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Women in Leadership: Clearing The Path

  • Leadership
Caroline Derbyshire 08 May, 2019

Women in Leadership: Clearing The Path

One of the best things I was did in my spare time last year was to drink lots of tea with Helena Marsh, fellow CEO and Executive Headteacher. The tea drinking was not the primary focus of our meetings in the coffee shops of Cambridgeshire. What we were really doing was co-writing a chapter in the new WomedEd book ’10% Braver’ edited by Vivienne Porritt and Keziah Featherstone. Our chapter is called ‘Flexing Our Schools’ and it encourages school leaders to take a positive approach to offering flexible working opportunities and in doing so describes the benefits of job-sharing and part-time working to all parties, but especially to employers who, in the past, have tended to overlook the way in which flexible approaches can retain excellent women in the workforce or tempt them to join it. The symbolism of job-sharing our chapter was part of the fun and the decision to leave our offices to write a book, as JK Rowling did, in a café, was a conscious one. Sometimes women just have to do things differently.

The world of secondary school leadership has not always been friendly to women. 62% of the teachers in secondary schools are women, yet only 39% of Secondary Headteachers are female. It is about time that those of us who have managed to navigate our way to school leadership, despite the obstacles that we have faced, do something to help those who are following in our wake and push that female Headteacher proportion up to the 62% it should be.

‘10% Braver’ describes those obstacles very clearly and encourages women to be a little more  demanding, rather more confident, a bit more ambitious. 10% more to be precise. In her Foreword, Dame Alison Peacock describe the book as a ‘game-changer’. I hope it will be. Far too many excellent women between the ages of 30 and 39 decide that school leadership is a step too far and 1 in 4 of them are quitting teaching altogether. The reasons for this are various. For some it is because they would rather be home-based mothers, but for a number it is because juggling demanding home and work commitments feels impossible. It is made to feel impossible by the rigid expectations of employers and the prevailing cultures in some schools. 

This last point about the culture in schools is a really significant one. I don’t think it would be untrue to say that most school leaders ‘notice’ the work that is done in front of their noses, rather than the work that is completed outside of school. Those whose fortunate personal circumstances allow them to stay late at school are conspicuous and hence (and wrongly) admired as more committed and conscientious than those who work at home and around their childcare. I have also noticed, to my horror, that some schools still celebrate a kind of martyrdom around working habits that is incompatible with any reasonable work-life balance. No wonder that so many choose to leave the profession if they find themselves working in these schools.

We have much to do to address this ongoing inequality. As a headteacher I do my best to encourage talented women to stay in education so that the system benefits from their leadership. Sometimes it is the small gestures that make all of the difference between a woman feeling that it is all become impossible so they have no option but to give up work entirely or feeling that it is worth persevering and asking for support. It helps that I have experienced those struggles myself as a working mother and can make myself their advocate. I challenge the ‘be seen and stay late’ working culture when I see it, I ignore those who comment that I have more women than men on my senior team (it is about 60/40, so actually a representative female/male proportion for teaching) and my flexible working policy states a commitment to giving serious consideration to all requests as an integral part of recruiting and retaining the very best staff. This last point about a Flexible Working Policy is something that all school leaders should address.

When I was in my thirties and applying for senior leadership, with two children under five and a busy working husband, I could have done with reading ‘10% Braver’. I would have known that what I was about to do was not impossible. It is utterly brilliant that we can now share our wisdom and experience with the world in a book like this and, more importantly, change the system so that bravery no longer needs to come into it.

Caroline Derbyshire