Voices for change

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Spring Term 2 2021

Dr Nic Crossley, Chair of the ASCL Women Leaders’ Network, believes that to empower women in the education sector it’s time for an open and frank discussion about discrimination against women.

My writer’s block started before even beginning this article as I was questioning whether the leadership challenges I’ve experienced over the course of my career are a ‘me thing’ rather than because I am a woman. I think that in itself is an interesting mindset as, when I look back, I’ve lived through all manner of poor behaviours and actions that I honestly don’t think would have happened if I was a man.

Women’s Pay Day in the UK is 20 November – the point each year when women start working for free compared to their male counterparts – and in more than one leadership role, I’ve been paid significantly less than male colleagues at the same level. I raised it once in a performance management meeting and was ignored, so I never bothered again. I now have the mindset that if I’m earning a good salary then I’m not even interested in the earnings of others – a healthy approach or evidence of my passivity? I don’t really know.

Call it out
On more than one occasion I’ve been subjected to the inappropriate behaviour of a male colleague who invaded my private space – and in a very public way so that it made it look like we were more than colleagues – even though I removed his hands and shouted at him to get off. I reported it to my line manager and nothing happened, so I looked for another job.

It shouldn’t come down to luck and I shouldn’t be questioning whether these experiences are down to me, but what it does suggest (for me at least) is that when faced with key events in my leadership career I’ve felt ignored, unimportant and unworthy.

We need to be talking about discrimination against women in the education sector – there, I’m calling it out right now because we need to be talking about inclusion, equality and diversity in all its guises and we need to be comfortable in feeling uncomfortable if we are going to affect change. The position that American activist Andrea Dworkin asserted back in 1998 is still relevant today, when, In Harm’s Way: The pornography civil rights hearings, she said, “Women are perceived to be appalling failures when we are sad. Women are pathetic when we are angry. Women are ridiculous when we are militant. Women are unpleasant when we are bitter, no matter what the cause. Women are deranged when women want justice. Women are manhaters when women want accountability and respect from men.”

I am sure many women have had a range of experiences, but for me it’s been the subtle but relentless attack on my ability, my own work experience and my expertise, which has gnawed away at my self-confidence and made me question, “Is it just me?”

Be heard
Prior to joining ASCL, I’m ashamed to say that I had not really paid much attention to the difficulties of women leaders, and that wasn’t because I hadn’t experienced any difficulties myself as I’ve already shown; I think it was because I had resigned myself to the way things are and didn’t want to waste my energy on something I couldn’t change. But, ASCL offers members the opportunity to be heard and to contribute to change, one step at a time.

I put myself forward as Chair of the ASCL Women Leaders’ Network because I wanted to be an active voice and contributor to the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion strategy led by Past President Rachael Warwick. In our first meeting in November though, I felt a fraud. This meeting initially played to my greatest weak spots: fear of being unheard, imposter syndrome and a lack of trust in my own ability. Here I was chairing a group made up of leaders with extensive experience and expertise – how could I possibly add value and why did I think that I was the person to lead the group? However, what unites us all is a desire to support our peers through shared stories and narratives of strength through diversity. While not completely alleviated, chairing the group has forced me to address my fears head on and offer a starting point for discussion – and I’m passionate about empowering others.

Of course, we women are resourceful as well. A few years ago, following the birth of my youngest child, I was refused flexible working because “we can’t have part-time leaders”, so I left and set up my own business, which I ran successfully for three years, offering me the flexibility to manage childcare while also continuing as the main breadwinner. As Ollie reached school age, my husband and I agreed that going back to salaried work and closing the business was right for us, but the question of flexible working remains an issue for many women and is a key area of focus for the network group.

Over the next year, the ASCL Women Leaders’ Network will be exploring the barriers to leadership and creating new opportunities through networking, while learning from a range of women speakers from across the sector. We are committed to:

  • promoting the voice of women leaders
  • discussing current issues facing women leaders and those aspiring to leadership positions
  • developing a safe space for formal and informal coaching and mentoring
  • ​contributing to policy and practice so that representation is visible

We continue to welcome new members and encourage anyone interested in joining the network to email CorporateAdmin@ascl.org.uk to be added to the distribution list because our collective voice is stronger than we think.

Dr Nic Crossley
Director of Inclusion at Astrea Academy Trust, ASCL Council SEN Representative and Chair of the ASCL Women Leaders’ Network

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