Women in Education: The Confidence to Have it All

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.

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12 comments

      • Leah K Stewart

        When I was a child my mum nodded to sexism when she said; “You’ll need to work harder than any man for the same results.” And so I did. And I saw what she meant. She was right. She called me to be smarter than other people’s prejudices, to dispel this issue by being an example. Yet I still lost my way because I was trying to be an example within a world economy dominated by masculine values. At the point of being recommended anxiety pills “to make me normal again” I removed myself from that world and am currently dedicating my time to figuring out who I want to serve and creating my own space to serve those people in my own way. It’s unbelievable how many women I’m meeting now who carry the same story; they left their jobs at the point of breakdown and are now flourishing with their own ‘feminine value’ businesses.

  1. Vivienne Porritt

    This is excellent, Bansi, and really gets to the heart of the matter – what we can control ourselves. Looking back on when I was ill and had to be off for a long time last year, I now realise how much of my confidence I lost through fear of being forgotten or overlooked. Work moves on without you – which is why it can’t be all that we have. We can have our own confidence and our own life and thanks for reminding us!

    • thenewstateswoman

      Thanks for sharing, I’m glad there is some truth in my Sunday night scribblings! I do wonder whether that fear intensifies the further up the career ladder you go – more at stake? Fear of not being seen as authentic or present is a recurring conversation with female colleagues.

  2. Vivienne Porritt

    I feel there is a lot of truth in your Sunday night scribblings – scribble away any night!

  3. The Heads Office

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading this Pyjama Girl!
    You are right – it is about confidence all round. It is also about vocabulary that is used and it starts when we are tiny and the words folks around us use. Confidence can easily be misinterpreted as bossy & over bearing from a girl but in a boy (which is where parents would expect to see it) it would be translated as determination and powerful.
    You mention the tension between having a career and a child. Again it comes down to confidence to make that choice and be happy about it.

    We have a job to do in society to stop reinforcing these stereo types. That way, women may not need to grow an extra skin or constantly wear metal knickers to have the careers they want.

  4. suecowley

    It’s very complicated, but one of the things that has allowed me to have children and still have a successful career is having a partner who plays an equal role in child care and in the home. That, to my mind, is what needs to change if we’re going to make progress – that we see parenting as a 50/50 male/female responsibility.

  5. jillberry102

    Thanks for sharing this, Bansi. I agree with a lot of what you and the commenters say here – support is crucial, as is confidence. As well as FOMO I’ve known a number of women who lose their belief in their capacity to do the job during that time out. Some women can be overly critical of themselves. We need to be aware of it and fight against it.

  6. pmichael

    Another thought-provoking column.

    Over time, when you look at your life, you find yourself surrounded by the things you value. I my case, books, music, friends. Many people – not just women – just want jobs; they don’t want careers. If one wants a career, then a range of other conflicts kick in. When it comes down to it, may people – again, not just women – don’t want the bigger job enough. You are 100% right about confidence, and there is inadvertent and deliberate prejudice, but in all the appointment panels I’ve ever been part of, sex was never an issue. Passion, commitment and confidence were.

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