn’t meet with the approval of their headteacher not only reinforced the sexualisation of those girls, it suggested that their education was less important than the poor boys who may have been distracted or titillated by their ungodly flesh.
We are actively showing girls there is no point in aspiring. We are doing it ourselves by interrupting them. We are telling them that what they look like in the classroom is more important than the contents of their minds.
Teachers need to manage their unconscious biases on appearance and sexuality and all teachers – male of female – have to manage their interruption biases too.
I finished my answer to this question by citing my favourite documentary of recent years. In Miss Representation, the phrases “you can’t be what you can’t see’ is used repeatedly. Our girls need to see that women can take on roles and responsibilities at a high level. What do they see in school? Chances are they see a male CEO of the MAT, a male headteacher, a mix of genders at senior and middle leadership and a hell of a lot of female teaching assistants. The schools workforce data in 2014 shows that 91% of teaching assistants were female. The message is clear. There are jobs for the boys and jobs for the girls.
We are only applying for jobs if we are certain we can fulfil every aspect of the job spec. And girls can’t be what they can’t see. We have to step up.