Lucky me. I'm more woman than man;In the Director's chair;Opinion

11th June 1999 at 01:00
I have recently undergone a 360-degree appraisal. For the uninitiated, this involves being assessed by those below you as well as above in the organisational hierarchy, in my case, the education department of Newcastle City Council.

You might wonder whether my staff thought I had the personality of an axe murderer. Sadly, there will be no Jerry Springer-style revelations here, but one interesting point did emerge: apparently, my traits were more commonly found among women managers. Such a conclusion is not sexist stereotyping. Rather, it is based upon thousands of people who have undertaken this form of appraisal.

The traits commonly associated with men are: being direct, decisive, competitive, self-confident and prepared to take risks. Women are seen to be more empathetic, supportive and nurturing. They place greater emphasis on building relationships and sharing power and information.

This raises interesting questions for managers in schools. To what extent is such behaviour driven by nature or nurture? The evidence may be found as much in observing the actions of pupils as in watching the behaviours of managers. Research has shown that teachers will often unconsciously behave according to their underlying expectations of the different genders.

Early experiences of management can also be critical. For my own part, I have often wondered if the feminine characteristics of my management style have been shaped by my early working life as a primary teacher. For the first three years in teaching, I was the only man in a staff of 16. Since then, I have worked with many women - unlike in other local government offices, there is a preponderance of women in senior management positions in education departments.

This research is only useful if it alerts us to the fact that good managers in schools need a combination of so-called feminine and masculine traits. Good headteachers need the self confidence to make bold decisions and drive their schools forward. At the same time, building relationships with pupils and staff, encouraging professional development and sharing power are all equally important in meeting the demands on schools today.

The worry is that women managers will suppress their feminine traits in a mistaken belief that this is the only way to compete in a "man's world". We have all seen women managers who behave in the worst possible and stereotypical masculine manner. Equally clearly, there is a tendency for some male managers to downplay important traits such as empathy in case it is seen as a sign of weakness.

Women managers in schools have made great strides in recent years, but it would be naive to suggest that they have yet to come into their own. The percentage of female secondary heads would suggest that there is a long way to go. In addition, you would be hard pressed to suggest that men feel entirely comfortable in developing feminine traits in their management style.

The biggest problem we face is a shortage of good-quality candidates for deputy headships and headships. There should be no debate as to whether future school leaders are men or women. Good headteachers must possess both masculine and feminine traits as one is no better than the other.

From all of this I would draw two lessons. First, good headteachers need a battery of skills to become successful. To describe these as masculine or feminine traits is only a label and should not divert us from the vital task, which is to make our managers of tomorrow multi-skilled.

Second, good schools and authorities will do what they can to improve the career chances of women managers through effective career planning and appropriate mentoring and training.

Before you ask, yes, I lead by example, as the majority of senior positions where I work are held by women. No positive discrimination in Newcastle though. Rather, a recognition that the best managers are those that combine both the feminine and masculine.

* David Bell, a former headteacher, is director of education and libraries with Newcastle City Council

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