Category: Leadership

The Red Pledge

I’m about to make people uncomfortable.  If you’re of a sensitive disposition, or if you’ve ever said the words “why can’t we have a men’s movement/party/international day?”, then it’s probably best to look away now. We can’t talk about leadership of schools without talking periods.

There.  Did you squirm?  Did you move away from the computer screen (checking your seat surreptitiously as you did so?) Look, I have some questions for my female colleagues on this most female of issues.  As women leaders, I’d like you to ponder on the following questions.

1) Does your institution provide free pads/tampons for staff? (And stop calling them ‘sanitary items’!) In my experience, if you’ve been caught short and you work in the back end of beyond, then nipping out to the shops is pretty much a no-go.  Why haven’t you demanded that this essential item be provided and staff told where they are?  Dispensers would do, right? Can’t we at least ask someone?

2) How does your organisation make provision for menstruation-related illness? How many times have you gone to work in agony, thinking I’ll just take some painkillers and I’ll be fine?  I’ve known vomiters, fainters, heavy bleeders, pelvic pain heroes and all sorts.  No where is it noted that leave relating to menstruation is acceptable.  What if we have a clause in sickness policies that if you have a genuinely horrific experience every month, you won’t be hauled in to the HR office to discuss your absence that morning, that day, that afternoon when you thought your insides were making a swift, sharp exit?

3) Gynaecological issues.  I have a misbehaving uterus.  This summer I experienced a hystersoscopy without anaesthetic and I thought I was dying.  I had to wait until a holiday to have it done, because I knew I’d have to take time off to find a rogue Mirena coil and that it would bloody hurt.  Could I have done that in term time without struggling to explain that a piece of plastic was lost in my nether region to my male headteacher? I’d like to think so. But I would have been mortified doing so.  What do we do as women leaders to make it easier to have these discussions?

I appreciate that not everyone experiences menstruation and gynaecological issues in quite the same way as I do – we are unique flowers after all. But when do we start making it easier for women to talk about all of this? When do we start feeling like we can without feeling like wilting reeds?

Join me in my Red Tent to discuss.  Bring your own incense and rags. And pledge to speak more openly about periods with everyone.

Where are the Female Headteachers?

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.

Question 1

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 thfemale 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:

same sex interruptions copy 2

mixed sex interruptions copy

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.

Untitled copy 2

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.

Question 2

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.

What makes a brilliant team member?

“It takes two flints to make a fire.” –-Louisa May Alcott

You think you’re pretty good at your job, right?  At Teach Meet London, I spoke about whether great teachers are born or made.  I don’t have an answer; I want to ask the question to get people thinking about teaching and professional qualities that lead to outstanding outcomes for students.  In my Teaching and Learning sessions, I want staff to consider how their professional qualities make them great – and I want them to be specific.

There are times when I will find myself seeing the qualities I have listed in people and I will be overwhelmed by how grateful I am to have them on my side.  But, as with any job, I have been in situations where teams have become dysfunctional.  One can use as many leadership models as one likes to analyse their staff – a team is only as strong as its weakest link.  It takes individuals to step up and demonstrate professional qualities.  If I was hiring a member of staff, I’d want to see the qualities I’ve listed because those are the qualities I want in myself.  It’s no good as a leader writing a person specification that does not tie in with my own values.

Speaking of person specs – how many times have you seen the same qualities flagged up as essential?  Organisations pilfer person and job specs, particularly in schools and end up being less than specific about the qualities they want in their teams.  I’d like to actually see the list below on a person spec.  At least it would be clear and precise.  I want to poke out my own eyeballs when I see person specs that outline a requirement for a ‘good sense of humour’.  The last thing I want on my team is someone who needs to be told how to do every part of their job, but does a stunning impression of Donald Trump in kindergarten.

The list below isn’t purely a wish list for the ideal team or team member, it’s a reminder to myself of all I want to be.  I don’t think anyone can be all of the things below, all of the time – but it’s worth sharing with your teams to see whether they can remind themselves at intervals that the following qualities and professional skills make a team hum positively.  And it’s worth having somewhere so you can remind yourself as a leader what you want to be as part of the team you are part of.

  1. Resilient – reflects on failure and self-motivates to move on
  2. Intuitive – senses when others are struggling and steps in
  3. Empathetic – is able to see the work environment from another’s perspective
  4. Pitches in – doesn’t need to be asked
  5. Optimistic – comes in with a smile and keeps shoulders up and head up
  6. Constructively critical – can spot where errors might be made and flags up
  7. Solutions focused – finds the problem and suggests the solution
  8. Determined – for students and the rest of the team
  9. Productive – often underrated – can get a lot done in the time given
  10. Anticipates problems – and finds ways around them before making mistakes
  11. Intellectual – you don’t have to be a genius, just someone who ponders, reads and knows their stuff
  12. Precise and careful – someone who proofreads, checks and double checks
  13. Independent – doesn’t need their hand holding beyond the start of a role
  14. Organised – plans, schedules, lists – throws them out – does it all again

When a team gets to the point where these qualities are not evident – or certainly not evident in the majority of team members, the only possible result is underperformance.  And more pertinently, for education professionals, the result is good people leaving.  Workload is intense, the external pressures on staff can make or break people – but in my experience as a school leader, what makes people leave is other people.  That could be a member of Senior Leadership who forgets that they are part of the department team, whether they like it or not; it could be a staff member who doesn’t pull their weight, whose lack of enthusiasm for the job leads to tension and resentment; it could be that the middle leader isn’t precise and careful enough.

With a new half term about to swing into action – one that requires teams to be the best versions of themselves – I’m going to pin this up on my wall at work and give myself a daily reminder of the qualities I want to display.  And then I think it is important to hold people to account – not in having these qualities instantly – but to hold people to account for working towards them.  That’s professional development and quite often we forget as leaders that we have to develop the whole professional, not just their hard skills, knowledge and the mechanics of how they do their job.  We owe it to the education sector, in any case.  We need to develop good people. We want good people to stay.


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.

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.