Many moons ago, when WomenEd was but a spark being kindled into being by its founders, I wrote a blog post that started with a plea to “the wonderful women involved in Women Ed”:
I'd love to be involved too. But let's get serious. Let's stop talking about wearing heels to work. Let's stop using sassy pop references. Let's talk about the fact that boys are underachieving as well as the appalling lack of female Head teachers. Let's make this a real gender debate.
Fast forward two years and I’ve just spent my Saturday at my second Women Ed event and I can happily report that – despite one Take That reference – it’s a world away from the Union Jack dresses that I feared.
Instead, CEOs, Executive Headteachers, Company Directors, and Doctors are the order of the day with a roster of workshop leaders and keynote speakers that brings together truly inspirational female leaders from all sides of the educational landscape. So, how has my response to Women Ed changed since that first hesitant blog post?
Well I think I am pretty brave, but I know I can still be 10% braver by naming sexism when I see it. In my experience, there’s still a pervasive attitude in schools that sexism is some kind of quirky male eccentricity.
I was once warned by several colleagues about an older male Chair of Governors who ‘doesn’t respond well to women’. On reflection, my retort should have been ‘So why is he still in post?’ rather than steeling myself for the condescending tirades that followed. Similarly, it’s not OK when male members of a senior leadership team refer to ‘the girls’ when they actually mean their fellow senior leaders. Or, when members of a panel interviewing a prospective female Headteacher say they’d ‘rather not work for a woman’. And I think we all need to be less tolerant of female leaders being talked down to in online debates, making more liberal use of block and mute for persistent offenders.
I’ve valued the way Women Ed has foregrounded the intersection of issues related to gender and ethnicity. I’m increasingly aware of my own privilege as a white British woman, but not always, I’m sure, aware of the insidious ways this impacts on my experiences. I am trying to shift my thinking and will try to engage with BAME Ed in whatever ways I can to ensure that diverse leadership in all its guises make strides forwards in the schools in which I work.
In a similar vein, it’s only thanks to Women Ed that I now fully recognise the privileged start in life I had. I was never aware of the financial pinch many have been shaped by but, more than this, my family deeply valued education and nurtured me as a leader throughout my childhood. Comment on the many inspirational women in my family is for another blog post, but when you’re surrounded by graduates and women who have led unorthodox lives you have a life without limits modelled for you every single day. I was never scared to make decisions or take risks growing up as my mum always told me everything was reversible. Buying a house? You can sell it. Taking a promotion? You can quit. Going travelling? You can come home. Even as recently as this weekend, on talking to my Uncle about my goal of being Headteacher in what I thought was a hugely ambitious timescale of 10 years, his reply was ‘Why not in five?’
But then it is Women Ed that has given me the confidence to make that statement to my uncle in the first place. The sessions I’ve been to and the women I have met have taught me that it’s OK to have a strong vision for yourself as well as your school: not just ‘what is your story?’ but ‘what’s your story going to be?’ This confidence has developed from hearing first-hand the leadership stories of women like Dr Jill Berry. Jill once gave me a verbal nod as a leader in a speech at a teaching event. That warm feeling sustained me through many challenging months. On reflection, I now have no doubt that she knew exactly the impact that would have on me and for that I am eternally grateful.
I agree with Hannah Wilsey on the powerful value of such connections between female leaders and that it starts with ‘putting yourself out there’. Finding your crew – or, as my students would term it, your squad - has transformational power for women in all sectors of education. For me, Team English has become so much more than a way of sharing resources. Rebecca Foster, Freya O’Dell, Sarah Barker, Amy Forrester, Becky Wood, Charlie Pearson, Nikki Carlin, Fiona Ritson, Sana Master, Grainne Hallahan, Lyndsey Dyer, Nat Masala, Kate McCabe, and… Chris Curtis: when you have that lot behind you, you are not just 10% braver, but ready for anyone and anything.
I did of course put in that final ellipsis for dramatic effect, but it’s an important point that we must celebrate and seek out men who breathe Women Ed in their values and conduct, like Chris. It’s my opinion that we should also celebrate when well intentioned men ‘get it wrong’ or when the light bulb that has gone off is that women might actually be people after all. Progress is progress, after all.
Dr Kay Fuller closed the event in Nottingham by emphasising Women Ed is not just for us but, perhaps more importantly, for the next generation and she’s so right. I made the mistake two years ago of thinking Women Ed was about discussion of feminist issues in education but that’s only partly true.
The women involved in the movement are living life as feminist leaders (whether they’d use that label or not). They are loud. They are tall. They don’t suffer fools. They ask outright for fair pay. They are strong. They are individual. They are fun and they are free in ways that women even 50 years could only dream of.
In the words of the awesome Charmaine Roche we must all seek now to ‘live it, embody it’. She and so many others have created powerful footsteps for women to use as a guide as they move forwards on their own leadership journeys. I thank her and all involved with Women Ed for making me even more determined to be the kind of leader that I would want the young women I see in my classroom every single day to one day become.