200 Fierce Women in a Room: What Happens?

Turns out, some sort of magic.  Despite my misgivings at setting an alarm for Saturday morning – I am the sleepiest person I know – I woke up and wended my way to the WomenEd Unconference.  Lots of women have tweeted, blogged, Staffrm’d (is that a word?) about the day and there’s no doubt that it was fantastic.  I want to know why.  What made the Unconference so useful to so many and what needs to happen next time?

My session was on why we need diverse women leaders to boost social mobility.  In that session, I asked the question: do BME  (Black and Minority Ethnic) students need to be taught by BME teachers?  The short answer is no, not if you are measuring the impact of BME teachers in terms of results.  Studies show that having a representative staff does not impact on the number of A grades a BME student gets.  What does happen is something more intangible.  Having people who look like you in positions of responsibility not only raises aspirations, it demystifies the professions for BME students.  A BME teacher knows the BME narrative – he or she is able to share the stories and challenge the misconceptions and tell the tales of their life.  The familiarity of this is not only comforting, it is essential for people to feel like they have a place in this world.

It is with this in mind that I look at the Unconference.  Did I learn any more from the Unconference than I would have at a conference that covered the same themes but wasn’t tailored to the needs of female leaders?  No, probably not.  There isn’t a gender monopoly on wisdom, as much as I would like to think so.  What happened was more about the telling of stories, the sharing of the narrative, the pulling for common experience that meant I felt that I was in a room of family members.  We laughed because we recognised, which apparently is one of the scientific reasons we find things funny in the first place. Ultimately, we looked at the women delivering presentations, running sessions and thought when they shared their stories: that could be me.  And there’s something powerful about that. It isn’t an uncharted phenomenon – writers have been covering the concept of the shared connection of women for centuries.  The harem, the red tent, the sorority.

Yet, even in this modern day and age, after such a successful gathering, I was disheartened to see that some voices (fewer than I expected, mind you) piped up with the same, pitiful refrain that follows any gathering of women.  If we had an all male conference, there would be uproar.  I didn’t go because I didn’t think there would be anything relevant for me because I am a man.  Or worse, I’m a woman and I don’t know what they’re going on about – I don’t feel the need to be at a women’s conference – that’s just pushing an agenda.  As if ‘pushing an agenda’ is a worse crime than ignoring one totally.  I have news for you, folks.  Conferences where the delegates are majority male have been known to happen – and the result has never been uproar.  The most you’ve had is a raised eyebrow.  More news – thinking there would be nothing relevant at a woman’s conference suggests you think we talked about periods and childbirth.  We discussed leadership and that, my dear, doesn’t have a gender.  And for the contrary, no-solidarity ladies?  One of the great things about women is the concept of choice.  You didn’t choose to go, I did because I thought it was important.  Don’t be the Katie Hopkins of Disparagement in Education.

During my plenary session I talked about the need to stand together and rejected the term ‘lean in’, coined by Sheryl Sandberg.  Again, some were surprised that I did this.  Melissa Benn, in ‘What Should We Tell Our Daughters?’, outlines her view on the concept on leaning in.  She highlights Sandberg’s corporate status and queries whether boardroom tactics work for someone who works three jobs and is a single mother.  I provided an alternative – and funnily enough, the WomenEd Unconference was my inspiration for that.  Instead of ‘leaning in’ towards a male-dominated educational leadership sphere, 200 ‘fierce’ women made their own circle and everyone was invited.  It looks like they found that power was not held in a locus outside of themselves, but in the strength of the stories and experiences they shared on the day.

I hope the WomenEd Unconference becomes an annual event and that more men come along to witness the warmth and wisdom of the women who help to run our schools.  There’s a naive part of me that believes that even the most hardened of meninists will soften towards the idea that a women’s conference might have a place in our society.

Thank you to the whole WomenEd Team for taking the time to build the circle.  In heels.  You are awesome.

The presentation I used to stimulate discussion in my session can be found here.



  1. jillberry102

    Enjoyed reading this, Bansi – it’s been a manic few weeks and I’m only just catching up! And it was so good to meet you on the day.

    Absolutely agree with what you say here about the power of sharing stories – and CARING about the stories others have to tell.

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