In celebration of #WomenEd I wanted to feature a post on leadership from a woman’s perspective which ruled me out of writing it. As I did so often in headship I turned to Julia to offer her thoughts, perspective and support. This is Julia’s story. It needs to be heard because of the quality of the person who wrote it. Her experiences are deeply personal but her insights have a wider truth. In short Julia was and is a class act.
“What is bettre than wisdom? Womman. And what is bettre than a good womman? No-thing.”
Geoffrey Chaucer 1340? – 1400
My name is Julia. I have just retired following 20 years in Senior Leadership, or Management as it was called then. It still comes as a surprise to me. For somebody who has never been particularly ambitious, I often wonder how I got there!
I started my career in a brand new school with, initially, just two year groups, 7 & 8. There were 19 staff in total. The headteacher was wonderful and totally dedicated to every aspect of ‘his’ school. My department consisted of just the Head of Department and myself – a great way to learn the job. He encouraged me at every turn. However, my real role model was the ‘female deputy head’. Highly respected by all, she was the one who could persuade, cajole and inspire. Not one to hold forth at length, but a woman who quietly stated her opinions, was utterly loyal to the leadership team and thoroughly professional in all her dealings. The commitment she promoted and instilled in others was exemplified in the way that, during the days of tight and inflexible budgets, she persuaded all staff, on a regular basis, to remain after school, on a Friday afternoon, to help out with jumble sales stalls in the sports hall, raising extra funds for the school. Not something I would like to ask staff to do these days! She was the one who united the staff and kept them all pulling in the same direction. She shared her senior leadership qualities with staff, through osmosis. A large proportion of women who worked under her, went on to take senior leadership posts.
During my second year at that school, I was most surprised when I was asked to take on the role of second in department. I hadn’t given any thought to my next step. It probably didn’t involve any extra responsibilities, but maybe reinforced the work I was already used to doing. A later headteacher used to say, that very often you get paid for the work you do now, in your next job. Reluctantly, during my third year at the school, I was obliged to follow my non-teaching husband to another area, as he had been given a promotion. Schools were more numerous than jobs in his profession.
I was lucky enough to find another job on the same level, and three years later, I was promoted to Head of Department at the same school. I was interviewed with three men. I thought I was the token woman. After about three years in this role, I had my first child and three years later, my second, each time taking six months maternity leave. Combining motherhood and a career is not easy, particularly when we had no family living nearby. My husband, fortunately, was great at sharing the duties. He tended to do mornings, so that I could get to work very early, and I picked the girls up in the afternoon. I had a wonderful childminder who was the essence of flexibility, even taking the girls to the doctor’s when an illness cropped up during the day. I used to build up brownie points with other parents whenever I could by offering to run their children, with mine, to all kinds of extra-curricular activities, when I was available, so that I was still in credit with them on the days that I needed to be at school.
A good support network is essential. I knew that if I wanted to be taken seriously, I couldn’t be frequently taking time off for childcare. My contributions had to be in on time. Deadlines had to be met. I wouldn’t give anyone an excuse to criticise. In the days before we all used computers and email, my girls spent many a day of the summer break, colouring or playing at the high school, while their mother got on with some work.
My girls laugh at me now, saying that they were never allowed to have time off school, but listening to my 27 year old, a hospital pharmacist, complain about the rate of absenteeism where she works, maybe I did pass on something. ‘Time off is for wimps!’ she says.
I spent over 10 years as Head of Department. I loved the work, loved the pupils and loved the department. My girls were growing up, so organising home life became easier in some ways, but maintaining credit with brownie points was just as manic. However, when the possibility of a new challenge came up, I decided to have a go. The role of Head of Sixth Form, at my school, was advertised. I had spent some years as a Sixth Form Tutor and found working with that age group very rewarding. Although, financially, the post was the same level as my current job, it did offer the advantage of being on the Senior Management Team.
How the picture suddenly grew. My eyes were opened. There seemed to be so many things going on that I had not been aware of previously. In school, there were two females in a senior management team of six. She and I had worked for some time in the school and were known to most staff. I never felt that as females, we were viewed any differently from the males. Disappointingly, and maybe slightly typical of times gone by, the whole team was judged by some, in terms of how quickly we would escalate an exclusion. A new deputy came to join us. He had many similar characteristics to my first ‘female deputy’. He worked quietly and creatively with various departments, helping them to improve performance in terms of grades and processes. When he left to become a headteacher, and I spotted the advertisement for the deputy’s post in his school, I applied like a shot. It was a good move.
Maybe I was just lucky? I seemed to move through my career gaining promotion where I was known.
I have tried to encourage young staff, as I was encouraged – to notice when they do something well and to build up their confidence. I chatted with a colleague recently who was about to begin her new role as a Head of Department. As I was on the point of retirement, I wanted her to know that I feel she has qualities that should take her into senior leadership in the future. Her reply was that she was in no rush – she wanted to be sure that she had accomplished each role thoroughly before moving on to the next. I wondered how far this was a personal view and how far it is a typical female response. She thought she might be reluctant to spend less time in the classroom, but I did point out to her, how much satisfaction it’s possible to achieve from watching and helping staff grow and develop, just as she did with the pupils.
Being a female senior leader brought many challenges, some of which were unexpected. Male bosses are keen to pass on such tasks as ‘having a quiet word’ with the young NQT who was completely unaware that the dress she was wearing became totally transparent in the sunshine!
What is certain is that women can have more than one chance at leadership roles. No one minds when a woman of 40+, having had children, applies for a senior role. The same is not necessarily true for a man of similar age. In my experience, the prevalence of men in senior leadership positions is less to do with bias or favouritism, but rather the lack of women applying for such posts. My biggest worry, though, is that there are so many good women, who get to head of department level, then go no further. Many have so much to offer. So what is the problem? There doesn’t seem to be any lack of opportunity to progress. Are these potential female leaders too cautious? Is it a lack of confidence? Is it the worry of spinning all the plates? Perhaps we all need to do more to encourage them to take up the challenge and realise their potential. Or maybe we need to help women redefine their potential and what’s possible.
“I must have women. Nothing unbends the mind like them.”
John Gay 1685-1732