Supermodels and navel-gazing

10th May 1996 at 01:00
How do women manage? Rosemary Litawski and Kate Myers consider views from both sides of the glass ceiling

DANCING ON THE CEILING: A STUDY OF WOMEN MANAGERS IN EDUCATION. By Valerie Hall, Paul Chapman Publishing Pounds 15.95

Valerie Hall's book is about leadership and gender. It presents the female world of school administration, and aims to correct the androcentrism of most descriptions of the educational manager.

Much has been written about the glass ceiling that acts as a barrier to women's career development in education and elsewhere. What happens when women break through the ceiling and become leaders, not followers? What happens when women are in a position to make the dance floor their own?

This is a study of women headteachers to examine, whether as leaders of the dance, they changed or modified the steps. The feminists challenge the assumptions of the market-led education system and the patriarchal masculine drive to power that underpins it.

Valerie Hall uses observation and interviews to show what managing and leading schools in Britain looks like from women's perspectives. She bases her research on three primary and three secondary heads, who have all been in post since the 1988 Education Reform Act. She describes how they became heads and how they respond to the demands of the job. She argues that to understand them as heads it is necessary to understand them as women: their roots in childhood and their educational career experiences that cannot be divorced from their gender.

Her focus is their practical educational leadership, which has many common features even though the six are individuals in six different schools.

Hall's observations and account "strongly refutes the notion that making the dance floor their own meant dancing like a man". They are the choreographers.

A picture emerges of strong leadership within a collaborative framework. The heads take the lead when appropriate in a climate of caring and reciprocal relationships. They seek to act with others rather than exert power. They resist the push towards corporate managerialism that Government reforms have instigated. Predominantly their actions are collaborative rather than directive. They judge their professional success in terms of success as a teacher, then manager, then leader.

This is an easy and fascinating book to read. I have a personal interest both as a female head and because I was in Bristol at the time of Hall's research. However, descriptions of such "single-mindedness and total commitment" leave me feeling inadequate. Hall mentions in passing that one of her headteachers commutes weekly from her family home - not the sort of sacrifice that many women or men are prepared to make.

As a collection of positive role models intended to empower others, the book backfires. Just as the heads interviewed left their colleagues with the impression that headship requires superhuman skills, the book itself leaves me, a mere "ordinary" head, with similar feelings of inferiority.

Hall polemicises about how one woman's power is another man's impotence. Such superwomen are not just a threat to the male ego, but to all aspiring females.

* Rosemary Litawski is headteacher of Mereway Upper School, Northampton

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