That's not my Headteacher...


Having been involved in a flurry of #WomenEd events in the Eastern region over the last few weeks, a notable theme has been leadership identity. The well-loved Usborne children's book series springs to mind... 

Women have told me that they don't feel that they are Head teacher material as they are too nice, too friendly, too caring or too emotional. A couple believe they are too small (Have I got enough gravitas for the role with my tiny stature?) Others have shared their concerns about being too young (Will I be taken seriously by others if I apply for the role in my late twenties/early thirties?) Some believe that they are too old (Have I 'missed the boat' and left it too late to make the leap to headship?) 

The consensus among many has been a fear of not being dynamic or charismatic enough, either stemming from personal belief or a fear of others' perceptions that they are lacking in essential leadership qualities or abundant in seemingly antagonistic attributes. It strikes me that women are striving for a perfect, unrealistic, combination of features to convince themselves and others that they have what it takes to lead a school. It's the classic confidence vs. competence dilemma. As Summer Turner memorably shared at one of our WomenEd hub events last year, we need to ask ourselves: 'Are the boys worrying about this?'

I can think of at least four male peers who trained to teach at the same time as me who are now in head teacher roles, one who has set up his own free school and is now forming a MAT. I don't know of any fellow female PGCE students that are now in SLT - some were but have now stepped down due to life events/personal choices.

While I sit among male primary teachers in my NPQH cohort that exclaim with surety and conviction 'I've always wanted to be a headteacher', their female counterparts (who interesting are equal in number on this programme which is not reflective of the 9:1 ratio in the sector) are almost apologetic for their ambition.

In being bold for change, we need to stop naval gazing and turn the 'I couldn't possibly's into 'why can't I?'s and then 'I can's. We need to fortify out gut instincts to take the braver path when we have a appetite for leadership, rather than opting for the easier, more familiar route due to self doubt and deprecation. 

Having grown up with narratives such as Goldilocks, shaming girls for being bolshy and creating the myth that there is such a thing as 'just right', it's hardly surprising that women are pre-dispositioned to be cautious about stepping up into the spotlight of leadership.

We can either accept this unhealthy and damaging paradigm and the prehistoric arguments such as Polish MEP's justification that women deserve the pay gap as we are 'smaller, weaker and less intelligent', or we can be bold and act for change.

Author Profile

Helena Marsh

Helena Marsh

Executive Principal, English teacher & mum. Passionate about pedagogy, professional learning and well being. Co-founder of #WomenEd | Headteachers' Roundtable member | #SLTchat Exec | Relational Schools advocate

105 stories


Hannah Wilson Hannah Wilson @misswilsey 7 months ago
Yes we can! Thank you for inspiring & empowering others. You practice what you preach & you model that you can lead and a Mum, that you can be small (in red heels) & not loud but still highly effective. Your challenge to the system & gender stereotypes will create new children's books in time. Check out what Steph Green is doing with Dauntless Daughters in the meanwhile.
Natalie Wilcox Natalie Wilcox @natw 7 months ago
So well put! It angers me that we are supposed to be in the 21st century but the views of many are so outdated. Our profession needs women like you and the rest of the @womened community to continue to push for change and support others in being brace.
[Retired Colleague] [Retired Colleague] [Retired Colleague] 7 months ago
We need more of these narratives so that trainee teachers have a can do mindset throughout careers. Thanks Helena.
Natalie Wilcox Natalie Wilcox @natw 7 months ago
Definitely @mshmfl !! This is the kind of training I would have loved!
Shirley Drummond Shirley Drummond @sdrummond 7 months ago
Fabulous Helena! WomedEd is having a great impact and we need to keep encouraging other women to take the braver path - well said!
Suzie Happy Suzie Happy @suhappyness 7 months ago
We need to be apologetically ambitious. Love this blog
Martha Da Costa-Sherwood Martha Da Costa-Sherwood @dacosmeconsult 7 months ago
Just posing those concerns as a questions makes them thought provoking. Why can't we have nice, friendly and emotional heads? Why can't we be young? Why can't we be old? The answer is we can - yes we can indeed. Thanks Helena
Annemarie  Williams Annemarie Williams @awilliams 7 months ago
I think we also need to see more visible examples of diversity to ensure we promote the fact that leadership does not have a particular race, gender or sexual orientation. We also need to do more work on leadership confidence with aspiring leaders earlier on. Great blog, I couldn't agree more with your sentiments!
Leanne Avis Leanne Avis @missavis 7 months ago
Great blog - I wholeheartedly agree. We can be anything we want to be and we should! :)
Katie Smith Katie Smith @mrskatesmith 7 months ago
GREAT BLOG - inspiring and empowering! We may (some of us!) be smaller, but we are not weaker or less intelligent than our male counter parts. WE ARE STRONG! :)
Kerry Jordan-Daus Kerry Jordan-Daus @kerry 7 months ago
A life time of inculturation (gender cheese) takes a lot of deconstructing. I think I am too small/young/shy/kind/ old/ emotional - these are ALL part of the gender narrative, just like "boys don't cry"? I have been put down because "I am too self deprecating" - a great leader is empathetic AND understands why women might do this AND empowers them to believe that small/young/shy/kind/old/emotional is kinda what this team needs.
Jill Berry Jill Berry @jillberry 7 months ago
Fab post, Helena. I'm sure as a head I was "nice" and "friendly" and I was certainly (still am!) "emotional", but I can remember someone saying to my PA in my first months, "Jill is so nice" and the PA's reply was, "Yes, but don't underestimate how strong she is!"

At one unsuccessful headship interview prior to this I was told in my feedback that I didn't have the "gravitas" the governors were looking for. I have known heads with gravitas but little substance! Not sure I ever managed gravitas but I know I developed "presence".

So, in the words of one former head I know: "There's only one way to be a head. And that's YOUR way!"

Thanks again for a great post.
Nasima Riazat Nasima Riazat @nasima 7 months ago
Agree - we can and we will! :-) It's self belief and constant self reminders to keep trying and never giving up. Brilliant post.
Liz Jones Liz Jones @lizjones 7 months ago
Gender descriptive ma are frustrating. Women feel they are too nice/kind/emotional to lead. Female role models in books for children shouldn't be forceful or opinionated.
Male characteristic traits are 'more appropriate' for leadership......
How can we change our own understandings of these traits and leadership needs and model the same for others?
Christine Couser Christine Couser @cacouser 7 months ago
Years in a male dominated sector, has made proud to be ambitious and not afraid to say it. I am small but never feel it. As long as we are passionate we can lead.
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