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20 September 2022

“But, he’s a man...”

“But, he’s a man...”

I will never forget the first time I heard this phrase in a professional capacity. It was my second year of teaching in an all-girls' school and I had just been appointed to my first middle leadership position: Head of Year. I was excited, a little anxious and full of ideas as I prepared to address the year group parents’ evening talk. As I was introduced as the new Head of Year by the Headteacher who had just appointed me, I heard one parent (who clearly hadn’t read the letter communicating the news home) gasp and say – a little too loudly - “but, he’s a man”. I wasn’t sure whether it was shock or upset (or both), but it was loud enough for everyone to hear but quiet enough to pretend that you didn’t. Slightly shaken and wary of the reception that I was about to receive, I stood up and began reading my prepared remarks.  

Thankfully, it was all fine. I got through the speech and sat down, conscious that several eyes remained fixed on me – by students and parents – even as the next speaker began. It felt as though I was under observation, a mixture of curiosity and confusion by those who looked up at the stage. Why would a man want to work at an all-girls' school? Why would they appoint him in charge of my daughter’s pastoral care? 

Now, this was 2009 and I am very aware that the great strides in attitudes and approaches towards gender, sexuality and identity have been turbo charged since that awkward evening. However, as I have moved to different schools since then, there does remain – for a small number - a sense of trepidation or a sense of unsuitability for a man to be in a position of leadership in an all-girls' school. There is always, in my experience, a concern by some about the ‘optics’. When I came to St. Francis’ College for the Deputy Headship interviews, I was in the final round with three female candidates. When I text my colleagues at my previous school as we nervously waited to begin the day, one replied back: “well, you won’t get it. Just treat the interview as an experience”. Such was the assumption that a Head would not replace an outgoing female Deputy Head with a man when three female candidates were available. Well, obviously, I did get it. Mrs Goulding was always of the opinion that the best person should get the job. End of story. I always admired her for this and I know that my appointment caused her some questions, least of all because I was to oversee the pastoral care of all female students. 

I share these experiences not because I do not understand the sentiment, or because I do not believe that there are some matters in which a female student may want the choice to talk to a female teacher or leader. That is why I am delighted to have such amazing female staff in both the pastoral leadership team and on the SLT. Our female nurses and counsellors are also of fantastic support to all students.  

I also fully understand the argument that girls need role models in leadership positions. I am delighted to have a fantastic Deputy Head, Mrs Spence, who has already inspired and encouraged our students to think as leaders. However, she would do this regardless of her gender: she is passionate, articulate, hardworking and holds values we all share. Those are the qualities that need to be role modelled, not solely the simple fact that she is a woman. To say a woman is a role model, simply because she is a woman, arguably negates the qualities of that woman as a person, an individual. Similarly, when women stand up and talk to our students to inspire them to think of their future, it is the qualities, experiences and lessons which are what motivate. Of course, them being a woman, having achieved in fields historically the domain of men, is awe-inspiring but it is their accomplishments that are remarkable. As a man, I would hate someone to equate me with some of our world leaders or celebrities, simply because we share the same sex. No-one is saying that opportunities to hear from inspirational women should stop, of course not. In fact, I have just launched a project to create a Female Greatness Gallery of Fame in our Middle School. Appointing a man to lead does not reduce the opportunities to hear from other inspirational women, nor does it limit the opportunities to celebrate female role models and achievements. Whether you appoint a man or a woman is not the true crux of the matter. The issue is who is the man or woman appointed and what motivates them? 

I share these experiences because I want to reassure everyone that whilst I am a male, that does not stop me being a fervent champion of female empowerment and single-sex girls’ education. I have seen the power of it and the results that it produces, most recently in our examination results and response to the passing of Her Majesty. I firmly believe that students in a single-sex environment achieve more, are more confident and less vulnerable to societal attitudes. This is especially the case for girls. Despite, or in spite, of being a man, I passionately believe in this, and I have worked to always champion girls in the schools that I have worked in, causes that I have supported and sports games that I have watched. Whilst I will not always understand, instinctively, all matters related to growing up as a girl, I hope that every student knows that I am caring, compassionate and considerate enough to listen, help where I can and signpost when I can not. 

I would like to stress that I write this week’s blog out of reflection rather than response, but I am one to pre-empt it myself nowadays. I was honoured that I was recommended by the student panel, consisting solely of female students and based on my work as Deputy Head. I am also so grateful for the support from colleagues and parents which have enabled me to make a well supported start to the role. Despite this, and it may be my inbuilt sensitivity to this matter now, I have had a couple of questions or statements designed to ‘test’ my response to this perceived dilemma of being a male head at an all-girls' school. These ‘tests’, if they do even exist, don’t come from a place of prejudice or concern, but curiosity. By now, 2022, I am well used to this experience, and I hope that I can answer in a way that shows that I recognise being a male may not be the norm for all girls’ schools, but I am here based on the values I hold, the vision that I have for every student in our community and the sense of purpose to do the best for every single one of our students. 

As attitudes towards gender and identity continue to evolve, I fully expect some more facets to this position to come along. Ultimately, if we are going to be fully inclusive on gender, then surely appointing a male Head based on a formal interview process, even if he is a man, for the Headship of an all-girls' school shows how far we have come in gender equality?  



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