Assumptions – and why we need to continue to challenge them

by Tanya Hall @The RealTMH

A recent Twitter post by @AdamMGrant got me thinking about the assumptions associated with women in education: are 'women who assert their ideas, make direct requests, and advocate for themselves liked less' and are they 'less likely to get hired?'  So, I go back to my first promotion to 2nd in faculty – an internal post – where I was interviewed by the HOD and Headteacher. After being successfully appointed I was told later – quite some time later – that the headteacher had referred to me as a ‘firecracker.’ What did he mean by that?

At the time I remember laughing and thinking I must have made an impression on him. It didn’t cross my mind that he could have been suggesting that I am difficult to handle and fiery. And if that is what was implied where did that opinion come from? What had I done, or said, that led to it?

To answer that I need to think about 26 year old me: hard working, goal driven and unafraid of speaking up. Basically no different to how I am at 41 years old. So, what is it about those things that translated to me being a ‘firecracker?’ The assumption that my personality and work ethic equated to being aggressively ambitious, argumentative and disruptive.

And yet I can’t help but think if I were male I would have been seen as an assertive future leader – not a ‘firecracker.’

As I said before I am no different at 41 than I was at 26 and two promotions – and two schools – later I am unsure whether the assumptions of 15 years ago have gone away.Being HOD at a very successful secondary school the pressure to improve results year on year was intense. Leading a 95% female team that hadn’t seen a change in leadership – or practices – for a number of years was challenging enough, but when I sat down with the DHT and was told I should soften my personality to match the team I knew it was time to leave. My hard working, goal driven approach had not changed, nor had my lack of fear when it came to speaking out. Once again it seemed like the ‘firecracker’ was back, and the assumptions that came with it. Would a male HOD be asked to soften their approach – given that results had improved in the last two years? Somehow I don’t think so.

More recently I have heard myself referred to as a ‘wild card’ in reference to my current AHT role. What made me the ‘wild card?’ Was it my lack of experience at senior leadership level? Was it my age, compared to the other candidates? Or was it the fact that of the final 3 candidates I was the only woman? I always thought it was the first point but now I’m not so sure.

I feel like my eyes have been opened over the last 18 months through the blogs I’ve read, the online conferences I have attended and contributed to, as well as informative @WomenEd Twitter threads. This had led me to view things from a different perspective, and to consider the ‘why’s’ in a new way. I find myself questioning, and wondering the reason why:

  • In a reshuffle of senior leadership responsibilities it was only the 3 women who had things added to their already long list?
  • A male colleague was asked to take on the line management of a faculty deemed to be in need of a firm hand?
  • Decisions are made outside of the full senior leadership team and don’t involve the female members?

From my recent experience there seems to be an assumption that women will take on more, without question, regardless of whether they can/should. There is an assumption that discussions held with both male and female leaders will lead to disruption and going against the male consensus. There is an assumption that a women will ‘kick off’ if they don’t like something.

That these assumptions are still in place in 2021 shows there is still a long way to go with levelling the playing field. Until the professional behaviour of women is viewed in the same way as men we will never be rid of the ‘firecracker’ description.

I, for one, will never change my behaviour and I will always encourage other women to speak up, to speak out, to be ambitious, to be assertive when needed, and never accept being called a ‘firecracker.’

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