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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


International Women’s Day: we are going to need bigger tables

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 8 March 2016

Karen Edge
Writing about gender on International Women’s Day, or any day for that matter, is rather nerve wracking. Am I leaning in, too much? Will I annoy anyone? Should I keep the tone personal or academic? How much of myself am I willing to share? Will I simply become that person who is always talking about gender?
However, in light of #IWD2016, if there is any day to speak up, it is today. So, without  further ado, here is your long read courtesy of the IOE blog. Go!
The beginnings
In school in Ottawa, Canada, I never remember thinking there was much of a difference between boys and girls. The top set for math always had equal numbers of boys and girls. Fast forward to university. I studied biology and environmental science and again never felt much difference between men and women students in our expectations, outcomes or opportunities. In my last year, the Chilly Climate Report  examined the status of women in Canadian universities. At that point I reflected on who taught my courses: great scholars and teachers. All men. However, the equal ambition for all students remained constant.
Through graduate school and working in government, I was always the youngest woman at the table, but I always felt accepted as a colleague, a person and an equal – even when my age and experience should have placed me on the bottom rung of any ladder. Consistently, I experienced organisations and teams where a lack of hierarchy was combined with a focus on achievement. Gender was irrelevant. I just assumed this was the way of the world. While colleagues studied gender and leadership or gender in higher education, I pursued my work without truly taking into account the range of lived experiences of my participants and colleagues due to gender. Because I had been in effect ‘genderless’. Never had who I was impeded my ability to simply be in school, at university or at work.

Transnational reflections
When I moved to England, I was quickly and rather deeply surprised at how palpable gender divisions were. They appeared not just in universities but also in schools. In England, for the first time, I was not just a scholar, I was a woman scholar. I was not just a scholar but a Canadian scholar. I was, even with all my privilege and whiteness, ‘othered’. I was even more shocked and worried that, if I was having these experiences, colleagues and leaders who identify as BME, LGBTQ and from countries more ‘different’ from the UK than Canada, may be having an even more unsettling experience. Something was amiss.
It took me some time to understand what I was experiencing. For many years, I quietly sat on the gender side-lines – both unwilling and uncertain about how best to speak up. Possibly, I was also worried that voicing concerns or engaging in advocacy could have a detrimental influence on my own career. My silence was, at least partially, due to my shock that well into the 2000s it was still possible to experience sexism.
It begged the questions: How much time was being wasted as countless individuals tried to make sense of similar experiences? How many people were facing closed doors of opportunity? How much insight, experience and brainpower was being lost in the quest to solve the problems of the day. I began to worry, deeply, about who was not being invited to sit at the proverbial leadership top table and the effect those absences have on our collective ability to truly be great as schools, organisations and nations.
The leap
Thinking back, my subtle leap off the bench and onto the gender and leadership field occurred in three quick steps. First, in 2010, I was pregnant with Isaac. Being pregnant made me acutely aware of many issues related to work and parenthood in the UK. I was shocked to learn that in the UK annually over 50,000 women lose their jobs or are more subtly discriminated against. I believed it must be a statistical error, until several friends were conveniently re-organised out of jobs during their maternity leaves in the public and private sectors. I became worried.
Second, by happenstance I found Sylvia Ann Hewlett and the Centre for Talent Innovation; research; and advocacy work around On Ramps and Off Ramps for leaders to re-enter the workforce after career breaks. The rising tide of mainstream discussions of women, work and leadership happened quite quickly. First, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, spelling out of the current context of women and work and calling for women to step in and up to leadership roles. Then, the ground-breaking article by Prof Anne-Marie Slaughter arguing that women can’t have it all. They reinvigorated discussions of women, work and leadership from various perspectives. I became intrigued.
Finally, our Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) study of Generation X school leaders in Global Cities involved more than 60 leaders under 40. We explored their careers, work, lives and ambitions and were quite shocked to reveal substantial differences, especially in the UK, in how women leaders were experiencing the hiring process, gaining opportunities and navigating their careers. Women leaders say there is a lack of role models – extraordinary leaders who are real people with lives outside of school. Leaders also wanted to see real live women leaders who had small children – a rarity in London and something that we have come to believe is hindering recruitment efforts. Women leaders were talking about opting out of the profession because they could not see themselves in the role. I became angry.
This is when I leapt off the bench. With funding from The British Educational Leadership Management and Administration Society’s (BELMAS) Gender and Leadership Research Interest Group, we co-hosted a Women in Leadership conference to bring together school and policy leaders* to create strategies for moving forward. We are proud to be a founding member of the Leading Women’s Alliance, an advocacy organisation to support women into headship, which has launched a pledge today to boost the recruitment of women leaders. We are also working with several groups of schools on their DFE funded gender and equity projects.
Meanwhile, colleagues and friends have come together to support each other, wider groups of colleagues and champion the need for open and active discussion about women in leadership. The Esteem Journal at Columbia University and online twitter chats have continued to push the discussions forward**.
Now that we are actively in the game, our current work with and for women leaders in schools centres around four propositions:
Proposition 1. Calling all role models: Leader actions to enhance recruitment
Leaders in our study are seeking role models. We believe role modelling in 2016 involves three things. First, simply being able to see people like you in the role. When we can see people who have similar backgrounds, families and experiences, it makes leadership seem possible. Second, we need leaders to consider how they are projecting their work and their role. If leaders of today do not express their love for their roles, constantly look harried and make the role look undoable or unattractive, no one will want it. We will tell leaders now that the solution to the retention crisis lies, in part, in their actions and overt expressions of leadership. A leader who can share the ups and downs of the role as well as their enjoyment of it, may inspire others to give it a try.
Proposition 2. Diversify your talent spotting: We can each choose to change the ratio
Every time you encourage a colleague to step up or suggest that someone may be ready or right for leadership, you are creating the future pool of talent. Every time you hire someone, you have choices to make about the best candidate for the role but also the best cadre of leaders across your whole organisation. When leaders are willing to make positive and reflective change, it makes a statement. You need to look no further than Justin Trudeau, the new Canadian Prime Minister, and the announcement of gender parity in Ministerial appointments. When asked why by a reporter, he simply responded: ‘Because it is 2015.’ It is time for all of us to consider what we can do to change the ratios and ensure that our leadership teams are more diverse and representative.
Proposition 3. Addressing implicit work/life balance hierarchy: Everyone deserves a life
We have become painfully aware of discussions of work/life balance centring on work/family balance or focusing on women with children. We found ‘a hierarchy of permitted work/life balance’ or differences in who is perceived to deserve balance. For women, from most deserving to least: women with families, women with caring responsibilities; women with partners; followed by single women. We think this is wrong, everyone deserves a life beyond school and work.
Proposition 4. Respecting choices and a lack of choices: Women leaders need our support
Throughout our study, and now as we join the ranks of advocates, we are very mindful of one of the most hurtful, divisive and unmentioned issues in women in leadership discussions. All too often, in my opinion, discussions of women in leadership centre on women and work/life balance with a focus on children. This needs to end for two reasons. First, we need to respect women who have chosen a full life and career without children. They equally deserve work/life balance and need it. Full stop! Second, not everyone without children is without them by choice. Making that assumption is painful and divisive and constantly talking about work/life and children needs to end.
Final thoughts
Today may be international women’s day but tomorrow and the 363 days that follow require the same intensity, scrutiny and focus on the issues. If you sit atop your organisation, ask not only, ‘what can I do today to nurture the future leaders of tomorrow?’ but more importantly, ‘am I shoulder tapping, nudging and encouraging a diverse cadre of future leaders?’ Our discussions of women and leadership are not just about equality of access to opportunity for women. They’re about creating opportunities, encouragement, access and support for ALL women.
Diverse leadership teams have diverse experiences to draw on when tackling big issues. We, collectively, need everyone at the leadership table to truly make the most of our collective insight and abilities to solve the challenges facing our schools, cities and countries. To cheekily borrow from a great British film actress, if we get it right: “we are going to need some bigger…” tables!
*From Future Leaders, the Association for School and College Leaders (ASCL), the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), the National Governors’ Association (NGA) and other organisations.
**With the risk of missing many, those we need to collectively thank include, for starters:
@carolcampbell4 @jessicaringrose @almaharris1 @MichelleSJones1 @DrKatinaPollock @HortonJuliet @CEOScel @drbeckyallen @KateChhatwal@cjproflead @leoracruddas @julieslater @SianCarr @lizzierobinson3 @womened @stringer_andrea @nicolambrewer

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