‘Put the kettle on, love’: sexism in leadership

Heard the one about the female trust boss who was mistaken for a PA? Will Hazell lifts the lid on the prejudice suffered by women leading our schools
19th October 2017, 12:00am
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Will Hazell


‘Put the kettle on, love’: sexism in leadership


Being the boss of a multi-academy trust involves grappling with high-stakes accountability, the demands of regional schools commissioners and tightening budgets.

But some MAT chief executives say that they are also having to battle against the additional challenges of gender stereotyping and sexism.

Claire-Marie Cuthbert says she was the youngest female MAT CEO in the country when she was appointed as the boss of The Evolve Trust in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, last year at the age of 35.

Speaking at the WomenEd Unconference last month, she shared an experience she had shortly after becoming CEO. At her first MAT CEOs' network event, one male leader mistook her for a tealady, saying "Could you go and put the kettle on for us, love? Milk and two sugars."

She said she also discovered that there was a separate "big boys' network" in the region -exclusively made up of male CEOs running big school chains - which, she understood, was meeting in "secret".

Cuthbert turned up to one of the meetings, she said, but was then left off the round-robin email sent to all the other members ahead of the next meeting. She said it was not the first time that she had experienced prejudice during her career.

Her first application for a headship resulted in her being shortlisted with one other candidate for a position at a school in a mining village in Co Durham.

Women in education 'need to be brave'

But she did not get the job. "The feedback that I got was that they felt that the mining community would be 'more aligned to that of a male figurehead than that of a female one'," she said. "I didn't go for headship for a long, long time after that because I thought at the time, 'You need to be a man.'"

However, speaking at the conference, she urged female colleagues to be "10 per cent braver" by putting themselves forward for leadership positions. "I [now] get to effect change on a bigger scale," she said. "If I had just sat back eight, nine years ago and let that feedback [from the Durham school] affect me, I would never be where I am today."

Warnings that female education leaders face particular challenges are nothing new. In August, Tes revealed a gender pay gap in headteacher salaries, with male heads of primary academies earning on average 6.2 per cent more than their female counterparts.

Helena Marsh is head of Chilford Hundred Education Trust, a Cambridgeshire MAT, and also one of the founders of WomenEd - a grassroots movement aimed at connecting female leaders. "I've had situations where people have thought I was my PA and the gentleman who was with me - an admin person - was the headteacher," she tells Tes.

However, in Marsh's Eastern region, where there are a number of prominent female CEOs, she says: "I certainly feel as though I'm given a seat at the table, I'm listened to.

"Actually, some of the most supportive colleagues that I've had … have been some of those male headteachers and male CEOs."

Still, she thinks WomenEd adds a "voice of challenge" to "pockets of covert sexism".

Earlier this year one of the most high-profile female MAT CEOs, Ark's Lucy Heller, told Tes that trusts needed to do more to ensure that their staffing reflected "the communities that they serve".

Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner has gone further, calling for "hard targets" to create a better balance of under-represented groups in education.

Speaking at the Education Britain Summit in Manchester earlier this month, she said these targets would "make sure that we recruited people from different ethnic minority backgrounds" as well as "more women".

But, she said, they would also help to recruit more men into primary schools "because we don't have enough primary school teachers who are male".

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