What I am learning about sexism

Sexism is draining. It’s the cumulative effect that matters. Until recently I would probably have said that I hadn’t really suffered from sexism – after all I’ve not done too badly, I thought – but I am now coming to realise that this is really about my resilience, not my experience. Maybe it has taken the prism of 50 years to help me see the patterns and realise just how bloody boring and draining the everyday experience of sexism is for the professional woman.

I was a clever child and the eldest of five siblings. Without any shadow of doubt the experiences of my early life helped me develop organisational, managerial and leadership skills; however what I was known for throughout the extended family was being “bossy”. 40 years further on this causes me a pain that I didn’t have then. As a child I thought it unfair that I was given responsibility and then criticised for rising to it, but I had no words to describe this. I saw a tweet early this year about the fact that only girls are ever called “bossy”.

My first early experience of promotion to Head of Department drew an anger from colleagues that came from nowhere.  It was worded such as “not been here long enough” and “one of the youngest staff” and it was pretty vitriolic. With hindsight I think this was about being young and female – wish I’d realised that at the time as it would have made it easier.

Being young and female for a professional is the “double whammy”.  I remember back in the 1990s that young men rising in the teaching profession were generally referred to as “Young Turks” and were seen as ambitious and “thrusting”, and a generally good, transformational thing for the system; the adjectives applied to us most frequently were “strident” and “pushy” (presumably the adult version of “bossy”). We were criticised for being emotional at the first sign of any emotion; and yet if unemotional we were “cold”. It is a hard trick to pull off trying to be warm but unemotional and, for me, impossible. I am driven and I am emotional – why are women not allowed to be both, when this would be high praise for a man?

I am ashamed to say I have laughed with colleagues about the fact it took me 12 interviews to get my first headship: actually that isn’t really funny. Oh there were some that were wrong for me and there were others where I performed badly, but I have one clear memory of being told on the debrief that it wasn’t clear why the governors hadn’t gone for me. It was clear to me – I was 8 months pregnant. On that occasion I knew the job was mine – I had been fantastic throughout the process – and I asked the panel if they wanted to ask me about my circumstances as I would be ready to take up post with my husband as our family carer. The panel didn’t want to go there due to equal opportunities! I am convinced that I finally got my first headship because the school was in such a mess no-one else wanted it; however, it was the best opportunity I could ever have had and made my name, so obviously “all is well that ends well”, isn’t it?

I have seen the gender balance in headship change this century. I was one of only 4 female secondary heads in the LA back in 2000; now at secondary heads meetings it looks like 50:50 split. It never feels to me like we experience discrimination within the profession except I am often the only woman in some forums I work in, and I don’t know why; I sometimes have my opinions ignored, only to hear them lauded as another colleague’s later – but that’s OK because it is the ideas that are important, isn’t it? Female heads talk about the “boys’ club” referring to a certain type of male head – sometimes in an affectionate way, but more usually in a resigned acceptance way. An excellent female colleague said to me recently “I’m trying not to see it as a boys’ club, Ros as that will undermine me.” And that is precisely how we cope – we choose not to see it, because if we see it for what it is and name it for what it is, then we undermine ourselves.

The worst sexism often comes from those who espouse otherwise. I’m not going to say too much about this for another 10 years, but I am beginning to realise that the language people use about successful women is completely different to that they use about men. I have allowed people who should know better get away with using words to describe me which they would never use about a man. I have been pretty rubbish at spotting sexism at the time I experience it and generally require hindsight so I’ve decided to train myself. The cumulative effect is just too draining so I think I’d rather deal with things as they arise now.


About rosmcm1962

30 years in teaching. Experienced Headteacher, Principal, Executive Principal, CEO of Academy Trust and NLE. Now working independently in the sector.
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15 Responses to What I am learning about sexism

  1. Beccy says:

    All accurately observed and a good recognition of your experience. Obviously, how you deal with your new insight is up to you. I think the important next step is to make sure you don’t pass it on. This is an extensive problem that women are subjected to from a very young age. At the age of three I became a main carer for my same age adopted sibling. I looked after him, played for endless hours what I can now see was quite carefully constructed play therapy, tried to protect him from behaviours which would lead to beatings (often for us both), and when the teachers could not cope with his behaviour they sat him next to me. The latter being something I have seen done by teachers, schools and local councils dozens of times since and something that makes me very angry. But I find barely anyone who will acknowledge this achievement or the emotional sensitivity, intuition or intelligence that it created. Most of the useful information gained from this extra emotional capacity is ignored and belittled as people can not accept it as helpful insight, often until it is too late for it to be of use. I believe the term for this is transgressive.

    Little girls have good qualities, boys skills. It starts this young. We should really think about how hard and for how long girls and boys work to learn their caring and empathic skills and how society would disintegrate without them. Sexism profoundly affects our lives.

    Add disability and limiting illnesses into the mix and you will begin to see people who are in short brutalised and impoverished by their situation. As a result of a project to encourage students to respect the cleaning staff at my school I have been able to get to know them well, which has been a real privilege. Speaking to the women who clean my school is what really keeps my own experiences in perspective. They are my heroes at the moment.

  2. Jude Enright says:

    This is a thoughtful blog. I joined education in my late twenties after some years in the corporate environment, where playing golf and drinking hard were a massive asset. In my experience of education I think there are very strong networks that cut across gender boundaries, and we are blessed with our colleagues. But I agree that when it comes to governing bodies, both strong women (and quiet men?) may face difficulties in securing headship. As a Deputy, I am in a tricky position that my partner has a full on full time job, which means I am having to think carefully whether I can apply for headships. I am sure I am not alone in this!

  3. Thank you. Needed saying!

    Do you think we sometimes are hampered by equal opportunity legislation? The governors may have wondered what would happen when you had a baby and that would be a legitimate thing for them to be worried about. Although you told them you were very happy to answer they didn’t want to go there!

  4. rosmcm1962 says:

    I think that the people who espouse equal pops are often the very worst. There is something going on about hiding behind the letter of the laws rather than e,bracing the spirit. I have much to say on this but not yet!

  5. jillberry102 says:

    Thanks for writing this, Ros. I have lots of thoughts about this – party because three of the six schools I worked in were all girls’ schools (with predominantly female staff) and how best to prepare the girls of today to be the women of tomorrow was always a live issue. I was also always committed to ensuring women who had leadership potential fully recognised that and, if they chose not to act on it, that was a conscious choice rather than because of any lack of conviction or confidence. In my experience, most of the men who had that potential didn’t need any further encouragement!

    Have you read Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’? She has interesting things to say about the concept of ‘bossy’! I can strongly recommend it if you haven’t read it.

    Would love to talk about this when next we meet to put the world to rights over a whisky or two!

    • rosmcm1962 says:

      You are the second person to recommend Sheryl Sandberg so will take a look. We shall definitely enjoy a further discussion over a whiskey? You going to the conference again this June?

      • jillberry102 says:

        Yes – am planning to. Hope to see you there, then, if not before. Will be very interested to know what you think of ‘Lean In’. I enjoyed it more, and got more out of it, than I expected to. She’s come in for quite a lot of criticism (inevitably), but I actually think it’s a well-balanced treatment of a sensitive subject.

        Have a great Christmas, Ros.

  6. Lindymanc says:

    3 times (once as Senior Teacher and twice as Deputy Head) I heard it remarked that I’d only got the job because I was pretty and blonde. All three Headteachers who appointed me were male.

    • rosmcm1962 says:

      And you ignored and got on proving them wrong …….. and so on and so on. The thing that sparked me to write this was funnily enough this week’s The Apprentice when a woman (!) accused another one of being “too professional – where’s the real you?”. Something snapped in me! Now I need to stop reflecting and wait until retirement to write Part 2!

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  8. marion long says:

    Thank you Ros for writing about this. It’s really inspiring to read your post and also all the comments and replies. Boys clubs in my view are highly toxic, fuelled almost entirely by gossip.

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