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.
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.
This arm is my arm, it is not yours. Up here I have a right to strike out with it as I please. I go over there with these gentlemen and swing my arm and exercise the natural right which you have granted; I hit one man on the nose, another under the ear, and as I go down the stairs on my head, I cry out:
“Is not this a free country?”
“Have not I a right to swing my arm?”
“Yes, but your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.”
The pain. Ah, the pain when the world swings to the right and the unholy alliance of Donald Trump and Katie Hopkins acts as a clarion call for majority groups for whom free speech is being censored, minority groups are in the back yard and something about “robust, healthy debate”. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
The concept of the safe space was born in a different time, I know this. Borne of early LGBT and feminist movements, the safe space became a comforting hub for people who had suffered at the hands of those who at best disagreed with LGBT or feminist lifestyles, and at worst, had been attacked, publicly abused or physically assaulted by those who wished to see alternate lifestyles eradicated. Over time, the safe space has been used extensively on university campuses to protect the vulnerable. High profile cases of speakers being turned away because they might offend mean that the safe space has been ridiculed as a politically-correct mechanism to censor viewpoints and to bring down free speech. Safe spaces create marshmallow students who fail to learn what it means to exist in a big, bad world.
This is all very hard on a girl that is known colloquially as ‘Red Bennie’ – a girl that attended one of the most left-wing universities in the country and grew into an adult learning about liberation groups and safe spaces. I was fascinated. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by debate and thought about identity and society. My goodness, it takes my breath away how lovely it was being young and fired up – and safe enough to be amongst those who had opinions about what was right and good and fair.
I supported the ‘No Platform For Fascists’ policy at Warwick Students’ Union. Who did we prevent from appearing? Far-right speakers from all walks of life – people who we believed didn’t care for the debate, only the publicity. People who had a track record of saying awful things and we said no to that on our space. Not because we don’t want a debate, not because we were scared of it or offended, but because we shared a common belief. We disapproved. And that was our choice. But we didn’t just decide, we debated. We thought.
There is a brilliant article on Al-Jazeera America on the issue of safe spaces on college campuses – you can find it here. In the meantime, one sentence really rings out as true for me: “But what all these critiques get wrong is that they assume “safe” means homogeneous in thought. The reality is that these safe spaces are actually brimming with debate; for many minority students, they are the first place where anyone has ever let them speak about their experiences.”
But for me, the safe space was not about censorship, it was about protection. It was about providing a different space to the one outside the walls where people swinging their fists didn’t care who they were smacking.
And I knew I wasn’t even someone who needed that safe space the most. I learned very quickly that a woman who has been raped might not want to debate whether the length of her skirt determined her fate. I learned that the trans student who was assaulted on his way home didn’t want to debate whether he was really a man or a woman. I understood that the black student who put up up with people touching her hair “just to see what it feels like” didn’t want to listen to the validity of the term ‘micro-aggression’. I know that the Muslim student spat at on the bus might not want to listen to a speaker from Britain First in the interests of healthy debate.
It is all too easy for people who have never faced any of these things to paint safe spaces as mollycoddling bubbles in which students are not allowed to debate difficult things because it might hurt their feelings, or worse, offend them. If you feel the need to mock the concept of or complain about safe spaces, I don’t want to generalise, but chances are, you’ve never felt the need for one.
Who are these students, preventing college campuses being a healthy platform for debate? How dare they create an environment in which they study without the white noise of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia? Those who decry safe spaces as being cotton wool for the masses forget one really quite important thing. The LGBT community, the BAME community, the trans community – women – we all know about the problems in the big wide world. We spend half our lives trying to find ways to shield ourselves from the views imposed on us by the media, by what people deem cultural truisms with any grounding in fact.
Universities are home to many students. Believe it or not, sometimes university is the only escape young people have from difficult backgrounds and difficult histories. It is a space that rescues as well as educates. And remember, education is something university students choose – that’s what makes it brilliant. And some students choose not to engage with things that upset them whilst navigating their educational paths. What’s wrong with that? It doesn’t make them any less of a physicist, or computer scientist, or psychology student. When university is home – making that space an open forum for all can feel uncomfortable when you know all too well what the world thinks of you already.
Let’s not forget what free speech can be. In my time at university, I was well aware of free speech as a right and I was well aware of people who exercised that right without concern for the impact on others. I went on a flyering campaign against the BNP in Tipton Green, a boarded-up shadow of a small town where the BNP were promising to reopen the Library, to bring jobs back to the former industrial town and all sorts of other things. I engaged in debate with a builder who had particularly strong views on immigration. When I asked him what his solution was, he replied: “I don’t have one really, I think it would be best if we just lined them up by the sea and shot them down.”
He was quite pleasant while he said it. He then said he wasn’t a racist because his girlfriend was black. So I went back to my safe space.
I made a decision early in my career about what school should be for my students. So my classroom is a safe space. It isn’t one in the traditional sense – everyone is allowed to be there, but micro-aggressions, assumptions and triggers are discussed, defined, questioned. Do I shut down some discussions? Yes, because if they go on to cause someone distress, my classroom is not the place for that. The world is hard enough without me being a lightning rod for the school of hard knocks.
I live in hope that by seeing university students make the decisions they do, my own students will be witness to a model of debate – where to discuss and vote on the presence of controversial figures in our circles is right and good and fair. If the answer is no, that person cannot speak for these reasons, then let my students see that their right to swing their fists ends when they hit someone else’s nose.
I want to laugh a little when I hear majority groups belittling safe spaces. And then I want to smash things a little bit. I always calm down eventually.
Because let’s not forget that safe spaces for majority groups also exist and have existed for many years. What is a gentleman’s club if not a safe space for the white, heterosexual male? What is the boardroom throughout history? What is parliament before the vote was extended to women?
You’ve had your safe spaces, now let us have ours.
“I loathe feminism: the sisterhood, from Germaine Greer to Harriet Harman, have a lot to answer for in my view. They carry much responsibility for hindering women from achieving their full potential; theirs are the shrieking siren voices telling women and girls they cannot succeed, as somebody – men, or “the system” – will stop them. That’s a load of rubbish. We women are not victims, as I keep telling university students. We are not martyrs. We are the majority. The only thing that’s holding you back is your belief in yourself.”
The Telegraph article written by Edwina Currie a week ago should have come with a trigger warning. Addressing the Oxford Union, Currie lambasted feminism in the way only a woman who has reached the peak of her privilege can: by making that oh-so-familiar ‘feminism isn’t needed, because I did alright’ statement. In the article, which can be read in its entirety here (trigger warning!), Currie went on to describe how she battled her way through knock backs and trials, citing her resilience and her self-confidence as the reason she succeeded. In fact, in a glorious act of victim-blaming, she asserted that women themselves are their own worst enemy and the reason for the pay gap and sexism.
Instead of boiling with rage at her lack of solidarity, I started to question my own thought processes. Was gender inequality a thing of the past? Had I blinked and missed someone waving a purple flag to indicate the end of the millennia-long gender war that we’ve all been fighting? Were women free now to go back to the kitchen and make dinner?
Forgive me. I mock.
For me, October has been a month of remembering the reality of the need for women’s activism. I attended and presented at the WomenEd Unconference – a remarkable event. Those who were there saw that it was a celebration of women in education. I have largely ignored the inevitable comments on why we have to have a women’s conference because they spark in me a desire to smack my head against a table. I’ve been hearing those same comments – if we had a men’s conference, there’d be uproar/just a small vocal minority who don’t represent the silent majority – since I became aware of identity politics in my early twenties. If I had a penny for every time I have heard ‘women should stop complaining about equality, it’s all fine now – especially as I haven’t experienced any problems’, I’d buy a really expensive bra and burn it.
I do wonder where this dismissal of the need for feminism and women’s activism comes from. Just seeing the criticisms made of the WomenEd Unconference made me realise that it actually was needed and that we hadn’t come that far in seeing women’s voices as important and valid.
In all walks of life, in the developing world and the western world, women take second place even though they make up half of the world’s population. While we may not be ‘chattel’ in the way we were by legal definition until the 1960s, this doesn’t mean we should close our eyes to inequality. There are now different inequalities to address and it takes a ‘vocal minority’ to do just that. Moreover, the point of feminism lies not in its self-interest, but in its very belief that activism is on behalf of others – whether that support or activism is requested or otherwise. So I’m sorry if you don’t want me to stand up for women. I’m going to do it anyway. Margaret Mead, American cultural anthropologist, stated: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
The biggest and most worrying trend is that the majority of the criticism I have seen of women’s activism has come from other women. In this month of learning to celebrate women’s activism, I watched Suffragette and was horrified to see how late universal suffrage was declared in some countries. I re-learned my love of the word ‘solidarity’ in seeing how the female characters leaned on and supported each other during the worst of their experiences in fighting for the vote. Solidarity is a beautiful word and one that women, in particular, don’t use or practice often enough. There is something quease-inducing when I read comments on Twitter and Facebook on identity politics and watch women seeking approval from men they deem to be powerful – I don’t see reasoned argument. I see sycophants simpering. I recall reading this in a History source at school:
“The real reason why women ought not to have the political franchise is the very simple reason that they are not men, and that according to a well-known dictum, even an act of Parliament can not make them men. Men govern the world, and, so far as it is possible to foresee, they must always govern it.” Mrs Humphrey Ward, The Literary Digest, 1908
I worry because this ‘I don’t get why we need women’s activism’ smacks of a lack of self and world awareness; it smacks of a mistaken belief that women talking about women’s equality is actually about them hating men. Or criticising men. Or blaming men. I’ll say it again. Feminism is not about men. To think so fundamentally misses the point of it. It’s a criticism levelled at women who dare to talk about what it means to be a woman in education or politics or law or in any field dominated by men. And we are well aware of how relative the term difficulty is, to both the past and to societies different from our own.
While it might be fruitless to try and engage with those who believe women are equal now that they have the vote (I mean, what else might be needed?), here I go. In 1970, Foucault outlined the movement away from the enactment of power from a visible and physical phenomenon manifested in the punishment of the human body. He used the example of a regicide being tortured. The effect was to punish the criminal and to discipline society. Post-enlightenment, western Europe moved away from torture – the physical control of bodies – and moved towards a more subtle enactment of power – that of incarceration, the erasing of identity through conformity and uniformity, and the use of the gaze to control.
What does this have to do with women and equality? It’s exactly the same process. Women had to fight oppression that was open, clear and could be pinned to suffrage, equal legal rights in marriage, divorce and childcare, abortion, contraception. Those were obvious forms of oppression. In true Foucauldian style, oppression is not a visible force 99% of the time. It is the structures of power, in the representation of women in the media, in the subconscious message. The best introduction to this ‘disciplining’ of women comes in the brilliant documentary, Miss Representation. In the first five minutes, the narrator shows you the barrage of images that women are subjects of and subjected to in a post-feminist age. And we don’t even realise. Because inequality now in the UK isn’t about the vote, or legal rights, or control over our bodies – it is something much more subtle than that. Don’t believe me? Type in ‘female teacher’ into Google and see what comes up. Type in ‘male teacher’ and compare.
I’m in Japan at the moment, visiting schools and learning about the education system here. I like the values, the ethos and the cleanliness of the schools. But I haven’t met a single woman in a position of responsibility yet. I know what I’m grateful for in the UK, but that’s not a reason for me – or other women passionate about celebrating women in education – to ‘pipe down’. It’s just not going to happen.
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.