Women in Education: 5 Things Fierce Women Don’t Say

I have worked with some brilliant women in the years of being first a classroom teacher, then a middle leader and now a senior leader. Having met women in education who have both inspired and supported me, in turn, I have tried to impart some of their knowledge and wisdom on to teachers I have mentored.  And yet, the recurring theme in conversations with female teachers I have mentored and indeed, with my female friends in education worries me. I am not good enough. I can’t do that job. I will be ‘found out’. I can’t manage that situation. 

For me, It has been a week of reading and reacting to blogs and articles that have examined the role of gender in education, for students and teachers. Steve Adcock blogged his thoughts on women in education leadership here and highlighted the statistics on women in headship. His take was on the barriers that women might face in reaching the highest positions in educational settings, including the inflexibility of schools in allowing women to take on senior roles in a part time capacity if they so wish, in order to look after their children. There followed a lengthy debate on Twitter about whether this was an issue for men and women or whether it disproportionately affected women.  My instinct is to question who won that debate, but I think the real winner was reasoned debate between professionals. 

Then something slightly different came my way and I couldn’t decide how I felt about it and I’m not sure I have entirely reconciled my thoughts.  In The Guardian was a confident and detailed opinion about the issues that boys face in schools from psychologist Philip Zimbardo – in its entirety here.  I struggled because I recognised some of what Zimbardo is stating is true – boys do need male roles models, for example.  What I objected to was his apparent rejection if what he calls a “feminised” school system. The section I found most problematic reads as follows: “In the US, he says, 90% of elementary school teachers are women, while in the UK one in five teachers is a man. “Female teachers can be wonderful but they model skills that girls are good at – fine motor tuning rather than big physical activity. They don’t like boys running around. And, with funding shortages, they’re eliminating gym classes so boys don’t have the time to do physical activity.” He cites schoolchildren being assigned to write diaries as a compositional task. “Boys don’t write diaries! The worst thing I can imagine giving a boy as a present is a diary.” (The Guardian, 9th May). 

This reads as being deeply unhelpful in a world that strives for gender equality. Is the suggestion that diary writing is the sole preserve of women and physical activity the sole preserve of men? Tell that to Samuel Pepys and Serena Williams. It’s hard to read this as a female teacher and not feel a little stung by the implicit. The prevalence of female teachers is responsible for a crisis in masculinity? We teach in a overtly female way and that’s why boys don’t do well in school?  

It’s not surprising then that women in education may be suffering from their own crisis – one of confidence. This isn’t a new phenomenon but one that requires a gentle nudge towards examination. To me, it requires a discussion of how we as women in education approach our day to day experiences that mean we are confident enough to take on senior roles in education leadership. This discussion has to begin with the way we speak about ourselves and situations we find difficult. And believe me, what I write here is not borne out of a lofty superiority. I think I have probably said all of these things at some point and have certainly heard them from women in teaching I have worked with. 

Behaviour in this classroom would be much better if I had a male learning support assistant.

I’m surprised that I have heard this a lot and mainly from women new to teaching. It has to be said that the implication is that only men are capable of controlling children’s behaviours and that is simply not true. It is an odd throwback to a ‘you wait until your father gets home’ mentality and lends credence to a Jungian Father = Rule of Law philosophy. We should know that in the classroom, being assertive and consistent overrides gender – and in particular, overrides physical characteristics. Having a potentially physically strong male in the room doesn’t compensate for effective strategies and building of respectful relationships. The fiercest teacher I know is about 4ft 10 and I wouldn’t mess with her. What she does is establish respect irrespective of her gender and physical appearance, in both boys and girls. Though she be but little, she is fierce. Thanks Shakespeare.  

They don’t respect me because I am a woman

This one, I’m afraid, is tied up in cultural stereotypes as it often used when talking about boys from particular ethnic backgrounds. The assumption underlying is that even if a child comes from a family in which dad wields more power than mum, that child will replicate that in the classroom. Respect is respect and children adapt to new cultural contexts.  Isnt it our job to educate them? Also, try telling this to some of the fierce Asian mothers I know, including my own. 

I can’t apply for that job because there’s one bullet point on the job description I can’t do. 

My favourite fierce woman said to me, amongst many other wise things: “Women see one thing on a job description that they can’t do and don’t apply, thinking they don’t have the experience. What they should be thinking is, I can’t do that yet.”  I think she got that from one of her fierce women. We have to stop thinking that one gap means wholesale failure or inability. We talk about growth mindset for children, this one is about having a growth mindset as a woman. 

I’m worried they will find out I’m a fraud. 

It is ridiculously common to hear this from the most fierce of women. In coaching conversations, in passing chat, I hear women who do a good job worrying they may be exposed as a fraud. It is well documented that more women than men feel this way. You can read more here. You are not alone. 

I can’t do this job when I have a family.

More and more, I worry that the narrative has changed on whether, for women, teaching can be balanced with a happy family life. I am in no doubt that it is difficult and that women, for reasons as old as time, feel guilty for choosing to work and raise children at the same time. Indeed, that somehow wanted to work full time and raise a child makes them too fierce for their own and others’ comfort. But the case remains that women who have reached the highest echelons of educational leadership in many cases manage both – not without fears, doubts or regrets, but still – they have reached the peak of their careers not because they chose between family and work, but because they allowed the possibility of how hard it might be. Maybe this one is not a case of I can’t, and more a consideration of do I want to?

This week, find the fierce women in your life and ask them if they’ve ever said or thought the five things above. The beauty of starting the conversation is realising, in all probability, we have thought them or said them or both. I hope that somewhere in that conversation, you find yourself feeling a little more fierce. 

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3 comments

  1. Pingback: Teach Like a Woman | The New Stateswoman
  2. Pingback: #genderedcheese | MainstreamSEND

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