A tale of two glass ceilings: how can we shatter them?

12th May 2017 at 00:00
Is there a glass ceiling in schools? Research suggests so. Here, two female heads from neighbouring state and independent schools compare their experiences

Sarah Thomas

Headteacher of Bryanston School in Dorset

Some 30 years ago, as a “top public school” welcomed its first cohort of young female teachers, a remark was overheard: “I see the decorations have arrived”. It wasn’t the pupils talking. This was acceptable in the 1980s for a certain type of male teacher – a breed, hopefully, which is now long-extinct.

Twenty-five years ago, I was appointed Housemistress of a girls’ boarding house, which had been memorably run by a very charismatic man and his wonderful wife. Many colleagues were unconvinced that a woman was up to the job. My line manager put it to me succinctly: “If a woman mucks it up, all the senior team will suck their teeth and say: ‘She mucked it up. We’d better not appoint another woman.’ When did you last hear the same thing said of a man? Just don’t muck it up, Sarah...”

In the years since then, I’ve been a head of sixth form, a deputy head and have now been a head for 12 years. And I’ve never felt that I’ve been discriminated against. Instead, I’ve been given wonderful opportunities because I’ve met the right people at the right time. And that’s quite apart from my gender.

I have, however, been asked unanswerable questions. “Are you the deputy only for the girls?” (from the wife of a governor). “What does it feel like being the first female deputy at Uppingham/head at Bryanston?” (I’ve no idea. I don’t know any different.) “What would your husband do all day? Wouldn’t he get bored?” (From an interviewer on a headship panel.) “Is there even a role for the Head’s Husband? Dennis Thatcher? Prince Philip?” “Will he do the flowers? Host coffee mornings?” (Er, not if you want to enjoy either of those things.)

Views that would be considered archaic in other industries sometimes persevered in independent schools; the good news is that I think there’s been much progress in this area over the last 30 years.

As a language which, unlike my teaching subject of Latin, does not decline, I think that English still presents a problem of nomenclature. In the maintained sector, gender-neutral terms such as headteacher and principal are much more commonly accepted than in mine and, believe it or not, such things continue to matter. For me, any title which includes the term “mistress” tends to evoke images of Alastair Simm (for those of you who remember the original St Trinian’s). When I was first interviewed for a headship 15 years ago, a governor got himself into such a knot trying to decide what to call me (“Headmistress? Oh dear. No. Headmaster? Ah, no. Headteacher? Mm. Not really”). When he asked me what would be the greatest challenge in running his august establishment, I suggested that finding a form of address he was comfortable with might be the first. Silence ensued.

If women in the independent sector had to deal with glass ceilings in the 1980s and 1990s, current numbers suggest they may still do, although things are definitely looking up. Women may instead suffer from “sticky floor” syndrome. If governors are now ready no longer to see appointing female heads as a risk, then I very much hope that women are ready no longer to worry about the risks of headship. Our schools undoubtedly require female and male role models as leaders. I would also like to see women consistently in top positions in our own professional and representative organisations. On that note, I’m delighted to see some active gender equity work being undertaken currently by HMC. Time for the second female chair of HMC? Where there’s a will...


Sally Wilson

Headteacher of The Blandford School in Dorset

A recent study by the University of Nottingham (April 2017) again focused on the proportion of women in teaching positions (64 per cent) compared to leadership roles (38 per cent) in secondary schools across the country as of 2015. The authors talk at length about social injustice, including inherent sexism in the system (based on the view that long-serving governors can stand in the way of equal opportunities and diversity).

The figures speak for themselves, but do we really believe sexist attitudes by schools and governing boards exist, or are the cause?

Over the course of 28 years in the profession I have never knowingly experienced prejudice – I say this proudly because it reflects well on the British education system.

The reason is, perhaps, that my career has taken in four heads, all of them male, who actively encouraged and supported my desire to rise through the ranks.

The first of these mentors, for example, was Dr Alan Leech at Bohunt School in Liphook, Hampshire. Alan was very influential in my early days (when CPD budgets could fund part-time masters degrees). His support and guidance gave me the confidence to apply for promotions internally at the school and, later, externally.

Since 2003, I have been head of The Blandford School, an 11-18, 1,300-place secondary school. I now find myself working with colleagues who have leadership and other career ambitions. I want to ensure that they receive the same coaching I was lucky enough to receive (regardless of gender).

One of the reasons for the Nottingham data is, I suspect, that the challenges of juggling a career, family and personal lives can be a difficult potential barrier to leadership applications. Recognising this and showing empathy and an understanding of these issues (as well as offering support in a crisis) can make a difference. I should add that it is not only women who may have to provide emergency childcare when a child becomes unwell, or need to assist an ill relative at short notice.

Heads and governors need to work together to ensure colleagues are able to enjoy a work-life balance (not always easy in such turbulent times) and enable women, in particular, to see they are able to have a career and a family. I work with many exceptionally talented colleagues and, although some women may choose to relinquish their leadership allowances after maternity leave, others have been supported in a variety of ways, including retaining their leadership allowances while working part-time.

The positive benefits to any organisation should be obvious to a modern 21st-century employer; we should all play our part in developing and embracing new ways of working to maximise talent in our schools. Leadership and family life should not be mutually exclusive.

Leadership is immensely exciting but also complex. Our role as headteachers and as role models has to be to promote talent, encourage resilience and provide opportunities for colleagues to experience the world of leadership so they feel empowered to apply for senior posts.

If heads and governors adopt this approach, women will choose to apply for promotion, be successful and shatter any residual notions of a glass ceiling.

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