Call me a ‘ball-breaker’ one more time…

This is a re-post of a blog I wrote for WomenEd in February 2019.

A couple of years ago, a male colleague introduced me to someone as a ‘ball-breaker’. He looked at me and smiled, clearly intending this as a compliment, and went on to make a joke about how even he was a little scared of me sometimes. ‘Ball-breaker’. It makes me uncomfortable. It’s a phrase which implies that the subject is aggressive, and has the power (and tendency) to emasculate men. It implies that the subject is brutal, perhaps destructive. I don’t recognise myself in any of those depictions of leadership. This phrase is also heavily gendered; you seldom hear men described in such terms.

My colleague clearly felt that he was saying something positive about me; saying I am strong and effective in the workplace. In reality, phrases like this reduce women to being defined purely by the impact they have on men. She’s not being called decisive, honest or driven; she’s being called a ‘ball-breaker’, implying that all she does is dominate men and, no matter what she achieves professionally, it is only notable through the lens of how men feel about her leadership. If she makes a decision which a male colleague would not have made, she metaphorically ‘breaks’ his ‘balls’ – he is not the one in control and he is therefore rendered useless. She has done that; the ‘ball-breaker.’
If a man had done it, everyone else’s ‘balls’ would have remained in tact but, because she is a woman in leadership, she leaves a trail of emasculated colleagues in her wake.

How ridiculous.

Language like this is at the more extreme end of the scale of gendered language in our workplaces. It is damaging to women and men alike (there are plenty of words and phrases used to describe men which are also problematic). I would argue that, when your workplace is a school, this is potentially even more dangerous because it might also impact on how our young people see the world and themselves.

The split in language used to describe men and women in the workplace is well recognised; women are bossy, pushy, scatty, ‘blonde’, emotional, dramatic, bitchy, catty, manipulative… these are terms which we generally don’t use to describe cis-gendered (straight) men. This starts early; we shower little girls with platitudes about their appearance and sweetness, while simultaneously describing boys as boisterous and strong. This is a problem in our schools, because it means that women in positions of authority generally have more to do in themselves to embrace and develop their confidence as leaders. Let me explain:

If we tell young boys it is ok to be strong, decisive, wilful, and we embrace the ‘boys will be boys’ (*shudder) reaction to aggression and play fighting, then it is not a huge leap as a male adult to be strong and direct in a leadership position. It is socially acceptable for men to be dominant figures and to engage in challenging others when necessary.

In contrast, let’s look at the expectations of girls growing up in our society; there are heavily segregated aisles in toy shops which direct girls to looking after dolls, being nurses, not doctors, pink kitchens and not a toy car in sight (unless it’s a pink convertible for Barbie). Girls are told from a young age that they are best suited to nurturing, caring roles, and that their value is measured by how pleasing they are to others. It is far less socially acceptable for women to be dominant and strong in a work environment; they are often expected to be the peace-makers, the glue, the compromisers.

The issue with this divide is that we need all of these characteristics in good leaders. Effective leaders should have the capacity to be strong and firm when it is necessary, and to be the compromiser and nurturer when appropriate. To develop the best leaders, we mush support people to develop these parts of themselves so that they have a broad toolkit to work with. The way we split supposedly ‘male’ and ‘female’ character traits means that, when those more traditionally masculine traits are called for, it is more difficult for a female leader to exhibit these characteristics because they have further to go – they have to embrace a persona which they have been conditioned from a young age to perceive as unfeminine. It also means that, for male colleagues, the reverse is true; there are real challenges and expectations around how they should behave which aren’t necessarily fair either.

Personally, ideas of femininity and my own identity didn’t bother me for a long time. I come from a family of very powerful women; my Nan wrote speeches for the Trades Unionists in the 60s and 70s, my aunt is a successful politician and business leader, my mother is a local welfare rights worker and campaigner. While I haven’t escaped some degree of gender programming via the media (just look at my lipstick and heels collection), I have been very fortunate to see strong models of women in the workplace my entire life. This is not the case for many women I know and have worked with. I have seen women shy away from promotion opportunities which they really want, and are qualified for, because they don’t think they are ready. I have seen women reluctant to have challenging conversations with colleagues because they don’t want to be seen as being ‘pushy’.

A friend of mine has agreed to share the following anecdote anonymously. At the time, she was a head of department working in a large school. She had a male second in department who she was working hard to develop. He was very ambitious and talented. For his own development, she took him into a data meeting with the principal and some other senior leaders. Throughout the meeting, though she was the head of department, and she had a proven track record of successful work and results in the school, the other people in the room (all men) addressed most of their questions to her second in department and, even when she was speaking, he often jumped in and interrupted her. She was really uncomfortable during the meeting and felt that something should be said. The next day, she went to speak to her line manager (one of the leaders who had been in the meeting) and explained how she felt. She was told that she should stop being so paranoid; her memory of the meeting was not at all how it happened, and perhaps she was being a bit insecure and over-sensitive.

This incident has two major implications for the female leader:
1. It is difficult to complain about something if those around you refuse to legitimise your feelings, and paint your reaction to something using gendered language. Terms such as ‘insecure’ and ‘sensitive’ suggest that the issue here is that she is being too weak, too soft, perhaps too feminine. In this situation, my friend did not take this further with her leadership team because she didn’t want to be labelled ‘whiny’ or sensitive.
2. In order to address the behaviour of her second in department, she will need to have a clear, honest discussion to explain how unprofessional he was being by interrupting her. That is part of her job as his line manager; it is her duty to him to ensure that he understands how to behave appropriately in meetings. That is a difficult conversation to have. It requires direct challenge and confidence in your convictions. It also requires the firm composure you must have if the colleague in question disagrees with you, and you need to reiterate your expectations. In this situation, my friend did not have the conversation with her colleague. In her own words, she “chickened out”. She didn’t feel comfortable. This was perhaps made more difficult for her because her line manager didn’t support her when she raised it with him.

This is one example. There is a double standard in what we expect from men and women, the way we describe them, the way we react to them. When I went back to work following maternity leave, my son went into nursery for three days per week, my husband began to work part time (he looks after our son for two days per week), and I worked full time (still do). This had been our plan for a long time; parenting is a team sport, and we put our players in the positions where they will be most successful. It works for us. The double standard we faced from people we knew, though, was really unexpected. My husband has had nothing but positive (if patronising) reactions to his part time move; “so caring,” “such a good daddy,” “so brave.” On the flip side, I have had a number of quite unpleasant comments from the same people; “I don’t know how you could leave him,” “I could never have given up that time with my children,” “don’t you think a child needs his mother?” Our parenting choices are our own, we make them together, we are happy with them, but somehow my husband is a heroic model of the modern man, and I am some sort of heartless ‘career woman’!

I am lucky. I work in a school which has a strong female presence on the leadership team, and a culture of developing and supporting teachers to be rounded leaders; there doesn’t seem to be that false dichotomy in our school that men are a certain way and women are another. That is, perhaps, also because our academy trust has a very strong ethos of equality, developing staff and quite forward thinking working practices.

There are things which all schools can do, and things which both women and men can do to change institutional cultures:

Schools and school leaders:

  • Unpick ‘masculine’ leadership skills with women. Help them to talk about and embrace those characteristics which they might have subconsciously seen as being unfeminine or unattractive. You could provide scenarios to talk through and unpick how they make people feel and why that might be.
  • Provide practice support for challenging situations. Some of the most useful development I have had as a leader is when senior colleagues have let me practice with them before having the real challenging conversation with someone I lead. This gives you a sense of stability and conviction in what you are saying, as well as a chance to talk through what to do if conversations go in a direction you are not expecting. (Thanks to Mark, Jonny, Caroline and Kat – they are all leaders I have worked with who have given me that time.)
  • Provide coaching for women. Having someone to talk through concerns or challenges without them giving answers or solutions is important. A coach asks the right questions – the answers come from you. That strengthens your confidence in yourself, builds independence and resilience, whilst also giving you a range of angles and approaches to a problem.
  • Be vigilant, and call out gender stereotypes in your institutions. If school leaders openly criticise and deal with gendered language and inequality when they come across it, then cultures quickly shift. Remember, the people who are most heavily affected by this issue may not feel comfortable to speak out for themselves.

Women:

  • Be 10% braver. Speak out about your experiences. Educate colleagues. Challenge people when they say or do things which are inappropriate.
  • Re-define femininity. If your own femininity is something which is important to you, then remember that it means so much more than some 1950s submissive housewife. If you work with integrity and honesty, your behaviour at work should never be used to reflect negatively on you as a woman.
  • Ask for support. Reach out to women in your workplace, and women in the wider teaching community for support. Organisation such as WomenEd, the Maternity CPD Project and Women Leading in Education will happily provide mentors, coaches and support to women in education.

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