According to the National Governance Association’s 2017 annual school governance survey, just 4% of school governors and academy board trustees are from a Black, Asian or ethnic minority (BAME) background. The figure was at once at 5%, according to research commissioned by the Department for Education and Employment back in 1999. In almost two decades, no progress has been made and school governance remains steadfastly the domain of white, older people, usually men.
Outside of the field of education, there is solid research to show that diverse teams make better decisions, work more effectively, and run more successful companies. McKinsey and Co looked at 1,000 businesses over 12 countries and concluded that the best performing ones across the board were those where their leadership included not only women, people with disabilities, BAME, LGBTQ, and young people, but more importantly ones which sought diversity ofthought and action among its teams. I’ll come back to this in a moment, but considering that we have a significant lack of women, people from BAME backgrounds and young people on school governing boards, it is no wonder that school governance is often seen as in dire need of a reboot. Many heads I have spoken to see their boards as at best something that can be tolerated, and at its worst a huge impediment to the progress of the school.
I would like to assert that there is a clear problem with recent campaigns to ensure that there is more diversity on boards – both in the world of business and on school governing boards. The first problem is recruiting people from diverse backgrounds in the first place. Where are you going to find these people if you don’t know them? Many governing board members probably don’t know anyone who isn’t like them and if most boards are white and male, we have a first hurdle right there. Secondly, how are you going to feel comfortable accepting someone into the fold that doesn’t look like and probably behave like what you feel is the norm? Thirdly, if the type of leadership qualities you think you need are generally deemed a domain of the great straight white male, how will you ensure that the people you invite onto your board have had the opportunities to gain the skills and experience you are looking for?
All of this aside, getting diverse faces around the table is a good idea to increase the chances of diversity of thought, it really isn’t enough. There is much work to be done before this happens, and also continuing work to be done after you have redressed any imbalance on your board that might be visibly obvious. I believe that we need to understand and accept an uncomfortable truth. We are all socialised and subtly conditioned to believe in a very specific idea of what a leader looks like and that is usually a white, older man. For centuries, the Western world has operated with the norm and neutral to be white. It’s so subtle that I bet you haven’t noticed what colour all sticking plasters are, or what colour ‘flesh’ coloured tights or colouring pencils are. Furthermore, we expect our leaders to be white men. Try Googling images for ‘business leader’ and see how many white men in suits come up. The world has been telling us, and continues to tell us a very specific message about who has the right and the authority to be at the top table. Making a decision to say this isn’t the case, that we don’t see difference, or somehow trying to trick our brains isn’t going to cut it.
This is where diversity of thought and action needs to come into play. We need to get people around the table who are not like us. Therefore, we need to actually see and seek out difference, and welcome it. We need to deliberately get people around the table who don’t think and operate like us, and deal with it. We need to get people around the table who haven’t had the same experiences, upbringings as us, that aren’t from the same class, religion or socio-economic background as us, and work with them effectively. And we people there to enrich, challenge, and stretch our horizons by forcing us to think differently. Collaboration is hard enough when everyone thinks they understand each other and has common ground, but how will this work when nobody does? If the McKinsey report is anything to go by, it works stunningly well.
But again, this isn’t enough. Just because I am a woman, doesn’t mean that I know anything about feminism, the subtle and not so subtle undermining and demeaning of women that happens in everyday sexism. Just because I am a woman, doesn’t mean I have given much thought to why I behave the way I do, dress the way I do and speak the way I do at work, for example. And just because I am a woman, doesn’t mean I am automatically in solidarity with other women, see them as comrades or do anything in my daily life to forward the prospects and voices of other women. This is because I have been brought up in a male-dominated society where the norms are demonstrated by that earlier Google images search result, where men might call caring for their own children ‘babysitting’, and where even when a woman does get to the top, her right to being truly a woman is often called into question.
So, it is a logical assumption that just because I come from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background, this doesn’t mean I am less likely to see white, male leadership as the norm. Which is why getting diverse bums on seats is not enough. It’s also a massive burden as the only woman around the table or the only Black person around the table, to be charged with the responsibility to always see and protect the interests of ‘my’ marginalised ‘group’. To truly make changes in the composition of our governing boards, and in order to make changes to the way these boards operate, we need to make changes in the inherent bias that is part of each and every one of us, and part of being human. I would suggest that the first step to ensuring that governing boards are diverse is to ensure that we wake up to inherent bias as a concept, that we learn how to ask the right challenging and brave questions of ourselves and others that will ensure we are actively seeking out and tackling racism, sexism, homophobia and anything else that leads us back to the tempting magnetic north of straight, white, male, authoritarian conditioned concept of the norm.
If you’d like a reading list of books to help get you thinking about inherent bias, here are some that have helped me on my learning journey :
Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch
Natives by Akala
Why I am no longer talking to white people about race by Reni Eddo Lodge
White Privilege by Prof Kalwant Bhopal
Slay in Your Lane by Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené
When we were setting the agenda and theme for this year’s BAMEed Network annual conference, I have to admit that the idea of a theme of the habits of highly effective people felt like it could stray into contentious territory. I don’t buy into the ideology that promotes a view that hard work breaks all barriers if you just put your mind to it. I do believe that our world is inherently racist, our institutions are structurally racist and that many white people, when faced with challenge on this are prone to being fragile and defensive, often crying out the case for colour-blindness instead of taking responsibility and committing themselves to join the call to be agents of change. We will need to all work extremely hard as a society to make meaningful changes for people of colour, Gypsy, Traveller and Roma people, the working classes, women, people with disabilities, LGBT people and the many marginalised people in general. We will need to understand that these changes need to take place, not out of pity or do-goodery which creates further ‘othering’ people of colour. Change needs to happen for the good of us all.
One of the strong themes of the day was to explore the reasons why diversity and anti-racist practice, in all its forms, is good for everyone. After all, diversity is actually good for business. In our increasingly materialistic and managerialist world, employers in all sectors and business people alike should be aware of the impact of ignoring the issues. It might seem cynical to overlook real human experience in favour of putting the business case for equality, but it might also be a good way to make people start to engage with the issues. Where you can’t first change people’s attitudes, perhaps you can change their actions.
A healthy workforce is a happy workforce
Mental health and wellbeing is a good place to start. The evidence is there, cumulative exposure to racial discrimination has incremental negative long-term effects on the mental health of ethnic minority people in our country. Studies that examine exposure to racial discrimination at one point in time may underestimate the contribution of racism to poor health.
I think what is hard for people to understand is that when we refer to racial discrimination it is not confined to outrageous and obvious racist abuse, it is confined to these small acts, daily reminders, constant and seemingly subtle markers of territory which white people are prone to do. White people too are victims of constant, deep and consistent conditioning that we will need to work hard to free ourselves from.
A person who is consistently made to feel that they do not belong, that they are not fully British, or they are Brit(ish) as Afua Hirsch so powerfully explains in her recent book of the same title, is exhausting. The impact on health, both mental and physical, is tangible and has been researched, written, documented and spoken about extensively. The incidents of micro-aggressions and denying people of colour an equal place in shared spaces is imperceptible to most white people’s consciousness. As a Jew, I know these micro-aggressions all too well but as a secular, white Jew, I can choose to expose my ‘otherness’ and don’t wear it as obviously as many marginalised people do.
The ‘innocent act’ of taking an interest in someone’s heritage is a prime example and in many accounts I have heard, it involves this simple but powerful way to show someone their right to be fully British is under question:
Q: “Where are you from?”
A: “London/Birmingham/Dorset/[insert any part of the UK]”
Q: “Yes, but where are you from? Where is your family from originally?”
Diverse teams are 35% more productive
Diversity in the workplace doesn’t mean having a bingo card full-house of ‘minorities’ or marginalised groups. What it does mean is diversity of thought. If you have a diverse group of people they will differ in the way they approach situations, think things through, perceive challenges, view the issues, come to solutions, work together, articulate themselves, network and collaborate. This leads to higher rates of productivity in all sectors and of course profitability in the private sector, according to a recent McKinsey study. You can’t have diversity of thought if everyone in your organisation has the more or less the same background and experience.
The best way to ensure diversity is to change recruitment practices. Too many employers say that they struggle to recruit a diverse workforce because the diverse candidates just don’t apply. Anyone who attended his workshop or has spoken to him, will know that Roger Kline’s work with the NHS is a fascinating insight into how simple changes in practice make a huge difference. The interesting fact is that while you can’t oblige people to believe this is the right thing to do morally, simple target-setting can certainly be a huge motivator for people to reach the levels of diversity, and therefore productivity, that workplaces should strive to achieve. It’s a two-pronged attack of targets and educating managers that works best of course. It’s not enough to believe, you need the tools and sometimes the carrot and stick approach to make change happen.
But Roger’s work shows that it doesn’t just stop with getting the team in. It also extends to treating people well. His research shows that it is 1.56 times more likely that BAME staff will enter the formal disciplinary process than white colleagues, while in London it is twice as likely. We see this also with punishment and exclusion of our students in schools. We should learn from Kline and colleagues on what works and what doesn’t in promoting equality for our staff members and our children.
Change always begins with me
There is a place though to consider what measures each of us can take to promote change, point out inequality where it is taking place and to position ourselves as best as we can to mitigate the effects of structural and inherent racism in our society.
For me as a white person, I know that I have a moral responsibility to keep reading, learning, listening and educating myself so that I can open doors, send the elevator back down, and share my privilege where I can. As Peggy McIntosh so rightly points out, white people have a ‘knapsack of privileges’ which we are encouraged to not even recognise or see as inherent to the experience of ‘whiteness’ and white privilege. She says, “As a white person, I realised I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage…I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious”. I was pleased that this year, our conference included more white delegates than ever. We are yet to be blessed with ‘the great white male’ among their number. Next year, our conference will be in Brighton on 15th June and I hope that we can do better on this front.
My fears of even a hint of victim-blaming or ‘just try harder’ message coming across in our choice of theme transpired to be unfounded of course. One workshop I attended, further helped me reconcile my original worry. Issy Dhan’s session explored how we can make our work and achievements more visible in the workplace. He was sensitive to the fact that culturally, especially those not socialised and conditioned in the way our white, British, male colleagues may have been, can find the whole concept of potential immodesty, extroversion and trumpet-blowing hard to stomach. However, some simple processes and actions can go a long way to helping make ourselves more visible as credible people in the workplace and the knock-on effect can be to raise the profile of our perceived minority group, whether we like it or not.
One great and relevant piece of advice came from one of the participants in this particular workshop. She said that where your workplace still isn’t convinced of your strength and worth, consider making your impact outside of the workplace. Get involved in things you can lead, organise, be active in. Show your professional abilities and leadership qualities. Blogging, writing for professional publications and getting involved in movements like the BAMEed Network are prime examples. We’d be delighted to see your blog on the event and to hear what impact it had on you. We are looking for more regional leads who can ensure that across the country we are making change happen. Just get in touch, we’re waiting to hear from you.
There has been a public outcry recently about the idea of baseline tests for Reception-age children in English schools. Children seem to be increasingly reduced to data points. In general, we seem to be having a gradual realisation that all is not well with how data is being used about us, as seen with the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook debacle this week.
I have been thinking a lot about statistics, data and childhood from my own experience as a parent and thought it might be an interesting exercise to do a chronological walk through of some of the insights I have had. My basic understanding is that we use statistics and data to make all sorts of decisions, often guided by professionals, that sometimes seem to make no sense at all and at worst make us conform in a way that is simply wrong.
Conception and birth
If you know anything about conception and birth, you will know that statistical information guides so much of the experience in the Western world. Given my childhood experience, this started with my attention being drawn to the stark statistics around divorce. Since one in three marriages end in divorce I made a grim decision that whatever I do with regards relationships and family, I should never embark on anything that I can’t sustain alone should my relationship not succeed.
I was lucky enough to not have to think about the stats around being pregnant post-40 or have any particular difficulty getting pregnant, which would mean the heartache, angst and combined prayer and number crunching involved in IVF or similar assistance with getting pregnant and staying pregnant to term. But what I did experience with my second pregnancy was alarming enough.
In Israel, where I lived at the time, there are quite a large number of tests carried out during pregnancy, with the option of doing more should you wish to. I had all of the usual ultrasounds, and a blood test to determine the likelihood of certain genetic issues. I won’t go into all of the intimate details but from the get go, I wasn’t entirely sure that the calculation of what week I was in during pregnancy was correct. This became more acute when I had the blood test for common genetic disorders, which was cross-referenced with the latest ultrasound scan – and I was subsequently called to do a further blood test and finally to speak with a specialist at the genetic abnormalities clinic. All I knew before going into the appointment was that they had deemed the statistical chance of me having a baby with genetic abnormalities to be higher than average and they recommended amniocentesis. If you don’t know what this is (and I didn’t and had to quickly read up on it at the time), the basic information you need to know is that a trained medical professional will insert a long syringe through the abdomen into the womb and extract a tiny amount of amniotic fluid so that they can do analysis on the genetic make-up of the developing fetus.
What has all of this got to do with statistics? So here goes. The information that you glean about amniocentesis contains two sets of stats that you need to weigh up before you go ahead. One is the level of accuracy of the outcomes of the test, and two is the likelihood that you will miscarry as a result of infection or disturbance to the pregnancy. These were two scenarios I was going to be asked to consider when attending the consultation with the specialist. But a third, pivotal variable struck me. Was their original data on the likelihood of my unborn fetus having some kind of birth defect correct in the first place? And if it was, did it have any bearing on the statistical analysis they had presented me with?
I went into the meeting alone. My heart was pounding and I listened as best I could as they repeated that they advise amniocentesis and that the stats show that the situation doesn’t look great. I was determined to get to the bottom of how they make these calculations. I didn’t profess to know much about statistics, genetics or even pregnancy at this stage, but I knew that it was important to unpick the evidence and reassemble it so that I could make an informed decision.
They agreed to walk me through the methodology and that’s when the light went on. I asked questions and we ended up agreeing that a lot of it hinged on the calculation of the age of the fetus. My instinct was that the fetus I was carrying was in fact older than they had assumed by possibly up to two weeks. I had proof for this and asked the specialist if she could do some modelling based on the fetus’ age being one week and two weeks older. She disappeared for about 15 minutes and returned with a new spreadsheet, while I sat biting my nails waiting. Lo and behold, the statistical evidence showing that I should be having amniocentesis and that the baby could be born with genetic birth defects suddenly reduced and there I was again, safely within the ‘normal’ risk band.
I can’t really convey the drama of this experience but while it was happening, I felt like my life (more importantly that of my unborn child) absolutely hinged on getting this right. Imagine if I hadn’t questioned the statistics, hadn’t tried to understand where the evidence had come from and hadn’t insisted on interleafing it with contextual and qualitative personal evidence.
My daughter was born healthy, thank goodness. She arrived what was assumed to be a month early, jaundiced, but otherwise fully developed and not in need of specialist care other than invasive daily heel-prick tests for haemoglobin levels for two weeks. That made me think that I was probably right about the pregnancy being further along than assumed and that she wasn’t really that premature at all. We will never know.
Birth and the first year
The politics of childbirth needs a blog post in its own right – it’s nearly 13 years since I last gave birth and I am still psyching myself up for that one. There is much written about it based on research and real-life experiences of millions of women worldwide. It’s a statistical minefield combined with variables such as shift changes, risk management and more. One thing that I hear time and again, and was tripped up by myself, is the use of statistical tables to place newborns into percentiles. You only have to spend time with the people who have had babies at a similar time to you, to hear the competitive edge of statistics, measurements, milestones and comparisons being flung about right into their second and third year and beyond. “The baby’s in the 95th percentile!” (There’s always problematic gender-related subtext in there too – massive equals good, strong if it’s a boy, and nagging worry if it’s a girl that she might be obese, into childhood and adulthood).
There’s nothing wrong with this in itself and knowing ‘what’s normal’ is something we all find useful when trying to benchmark and make decisions accordingly – especially when you have no prior experience of a fragile newborn. But what I see time and again with new parents I know is this scenario:
Baby is born, the couple tells everyone two key pieces of statistical information – how long it took and the baby’s birth weight
The health visitor visits you at home and tells you the baby has lost too much weight after the birth and is now in x percentile
Health visitor says the baby probably ‘isn’t getting enough milk’ and that you should supplement with formula to hurry along replacing the lost weight
You are alarmed. You didn’t know babies lost weight after birth and it doesn’t sound good
You feel frustrated, the baby seems to be feeding constantly and the health visitor is now describing a path were your baby is in danger of slipping into the wrong percentile – perhaps this isn’t normal and you should speed them along as suggested
You acquiesce and start to bottle-feed between breast-feeding, which is a shame as you are just getting the hang of it. You are feeling a little inadequate and worried that your insistence on breast is best is naïve even though your NCT class said the statistics tell us this
Complications start, your baby seems to want bottle-feeding more than from source, fusses on the breast and does seem to sleep better and feeds less frequently when you bottle-feed – and baby is now climbing up the percentile charts again
A new statistic is born – not everyone can breast-feed and it is shown to be better to switch to bottle if the baby is ‘not thriving’ i.e. not staying within the percentiles that the health workers are using to benchmark your baby with
Faced with this information that my baby was shrinking, I was anxious but also wanted to know the facts. Where does the information come from for these percentiles? What about qualitative and family-specific information that we can cross reference with? What about the fact that the baby seems happy enough – or in my case not happy all the time but demand-feeding frequently and eventually became huge. Many health workers will supplement explanations like the baby is ‘lazy’, has a ‘weak latch onto the breast’, needs to be woken and fed and not demand-fed. We followed this waking and feeding advice and ended up with a huge, well-fed baby who had massive sleep issues potentially exacerbated because we were interfering with her sleep patterns to stuff her with mummy milk at every opportunity. Afterall, the percentiles were what we were trying to comply with.
If you scratch the surface, you can see where a lot of the data we use with regards babies, is deeply flawed. In this case, much of the percentile charts that are used, can come from the United States where babies are born bigger and are more likely to be bottle fed, or from WHO statistics or indeed locally produced versions. What about common-sense factors like the physical make-up of each of you as the parents, your parents’ experience of you as a newborn, and so on. And what about time? Who says that these percentiles are accurate in terms of the time it takes to regain the weight lost by the baby after the birth and the time it takes to move up the already flawed charts?
One of the major factors that disturbs me with childbirth, newborn growth and later into schooling is how much of this is directly related to the health visitor, medical practitioner and education practitioners’ own performance management, and the statistical evidence that is provided as evidence of them doing a good job themselves?
Schooling and beyond
It’s no secret that our education system has become increasingly informed and driven by data. And like the health worker, educational professionals’ performance management dictates what is deemed success, more often than the practitioners’ own professional judgement. Evidence-informed decisions around what works are useful. But we haven’t really answered the question about what ‘what works’ actually means. In its most reductive sense it means, what gets them passing the tests and getting the set of qualifications that will best position them to earn well in adulthood.
Let’s start with choosing a school and the way in which many parents use publicly available evidence and data to do this. I wrote previously about this in my post about choosing a secondary school here. It is clear that the statistical evidence that parents use when choosing a primary or secondary school is deeply flawed in many ways. Let’s look at each in turn:
Ofsted results – this is a snapshot in time and the numerical result is usually where most parents start and finish. Delving into the last two or three reports is probably more useful, and then cross referencing the areas for improvement and quizzing the SLT about it when you visit the school might yield a much clearer picture. The truth is that most Outstanding and some Good rated schools haven’t had an Ofsted inspection for anywhere between 3 and 10 years. The leadership might well have changed at least once since the last inspection, or it might have stayed the same and potentially stagnated – and who knows what Ofsted would rate the school as today? At best, it’s a guide as to how well the school was able to get itself to the place where they were graded as such on that specific day in time and that is it.
League tables – it has been written about recently by Education Datalab that many selective schools are propped up by an entire army of private tutors. I believe that if we look into it, we might see that many Outstanding-rated primary and secondary schools are similarly reliant on parent-funded tutoring and extra-curricular activity to support a proportion of children reaching higher standards in their SATs, and GCSEs, as well as to keep them in top sets throughout their secondary education. It’s worth understanding if this is the case, that any decision you make will potentially require a financial investment if the levels of achievement aren’t being gained actually within the school day. Can you know this from looking at league tables?
Another thing about league tables is obviously the background information about cohort, intake, whether exam specs changed that year. League tables are based on one year of test and exam information. Who is to say that the school is able to repeat this year on year, and how are you able to know whether your child will be one of the successful top performers? And the key question is always, at what cost? Not just to your pocket but to your child’s own experience of learning as joyful and broad rather than stressful and narrowly channelled to SATs and GCSE success from the get-go. You only have to look at what is happening from year 7 and 8 in schools now as schools move to a 3 and 4 year GCSE pathway to ensure they get the results and hold their place in the league tables.
GCSE results – even if you feel comfortable with the different lines of reporting on secondary schools and delve into things like value added, are you able to discern what this actually means in terms of the qualitative journey of individuals within the school? Are you cross-referencing with exclusion levels, levels of deprivation, in-year movement of students, outcomes for different marginalised groups, what the outcomes are for all children – especially those of different socio-economic backgrounds to your own? Do you even care? Can you have any impact on this – by perhaps becoming a school governor?
The big question for me with all of the available data is not just what are my child’s chances of reaching their potential at the school of our choosing, but also what are the issues on a societal level that affect the school population and what can we do to help counter them for the good of all children at the school? Aside from this, I can see clearly that the data that people are relying on is too simplistic to be useful. This is especially so if the information is not cross-referenced with qualitative evidence only gleaned by visiting the school, getting involved in the local community and making a subjective guess-timate based on your knowledge of your own child now and what they might be like in years to come.
Data which informs and data which makes us conform
The problem with data is how we use it, and how it uses us. In many cases, use of data is a quick, lazy way to make decisions. Yet cross-referencing data with qualitative information is difficult to do if this is not available. We need to rely on our own enquiring minds, imagination and pushing the boundaries of what we think is true because it is fed to us by the media and political agendas. Data is useful, but extremely dangerous when not used to just to inform, but instead creates a systematic evidence base to make us conform for potentially the wrong reasons as explored in this post.
In the case of the newborn, our decisions can be narrowed down to a choice to hurry our baby along to the detriment of our own freedom of choice on feeding and submitting to a choice of pace that is dictated by statistics, or a health visitors’ success-ranking criteria, rather than the facts before us. In the case of choosing a school, I believe that data use and school choice can make us stunningly narrow-minded, selfish and irresponsible. Choosing the best for our child doesn’t often include a moral decision to ensure that through sending our child to their local school we can essentially be part of ensuring the success of the school for all its students.
Increasingly, we see a situation where data was once useful and ‘that which can be measured can be deemed important’, can quickly creep to ‘only that which can be measured is deemed important’ in decisions we take regarding childhood and education.
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.