Monthly Archives: January 2018

The WomenEd Bookclub, non-binary bias and the affair Penelope didn’t have

Miss Triggs

It’s not by chance that I got the name Penelope, I am convinced of it. The more I learn about her and the more I live my life, the more I see the resonance. This weekend I took part in @WomenEdBookclub’s slow chat, hosted by Mary Beard and inspired by her book, Women and Power: a manifesto. In her book, she refers to Penelope, wife of Odysseus, who is silenced by her own son, Telemachus. She refers to this snippet from Penelope’s story as a “nice demonstration that right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere” and how “growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species”.

Mary Beard goes on to explain how this plays out in the modern world too, and uses the thirty year old cartoon by Riana Duncan, also shown above. “That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.” It resonates, because it is my lived experience. And it should have all of us scrolling back through a mental catalogue of similar meetings where this may have happened before our very eyes – eyes and ears that weren’t trained to spot it perhaps, and a mouth that wasn’t able or willing to call it out.

One of the things that troubles me, is how we manage to tackle these issues without polarising into men and women, good and bad, feminist and sexist, and without alienating people. I think that the starting point has to be from a place of trying to understand socialisation, conditioning – the deep process we go through in our lifetimes and that builds on centuries of accepted wisdom, the process of being taught explicitly and implicitly what the world means. You have to accept that this happens, and you can’t believe that you were somehow brought up to be beyond the influence of wider society, no matter how “woke” your upbringing was.

Categorising, characterising, conditioning

By example, from the moment my children were born, I did as all good mothers of all animal species do. I drilled them on simple categorisations: day and night (if anyone knows my story of sleepless babies, you’ll know that one took forever!), good and bad, hot and cold, edible and not edible, acceptable and not acceptable. The categorisation process gets really sophisticated early on and we learn to group things into concepts like seats and not seats – you can sit on a low, square stool but you shouldn’t sit on a coffee table that looks to all intents and purposes to the untrained eye like a low, square stool. There is a catalogue of animals that make you go “awwwww” and those that make you go “ewwww” and so on.

We also categorise people by gender, race, age, weight, how they move, talk, and more. This is the way we learn what is safe and unsafe, what is socially acceptable and not. How many times have you told your children not to speak with strangers and then later berated them when they don’t greet a stranger politely that you have deemed to be worthy of their respect? You should have seen the uproar in my house when I invited my Twitter friend to stay the night before our BAMEed conference when I don’t really know who she is and I have never met her face to face before, having drilled my children on internet safety and who they can legitimately call their friends!

It should be noted that this is also the way that we subtly start to embed the concepts of who has the right to power over things like speech and more. Mary Beard uses the Penelope example to start the discussion about men’s historically accepted rightful place as orators and women’s seeming deficiency in this arena. I strongly believe that no-one, no matter their declarations of gender or race blindness, is exempt from being the product of their socialisation and conditioning. And even if they deem themselves to be absolutely pure from any contaminating effects of this societal conditioning, no-one can be accepted as truly equal just by virtue of the fact that they deem themselves to be worthy of being treated equally. Finally, unequal treatment, bias, whether it be sexist or racist in its form, is not something that is always clearly defined, binary and explicit. I don’t agree that people can be categorised into racist and not racist, sexist and not sexist like some kind of Harry Potter sorting hat defines your house.

I have to clarify here, that of course, there are some people and their actions that put them squarely and without dispute into the racist and/or sexist category. But what I like about Mary Beard’s book is that it explains how the subtle and not so subtle power struggles between men and women are perpetuated in ways that are so deeply entrenched, that it is not a switch we can flick, a decision we can make or a quick change we can implement. We need to question ourselves and those around us to see where this is playing out in our own lives. One last thing to point out, at the risk of being really obvious: just because you are a woman, doesn’t mean you are pro-women, feminist or not prone to perpetuating gender stereotypes just as being a man, doesn’t make you automatically pro-men, sexist and ignorant about power imbalance.

I got the power!

All discourse about women, about race and so on is about power. It is about the balance of power and why it sits where it does. Mary Beard gives us a Western historical whistle-stop tour of why power lies squarely with men and how this plays out in her own lived experience as a woman, albeit a woman with much power compared with others, both male and female.

Here’s a story from my lived experience which might illustrate some of the power imbalances mentioned above. I’d be fascinated to hear what you think:

One of my previous male bosses back in the day, commented quite vociferously and negatively on my choice of footwear. I was wearing admittedly clompy, comfortable shoes on a freezing cold, wet day where we were attending a meeting with external stakeholders. He was wearing brown, lace up, brogues, not too dissimilar. It knocked the wind out of my sails and made me self-conscious throughout the day that we spent together travelling to and from the meeting. Ironically, a female stakeholder spontaneously commented on how much she loved my shoes the same day.

Said male boss also liked to hold up one of our female colleagues as an example, often commenting on how she is “always so well turned out”. He correlated her consistently “smart” appearance to the quality of her work. My experience of her was indeed as someone who always wore a full palette of make-up, straightened her hair, changed into impossible-looking heels from her walking-to-work trainers every morning, and was very vocal about her need to restrict herself from enjoyment of food in order to maintain her very thin figure. My male boss saw this as a commitment to discipline, rigour and a visual sign that the quality of her work was also of this same calibre.

My experience of myself and from feedback I have consistently had, is as someone who is also very committed to my work, to quality, rigour, creativity and a certain flexibility and resilience. This could be reflected in my sensible shoes, my all-weather cyclist mind-set, and the fact that make-up and hairdos are just prone to becoming a mess anyway so why bother? I wash my face and brush my hair and also change from my cycling gear into my office get-up to indicate my readiness for serious work. Mentioned once, this comparison might have passed me by, but mentioned regularly, it began to bother me and I spoke out on more than one occasion to see if my boss understood that his bias was potentially shaping the way our work and worth would be regarded. Blank looks. Suggestions of being over-sensitive. Hints that I was dissing my female colleague for her sartorial choices and that because we are all feminists, we can all wear what we like. “I wear these clothes/heels/make-up for me” is what is often said. But can we divorce our choices from conditioning and accepted beliefs regarding acceptable female attire? Is there really freedom of choice when all choices seem to come with a raft of associations?

This clothing preference boss thing has become linked in my experience to another incident with my most-feminist-friend at work. It should stand to illustrate that even as a self-declared feminist and ‘bloody difficult woman’, this colleague could also be prone to bias resulting from deep and subtle conditioning. We all are, that’s my point.

This is how it happened. During a period, when perhaps subconsciously I must have felt it might be interesting to test out whether a leaning towards the more ‘power dressing’ end of the spectrum might serve my interests and have my voice heard a little more seriously, I started wearing smart black, navy blue or grey, tailored dresses and heels around the office. After all, the boss had made it clear time and again that a woman who is well turned out is a woman who means business and demands respect for the quality of her work. My most-feminist-friend noted my changed wardrobe choices, sidled up to me at the sinks in the ladies loo and uttered between hushed lips: “are you having an affair, Penny?” Remember the story of Penelope and the affair she also didn’t have?

How would you interpret this? The way I saw it was this: she had hit on something I was perhaps not fully aware of at the time. I was indeed trying to please a man – my boss. The attempt at pleasing a man by a heterosexual woman, must have been interpreted by my colleague as connected to a woman’s sexuality, hence the conclusion of an affair and my newly heightened well-turned out/sexually attractive state. I wasn’t trying to hit on my boss but I was trying out what it felt like to be wearing the uniform of accepted feminine work wear and must have been keeping an eye to see if it altered attitudes to my work.

The missing piece for me was having the opportunity to sit down with all the players in this great story and to spend some time working together to deconstruct and analyse what was going on here. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to get together as a group of people, all of whom I know would say they believed in equality of the sexes, and read up on, analyse and discuss this very dynamic that played out in our working relationship all that time ago. Now that would be a satisfying experience I’m sure.

Postscript: My dear partner has pointed out that all of this is an example of white-woman, privileged, feminist discourse and that it doesn’t cover anything meaningful around race, inter-sectionality and other important issues. I hold my hand up and once I have spent some time educating myself further on this, I will get back to you. I’m reading is “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge to keep me moving on my journey. You can read this excellent Guardian Long Read by her here. All suggestions to help me learn are gratefully accepted.











Why be a governor?


This Saturday, the inimitable Raj Unsworth and I ran a session on thinking like a governor at the BAMEed Network conference in London. The session was aimed at anyone thinking about school governance, but in addition, was aimed at anyone thinking about BAME representation on school governing boards.

It is true of many governing bodies that they are made up of the usual ‘pale, male and stale’ volunteers. We shouldn’t overlook the great contribution governing bodies can make, whatever their make-up. However, to better reflect diversity in general or the school community and/or that of our country as a whole, if you are from a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) background, this is your chance to help change this just by taking your rightful place around the table. Of course, you should not be expected to represent and speak for all BAME people, so watch out for this. If you aren’t BAME and have an awareness of and a commitment to addressing any of the issues that affect BAME students, staff and community members, I can’t urge you enough to be vocal, challenging and insistent about this as a governor. This is an excellent way to recognise and unabashedly use your white privilege for the common good. If you feel you don’t know much about the issues, but would like to know more, just do some Googling and start getting yourself educated! Following the @BAMEedNetwork might be a good place to start.

Raj, with her rich experience of over 20 years can give the low-down on the intricacies of being a governor at an academy or a multi-academy trust and this is probably worth setting out in a separate piece rather than trying to cram it all in here. This piece will cover school governance in general and what you might like to consider if you are exploring whether you should become a governor.

Why be a governor?

If you already work in education, you might think that volunteering as a school governor might be counter-intuitive and that if you are going to volunteer it should be time spent elsewhere. However, there are many benefits to you becoming a governor.

Firstly, for your own professional development, school governance, in any phase or type of school or academy is a fascinating opportunity to come out of your comfort zone, up your game as a professional and to see things from a different angle.  You will see that there is more than one way to skin a cat, whether you choose to volunteer in a school like your own, or one that is wildly different.

You can see what your own school looks like from a strategic perspective, or see another school that is similar, or indeed completely different from your own place of work. Whether you are a governor in your place of work or in a different school, you can gain the opportunity to set the strategic direction of the school, shape the school development plan and see how these play out in practice.

You can get a chance to take on leadership roles in manageable chunks, for example by chairing one of the committees and practising ensuring that the aims, progress and outcomes of the committee are addressed well.

Let’s look more closely about the pros and cons of being a governor at your own school or in another school.

Being a staff governor at your own school: pros and cons

Being a staff governor at your own school is one of two particularly challenging roles on the governing body. The other is that of parent governor and I will cover that later on. It is a challenge because you have to keep front of mind at all times that you are a representative from the staff but you are not a representative of the staff. You are not a union rep, you are not there to champion the grumbles and needs of the staff body, and nor are you there to report back to the rest of the staff about what came to pass in the meetings. All minutes are freely available, so any staff member that is interested, can read these after each meeting.

Many staff members may feel quite intimidated by being a staff governor at their own school for the simple reason that you are exposed to situations where you may disagree with your boss, the headteacher, and you will need to speak out if you do. A huge part of effective governance is knowing how to challenge and question things with the aim of ensuring real rigour in decision-making, and to support the school to do the right things for the right reasons.

Finally, being a staff governor means you have a strange insider-outsider status which means that at some points during meetings, committees and decision-making, you might actually be asked to leave the room as there will be a conflict of interest or a certain level of confidentiality that needs protecting. If your school’s governing body is not very effective, you may also find it demoralising to see in more detail some of the school’s weaknesses and struggles to address these well at a strategic level beyond the day to day operational activities you know more closely.

One of the pros is simply the flipside of the issue raised above: a different relationship with the headteacher. If you are looking for an opportunity to show your leadership skills and demonstrate your disciplined integrity in this tricky role, this is your chance. If you have respect for your headteacher and they are able to model how the relationship with the governing body works, this can be really good training for a time when you might be a headteacher yourself.  And if you wanted to see how a school development plan is put together and monitored throughout the year, you will have a unique perspective of both the strategic and the operational machinations that go into setting and executing the school development plan’s aims.

Being a parent governor at your child’s school: pros and cons

If you don’t have children, skip on to the next section! As mentioned above, this is a difficult one to pull off without either using your child’s experience as your only frame of reference, or being so hell bent on not doing that, that you end up not being able to find a way to address issues your child is facing at school for fear of being seen as pulling rank as a governor. Being a parent governor means trying to hold in mind all children at the school, and trying to banish from your mind your own child, their friends and specific little faces that are familiar to you. Being a representative from the parent body, but not a representative of the parents is one that the whole school community invariably struggles with. Your child’s friends’ parents will say things to you as a governor, expecting you to “sort it out”. Teachers who don’t understand the nuanced position of a parent governor can be just downright weird with you. There can even be repercussions on your children if you are seen to be too challenging or your children can be favoured if you do a good job for the school in your parent governor role. I found being a parent governor excruciatingly difficult myself and am in a much happier place being a governor at a school with which I have no personal history or affiliation.

The big advantage of being a parent governor is that you are already embedded in the school culture and it is easy to see how the values, the aims of the school development plan, policies and decisions play out in practice. You are immersed in information that helps you, such as letters home, parents evenings, how the school feels and responds to key events, behaviour issues, even snow days. You know the teachers, the parents on the school gates, and the way the school works. This is all something that is really hard to get a feel for if you don’t make time to explore all of this.

One double-edge sword of being a governor at your child’s school is related to The Guilt. You know The Guilt. It’s that feeling we all have as working parents, especially as teachers who are parents, that we are not there enough for our children, and often spend more time celebrating other people’s children’s magical moments and milestones more than we do with our own. Well, being a parent governor can either exacerbate this feeling or can in fact alleviate it. Ideally, your workplace will give you time and flexibility to be a governor because it is such great CPD. Where better to spend that time than at the school where your child learns? You can get even more of a feel for it, you can feel you are helping to make it even better for your own and all the children there, and you can get another perspective on what is behind some of the rhythms, routines and culture of the school.

Being a local authority or community governor: pros and cons

Whether a school is a local authority school or an academy, it needs to be the focal point of the community. Being a governor from the local community is a way to support this, and also a way to declare your commitment to your own community.

A lot of multi academy trusts will have some success at attracting ‘career governors’, local business people keen to bolster their CVs, and cash in their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) hours by supporting a school. Their skills and experience are useful indeed to schools, but someone with up-to-date education experience can be much appreciated as well.  Being a trustee of an academy can give you valuable exposure to the charity sector and it operates differently to a maintained school governing body. It’s worth reading up on the roles and responsibilities of being a trustee or governor at an academy or a multi academy trust as these are different from those of maintained schools, which people often don’t realise until things get difficult.

As mentioned above, having no link to your own workplace or children’s school can be a very positive thing. And if you are thinking about being altruistic and not being suspected of having any ulterior motives or interests, this is one way to make that really clear!

As a teacher, you can think about what you want to gain from your governor experience and direct your choice of school accordingly. You might want to choose a school that is similar to the one you work in, so you can get a different view on some of the challenges and how they are addressed. You might want to broaden your frame of reference and deliberately choose a school which is a different phase, intake, demographic, size. If you work in a secondary school, being a governor at a primary feeder school can be really informative and worthwhile. If you care about SEND children, you might want to choose to work in a special school to understand some of the issues and successes there. Or perhaps a Pupil Referral Unit or Alternative Provision setting could be stimulating and useful. You might want to choose a school that is in difficulty rather than an outstanding school, so you can really commit yourself to making an impact. You will certainly get feedback on this if the school undergoes any kind of Ofsted monitoring or inspection. Similarly, if your school is struggling, it could be useful to see what it looks like from a different viewpoint (although there’s no guarantee that the governance is outstanding, especially if the school hasn’t been inspected for a while)

Wherever you land, as a governor at a school where you have no prior connection, you can happily get stuck into seeing the world from the other side of the table. You will be exposed to HR, finance, strategic planning and examples of practice – good and bad – that are great for you to learn from and for your professional development. You might even find yourself chairing a committee that hones your skills in a particular area of the school’s development. You could even find yourself part of the recruitment panel for a new headteacher or, less uplifting but equally eye opening, a serious HR issue. You could be there when an Ofsted inspection happens. If you ever want to step up to headship, what a great experience to see these processes from the other side of the table first. You will also be exposed to governor colleagues from the world of business, local councillors, and more, who could be handy to know and could differ from your usual social and professional group. All good social capital to help you on your way professionally.

How do you build your confidence when you are starting out?

Don’t assume that because you work in education and perhaps ‘know how to do meetings’, you know it all. I would recommend that you go to your local authority governor induction, specific training sessions and any termly governors briefings meetings. They are usually very good – and even if they are awful, they are so eye opening and anthropologically enlightening! I have been to some briefings that felt like I was in a Mike Leigh film just by virtue of the range of people there and their behaviour. Others have left me so impressed with how the local authority is addressing issues that affect the local community and doing heroic efforts to do what is best for those in their care.

Make sure the school gives you a thorough induction too. Again, even if you are a staff governor or a parent governor, a good school induction will give you the information you need and will set the scene for the modus operandi you need to adhere to. A good Chair of Governors will do this themselves and might also match you with a more experienced governor as a buddy for a time.

Join Twitter or Facebook school governor groups.  Read online, especially when you get the papers for the upcoming meeting. Go through the agenda and papers carefully and note any questions or thoughts you have. Have a look online at the National Governance Association resources or on The Key for School Governors or The School Bus website. Ask your school if they have a subscription to any of these, and if they don’t, do a free trial in the first instance.  Don’t be afraid to ask the school to invest in subscription if you think it is worthwhile. I am of course biased, but I can’t really imagine not having access to The Key.

How do you become a governor?

There are several ways to become a governor. If you want to be parent governor, this needs to be by election. Ask the headteacher or Chair of Governors when the next vacancy is coming up and express your interest in standing for election. If you are not choosing the parent or staff governor route, I would recommend doing some research into your local schools and doing your own process of exploring the pros and cons to help you decide whether you become a staff, parent or community governor. My favoured method, once you have decided, is to send an email to the school you would like to volunteer at, with your CV and a cover letter of why you are interested in becoming a governor at the school. Follow up with a call if they don’t come back to you.  A good governing body will interview you and will want to find out more, although many have a ‘bums on seats’ approach and will be so flattered and amazed that they will snap you up, no questions asked! Once you are a governor and have found your confidence, if that was the case when you started, you can always take it on to sort out how governors are recruited, the type of skills auditing that happens and ensure that the selection and training of governors is tip top.

There are also organisations that have a specific mission to recruit and sometimes train governors. The School Governors One-Stop Shop (SGOSS) and Inspiring Governance both have match-making services. You can also contact your local authority Governor Services department and offer yourself up there.

I’d be delighted to hear any further comments you might have that might be useful to others, or if you spot things that I might have missed or misrepresented here. Just add them into the comments section, or drop me a line and I will incorporate them if I can. If you do decide to become a governor, let me know. And if you need any support and I can help at all, similarly, get in touch!

Good luck!