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.