Throughout the pandemic, female leaders have demonstrated their capacity to do a better job than their male counterparts. According to the Harvard Business Review in December 2020, women were rated better than men at leading in a crisis.
Why, then, do notions of leadership continue to be tied to perceptions of masculinity?
In fact, being a successful school leader requires a combination of those traits usually seen as stereotypically masculine and feminine: strong and vulnerable; passionate and disciplined; fierce and compassionate. Many women already possess these opposing traits.
Societally, women have learnt to adapt for the benefit of others, often losing sight of themselves in the process. We must help emergent female leaders to be true to themselves and to feel comfortable in their own skin. And we must help them to see that developing into a strong leader is about accessing more fully those qualities they already possess.
Women have all the potential but we hold ourselves back. It’s not enough to say “be more courageous”. We must recognise that fear comes from centuries of gender stereotyping and our relationships with men – from intimate relationships to working relationships, to how we feel when we walk the streets.
And this hasn’t improved much over the years. The recent death of Sarah Everard, and the public response, has highlighted again that the plight of women is as relevant today as it’s always been. Despite the fight for equality, progress is slow and much of what was overt sexism or misogyny is now covert and therefore less challenged.
My appointment to headship became controversial because one influential male member of the panel challenged the decision. It was a female interviewer who ultimately called time on the challenge, saying: “She scored the highest in every panel. What more does she have to do?”
Crucially, this reflects the lengths that women must go to in order to break the glass ceiling – always having to do more than men to prove ourselves.
I have had the privilege of working with some incredible men, who truly understand the problems that women face – but these men are all too rare. More frequently, I have worked alongside men who have no understanding of female leaders and who dismiss our voices, ideas and opinions; men who gingerly attempt to conceal their deep-seated misogyny.
In my first years as a headteacher, I closed my door to four different external advisers because they had no understanding of how women lead, and wanted to patronise or exert power over me. Finally, I stood firm and appointed my own adviser: a wonderfully feminist man, who has been working with me for the past three years.
We need more feminist men. Men who work alongside women – not with the old narratives that attempt to dismiss who we are, but with a brave new narrative that seeks gender equality, not by changing women but by changing the image of leadership.
Flexible working is one of the ways in which organisations attempt to support working mothers, but this only scratches the surface of the wider issues women face. Flexible working should be one part of a much bigger conversation that supports women to make guilt-free choices about their career after having children – including talking about the benefits of having a successful working mother as a role model to children.
Menopause is another significant area, especially as women may reach leadership around that time in their life. Menopause is rarely discussed in the workplace but it should be: it can have both negative and positive effects on women’s working lives.
Simone de Beauvoir says that, as women approach 50, we are set free from the anxiety and mortification of relationships with men. Some of this is down to age and wisdom. But menopause plays its part, too, as the reduction in oestrogen changes our brain chemistry, making female insecurities become less dominant. We become less self-conscious and less reluctant to disagree and challenge.
My leadership team consists of seven women and one (feminist) man. We don’t work in silos; I don’t have a curriculum or pastoral deputy. All work is shared, so that when life brings challenges such as menopause, childcare or elderly parents, we can pick up each other’s work easily and offer support.
I want to employ women who carry out their work authentically, not by aping men. I find that nurturing my staff with an attitude of “we’re all in this together” has a huge impact on how women develop. It makes people feel safe and understood, so that women have the confidence to develop their true selves.
Working with women on their journey to leadership involves helping them to overcome fear and their uneasy relationship with power. Here is a selection of ways I try to do this:
Being a female school leader means we must look out for potential future female leaders, help them to diminish their fears, coach and guide them to a place of fearless self-confidence and make them part of the process towards gaining power.
We must be explicit about our experiences for the benefit of those who follow. Without open discussions and deep understanding, we have no hope of paying it forward.
As women continue in our quest for equality, female leaders in education must play their part by consciously and deliberately improving the situation for those behind us. We must create the space and conditions for female leaders to emerge.
Every woman who helps another woman to progress makes a change for the better. And this change benefits women everywhere.
Sam Gorse is head of Turton School, in Bolton