How do you feel about feminism? Have you ever called yourself a feminist?
I had the privilege yesterday of attending (and presenting at) a conference looking at Women in Education, called the WomenED Unconference. My feelings about the conference in some ways mirrored my feelings about feminism: it sounded like a no-brainer, but I was concerned it might end up being a) uncomfortably touchy-feely or b)angry and man-bashy. I knew one thing though: I was intrigued. Before the conference, I checked with the organisers that men were allowed. Their reply that men were both allowed and ‘encouraged’ reassured me that this wouldn’t just be another case of women ironically ‘doing the thing they were moaning about’.
With no idea what to expect, I turned up to Microsoft HQ in London, which was the sponsor for the event. A bevy of women of all sizes, shapes, colours and ages gathered. (Well, not exactly, but a reasonable cross-section, in my opinion.) I looked around for the men. I saw two, maybe three.
We entered the main auditorium for the initial speeches and some of my fears about being uncomfortable began to grow. In the introduction, we were told that the company sponsoring the event had kindly provided the venue, food and drinks and the crowd applauded as we were told to ‘thank the man who paid for it all’. Did this not feel slightly ironic to anyone else? I have no doubt that (good) conferences cost money, and that the chance to be sponsored by such a high profile company must have seemed like an amazing opportunity for WomenED. But to put it in those terms smacked, to me, of something ever-so-slightly off. Perhaps I was being too sensitive.
Philip, the Microsoft representative for the day, took to the floor to much applause. He asked us to get to our feet and my sense of unease increased tenfold. So unfolded the oddest three minutes of my life for a while (and, to give you a benchmark, I’m currently researching erotica). We clapped and stomped and he rapped. A roomful of women who were there to dispute the male domination of education obediently got their feet and shouted words like ‘fun!’ while a man rapped about what an enormous corporation could do for THEM. I hate to think that it helped that he was attractive, but I’m still struggling to find reasons why this happened. Is it because we were all being polite? Didn’t want to make a fuss? Didn’t see the sinister/ridiculous side? And, horribly, aren’t those all the reasons women have been historically steamrollered into subordinance?
Luckily, the next speaker was Sue Cowley and she immediately put everyone at ease by explaining her fears about speaking. There’s something very ‘meta’ about listening to someone speaking about thinking about speaking and, whilst I think it was right for this audience, the sentiment of ‘be 10% braver’ which seemed to recur throughout the day (‘Women….just do it! Stop waiting! Take the leap!) never resonated with me. I’ve never had a problem taking the leap, it seems entirely logical that trying things is the first step to (sometimes) achieving things. What has always been more of an issue is the idiots I have to encounter in the process. I darkly wonder if we are perpetuating this view by repeating it, that by saying to women ‘ignore the demons that tell you you’re not good enough’ we’re actually summoning them. “Everyone else has these fears and doubts? ” you think. “That’s normal,” you think. “I’m not good enough either” you begin to think, a little like the child who hear only the last three words of ‘Don’t touch the cookies’.
Sue’s speech went down excellently and she finished by standing to recite the lyrics of ‘I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar’, a song she confessed had always held deep feelings for her. As she joked about not singing the song ‘because I’ll clear the room’ someone shouted ‘BE BRAVE!’. Sue gamely sang it.
I absolutely shuddered. Why? I cannot express how strongly I feel about this: this is not what we need to be brave about. Singing a song in front of an audience merely because it scares you achieves nothing beyond, perhaps, giving you a sense of achievement. It might even cause the audience to respect you a little more (but often the opposite). But being brave is not about the things that don’t matter, it’s about the things that do. Be brave enough to apply for that job, be brave enough to tell someone they’re sexually harrassing you, be brave enough to write that book (something Sue did talk about, excellently). But singing? It’s not changing the world. It’s not even changing you. I would argue that you only have so much energy for acts of courage. Save them for the things that make a difference.
The theme of ‘making a fool of yourself’ continued in other sessions, too, where audience participation, wearing silly wigs, being photographed whilst dancing or completing blindfold tasks was meant to illustrate ‘vulnerability’. I feel this in entirely missing the point – we are all adults, we have all felt vulnerable, we understand that this should not preclude us from leadership. All these activities do is alienate people, like me, who want to be a quiet revolutionary, a leader who enjoys working on their own, or a strategic planner who discusses publicly only when they have carefully thought things out privately. ‘Support through networking’ is important, and this was one of the aims of the day, but we must acknowledge that plenty of people don’t need this constant cheerleading from others, and indeed find it irritating and distracting.
But there was hope. In a session dedicated to discussing barriers to headship, we heard from headteachers who understood that different leadership styles exists, that not everyone has to be a crowd-pleaser to be competent or confident. There was much more room for individuality here; I could see the penny drop for women who could see themselves fulfilling leadership positions despite what they might feel were the parts of themselves that didn’t conform to the ‘headteacher’ model. I was just beginning to relax when talk moved on to interviews for headship and we were told how one woman – bright, articulate, committed, passionate – felt she had to dial down her enthusiasm and drive during interview, for fear she’d look ‘desperate’. She had to pretend to be more ‘measured’, because otherwise they would not have employed her. This is where we are: we are beginning to realise that leaders look and sound different, can have different styles and still be excellent. Unfortunately, we are still forcing people into a mould at interview, denying that principle. Why?
I attended talks and chatted to people all day and was thrilled with the level of support and open discussion that was had. Despite my reservations, there was an overwhelming positive atmosphere and I saw so many women’s faces light up as they realised they WERE that headteacher they had been waiting to blossom into. I spoke with women who were considering having children and were honestly weighing up their choices with other women who had been there. I met older women in authority and thought ‘You’re like me’. I saw the warmth that women could have with each other when they felt free to be so.
Was that because there were very few men there, and did it have to be so? I don’t think so. At the end, I spoke with one of the men who had attended, who told me that plenty of men had been invited, but most chose not to go (or in some cases, just didn’t turn up). He also told me that he didn’t think the women at the conference would have been able to talk as freely or emotionally if men had been there. You may have guessed my reaction at this point.
If that really was the case (and it doesn’t apply to me, but I allow that others may feel differently) then that is exactly why the men should have been there. If we really feel we are inhibited in the presence of the male gaze to the point where we can’t be honest about our fertility and our want to work part-time (or not) and our fears about leadership (or not) then this is EXACTLY what we should do: have those conversations. That’s being 10% braver.
A large proportion of the talks I attended seem to release frustrations about part-time working and fertility, ability to juggle family and other priorities. Many women felt that it was difficult to talk to male colleagues about these issues. In my opinion, that’s sexist, and it’s only increasing the honesty and quality of communication about these issues that will fight the taboos and make them a normal part of being employed as a teacher. Sarah Hardy spoke eloquently about her experiences having a child whilst working as a member of SLT and running a school and she compared her school’s response to her requirements for time off for IVF to her husband’s organisation, who already had a policy in place. Now Sarah’s school has too, because she blazed that trail.
It was interesting to hear women talk about their experiences of being judged and criticised by other women, and the call to be nicer to each other (which always helps). I was also concerned about writing this piece, which isn’t completely supportive; but really being ‘nice’ to someone isn’t always in their best interests. As any of us who have ever managed teachers knows, support includes challenging and constructively criticising, and it is in this spirit that I am writing today. ‘In order to change, we have to challenge’ was one of the key messages of the conference, and with this is mind I’d like to offer my thoughts on what could change next year.
Firstly, please consider the idea that some people should be allowed and enouraged to ‘opt-out’ of things they do no wish to participate in, like Jill’s friend who ‘wanted to bite herself’ when asked to meditate. (Jill did this, very well). I completely emphathise. Allow people to volunteer or participate if they wish, but respect their right to say ‘no’. For me, that’s extremely central to the principles of feminism and shouldn’t need defending.
Secondly, let’s make some concrete changes next time. Philip asked me at the end of the conference: ‘What has changed?’ and I thought: things that are important but non-measurable or intangible, like attitudes and minds (which is not to be downplayed). But the power of all these people together in one place could be utilised better, I think. I loved the ‘gendered cheese’ presentation, where we all gasped in horror at pictures of gendered items that had no business being gendered. So let’s do something about it: ask every person in the room to find, photograph, and complain about a similar item in the next week. Make humorous signs that we can give out and use when we see these things in retailers. Something – anything – which isn’t just horror and shock and laughter, but a response which says ‘don’t mess with US, sunshine’ rather than ‘oh dear, how awful’.
That was just one example. Another might be a series of small changes we can all make, and encourage others to make, in our classrooms and schools around the country, such as a pledge NEVER to say implicitly or explicitly that girls are bad at maths, ever again (you’d be surprised how this is perpetuated). Or all commit to a particular response to sexism in schools, so that we can start challenging it, politely but firmly. (It’s also surprising how hard it is to do this, and I think some sort of stock phrase might help). I’m sure that collectively, we have the solutions to many of the problems specific to women educators, and more widely to help support feminism amongst the thousands of young people we are all in contact with.
Thirdly, I would love it if we could set up a way of professional networking (perhaps using the WomenED website) so we can join up all the progressive headteachers with all the amazing women who want to contribute, but have been blocked by sexism or prejudice. What better time for them to meet than at the Unconference?
Finally – please don’t let a company, however disarmingly friendly the human face of it may be, try and make me clap along to a rap, ever again. Let’s do this on our own terms.