'And what is your wife's name?' 'William,' I said

17th May 2013 at 01:00
Until that moment, the job interview had been going so well. But what would have happened if the candidate had answered 'Mary'?

"And what is your wife's name?" On the surface, this seems a perfectly reasonable question. I was asked it when talking to a small group of people with a common point of interest: their school and, specifically, their need to appoint a new principal.

In fact, I was a candidate for the role of principal at their small, private preparatory school for three- to 13-year-olds in southeast England. I sat before a panel of school governors, the group who would decide whether or not to appoint me. At this point, I had already had a tour of the premises from the outgoing principal, and a full and frank conversation with him. What passed between us had not been enough to put me off. In fact, I was feeling enthusiastic.

I had been asked to give a presentation on "What makes a prep school great" - to summarise, I explained that I would make it great. After this was a general discussion, which touched on why I had switched from being a scientist to being a teacher. This struck a chord with one of the five panel members, who had done something similar himself.

The "in-tray" exercise, designed to assess how I performed in a simulated real-life situation, went well and I even got the panel to agree how artificial the test was. Great, I thought to myself, they are doing my bidding - and this is just the interview.

Things really seemed to be going my way as we started to wind down. At this point, the chair of the panel told me that the following Saturday the school would be hosting a lunch with the shortlisted candidates, and asked if my wife would be coming with me. I hesitated before replying that I did not have a wife but a partner. "Oh," the panel chair said, "but I see that you're wearing a wedding ring," and then mumbled something about "this modern notion of partners".

He persisted: "And what is your wife's name?"

"William," I responded.

"Mary?" asked the chair.


By this point, there was a palpable frisson in the room. The chair asked for William's surname, which I happily provided.

It was then explained to me by a governor that the school had a "family" outlook and that my partner would be expected to accompany me to functions. My partner, I explained, owns his own business and only works for three days a week; he would be very willing to attend.

Interested to find out what form the recruitment process would take, I asked the chair the standard interviewee question: "What happens next?"

His response seemed to smack of backtracking. "We will be deciding the shortlist from a very strong field."

I was not surprised when I discovered that I had not made the cut.

'Our decisions were not discriminatory'

As I hope has become apparent, I am a gay man. But what is not obvious is that I have been in a loving, stable relationship for 24 years, and that my partner and I have a large extended family.

I decided to challenge the selection panel over the validity of their decision-making process via email and snail mail, just in case the World Wide Web hadn't quite reached their part of the world. To my surprise, the chair of the panel emailed me an extensive reply.

The following extract is perhaps the best example of the discrimination I felt I was subject to: "You asked for assurance that any decisions we took were not discriminatory. I can assure you that we took no account whatsoever of the partner arrangements of any of the candidates.

"At some stage during the two days I did ask the governors if they thought there would be any preference among parents as to whether we should appoint a single man, a single lady, a man with a wife, a lady with a husband, a man with a female partner, a man with a male partner, a lady with a male partner or a lady with a female partner.

"They all felt that no parents would worry about this and so I can assure you that these possibilities did not form any part of our discussions."

I hope that any employment lawyers reading this can help me to unpick the implications contained therein.

The chair of governors was on the selection panel, too, and, having received the same letter, telephoned to invite me to the second-round interview, "in the interests of complete transparency". What should I have done? In the end, I declined.

I am deputy principal of a central London school, where I am "out" to my colleagues. I have been trying to get a job as a principal for five terms. This is only the second time that my sexuality has been outed at an interview, but nonetheless I am beginning to wonder how the laws of equality are supporting me.

As a final thought, my current boss forwarded me an email from the chair of the selection panel, thanking her for my reference and stating: "Clearly he is a strong candidate for the post."

I had not felt the need to disclose my sexuality until I was forced to by the question "And what is your wife's name?" What plays on my mind is, what would have happened if my answer really had been Mary?

Subsequently, the author, whose name has been withheld, was appointed principal of a central London school. He will take up the post in September

Need advice?

Visit the TESConnect jobseekers' forum, where careers expert Theodora Griff answers questions and offers advice.


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