WomenEd in the Midlands

Last Saturday I attended the East/West Midlands Festival of Leadership at Warwick University. This event brought together women (and men!) from across different education sectors – schools, social enterprises, higher education and policy.

Hannah Wilson welcomed us to the event and gave us a bit of an update on all things WomenEd. She then displayed an image similar to the one on the right and asked ‘does this look familiar?’


The image is a metaphor so many women will associate with their careers: on, off, up, down, sideways, back a bit, particularly if you have children or other caring responsibilities. Hannah asked us to be cognisant of this for ourselves and for those we work with and who might work ‘for’ us. This image has really stuck with me, particularly as I head into my final week of maternity leave.



This event was also the first time I had presented a workshop at a WomenEd gathering. I was there in my capacity as West Midlands representative for the MTPT Project. The workshop was on the topic of ‘life friendly schools’ and a space to share and discuss what cultural, systemic, staffing, or structural things might make schools better places to work for all of us, not just parent teachers or those on maternity. On average, 11,500 women a year on maternity leave each year. That’s roughly two women per school. Therefore, having systems and policies in place to support women on maternity leave (and their partners!) and the teams they temporarily ‘exit’ from is not something that should surprise schools. In fact, it’s a fairly common set of circumstances. And, if women aged 30-39 represent one of the biggest groups of teachers leaving the classroom and 50% of those who leave teaching to look after families don’t return, what are we doing about retaining these teachers and making the transition to working parent something that returning teachers look forward to and can maintain? We shared lots, raised questions, and came up with strategies or things we might take away, take forward or try in our schools.



The day as a whole was really enjoyable. For me, the day was unique in its placement of academic research keynotes at the forefront of the day. It was really refreshing and exciting to sit in a lecture and be ‘taught something’ that had been based in rigorous research and was bringing the concerns of academic research and school-based work and pedagogy into conversation. However, this research was not dry or holding itself at a distance and aloft from the working practices of many teachers, practitioners or educators.

The opening keynote by Professor Farzana Shain was on the topic of ‘tokenism’ and considered how this operates at the levels of the:

  • individual encounter and gesture;
  • institutional; and
  • systemic

Women, she argued, are often responsible for ‘carrying the burden of transformation for the sector’. In other words, periods of institutional upheaval, restructuring and shifts (in most cases with the added caveat of less money), are often the times in which ‘gender equality’ appears to be more positively practiced with women becoming promoted to more senior leadership roles or positions of authority. However, these are often in contexts or circumstances in which pay is capped, job specifications are merged, teams are shrunk, budgets are tighter, and expected outputs remain the same or greater. Essentially, women do (or at least seem to be expected to do) more with less.


In the closing keynote Professor Jaswinder Dhillon talked us through some of her research on women’s perceptions and understandings of ‘leadership’ from the perspective of their educational context. On a small scale, getting members of your team to prioritise leadership statements and working out how your team (from SLT, to governing body, to department, to whole staff body) view leadership could be so important for making sure you have the right people around the table. Having conflicting or differing views about leadership doesn’t necessarily mean your leadership team will not be effective, but it might put you in a position to better understand why certain decisions are hard to agree on; why certain school policies you implement aren’t what you initially envisioned, for example. It might also help you to better support, mentor and coach each other through the role.


The importance of storytelling and sharing experiences was at the forefront of both the keynote speakers’ talks and a key focus of many of the sessions throughout the day. Telling our stories and sharing our stories, can be a really powerful way of drawing attention to circumstances that need addressing, paying closer attention to, and more care as well as those that we can celebrate, champion and help us feel proud of what we do. Storytelling helps us connect with others. As I approach my return to work I’m going to try and hold the ethos of storytelling in my mind.

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