Smashing our heads on the glass ceiling: what Public Service in the North does to intelligent women

// 22 March 2012

glassceiling2.jpgImage shows a cartoon of a woman, standing on a ladder, looking up at a glass panel blocking her way several rungs up. Shared by Jorge Balarezo under a Creative Commons license.

It isn’t a formal club, but there are a number of us across the north of England. Some of us were Head teachers, some ran other public services. We’re all middle aged. We’re all highly intelligent and were good at our jobs.

And we were all forced out, one way or another, before we wanted to go, and often in circumstances that a man in the same position would have survived.

It’s said in the North that a clever woman’s chances of promotion in public service exist in inverse proportion to the number of ex-miners on local councils and governing bodies. I was “warned” of this fact early in my career, by a woman who had been prepared to keep moving home to be promoted. I resigned myself to either moving or driving great distances (I settled for the latter, adding considerably to my working week) in order to get on. Of course, this factor discriminates against women with families from the start. Most women in my position were either single, childless or had children very early in life who were now adults, but the latter were few and far between.

The other saying I absorbed was that for a woman to be promoted in public service to the same level as a man, she has to be three times as good. Fortunately, this is not difficult.

I got the top job, at 40, with a 15 month old baby. I worked in 2 schools in disadvantaged areas, which was always my choice. Many of my friends and acquaintances succeeded likewise. I’m not saying it happens to everyone; there are many sisters out there still doing the business. But a disproportionate number of us were ousted. And they seem to have a few factors in common.

  • Lack of a male sponsor: Often senior men “sponsor” bright woman, officially or unofficially. I certainly had such support in my race to the top. But hanging onto the job shouldn’t entail the continuing presence of that “sponsor”. I know more than one woman who has just been trashed by the male successor to that “sponsor” and pushed aside, demoted or dismissed on some spurious pretext because the successor wants his “own” team in.
  • Inspection/audit: Often male-dominated, and operating from patriarchal stances about audit being something that is “done to” heads of organisations instead of the more female-friendly way of audit partnership. No one is suggesting that there shouldn’t be rigorous accountability; it’s public money we’re spending, after all, but the “done to” top-down model is a patriarchal one which discriminates against woman managers in all sorts of subtle ways.
  • Maverick thinkers: Male managers are allowed to be mavericks and think outside the box; it’s a quality in them that is highly valued. Women who think for themselves and don’t always do it by

    the book, especially if they are motivated either by altruism or a desire to get the job done more effectively than the rules handed down by predominantly male committees dictate, make themselves vulnerable.

  • Assertive management, especially of money: Again, highly valued in men, denigrated in women. A man who fights for extra resources is a good manager; a woman is an aggressive harpy. And of course, women cannot manage money, can they, poor dears? That’s why I and some of my friends attracted millions into our services, and delivered results in a climate of constantly shifting political interference and dwindling resources.
  • Assertive staff management: Men are “allowed” to be hard-nosed in managing underperforming staff; women are hard bitches and must be put in their place.

    Results: The last 2 Governments keep raising the bar in all walks of public service, including schools. It’s a bit like that song by Placebo: Bionic (yes, I know it’s about a sex toy, but still…) “Harder, faster… forever after… none of you can make the grade.” And it doesn’t matter if women managers achieve better results than any of their male predecessors. Some man will always call your achievements into question and use statistics to render them “not good enough”. Again, I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t always strive for improvement – I did it for my entire career – but male-dominated councils are very quick to jump on female managers who have even the slightest wobble in performance, even if there are very good reasons for this and one of them is the council’s very lack of support for the woman as a manager and leader!

    And yes, some of us get financial pay-off’s when we go, though they’re nowhere near as generous as those men in the same circumstances get! But some don’t; I know of more than one dismissed, grossly unfairly, because she disagreed with a man, who cannot get justice from a patriarchal system of tribunals and appeals.

    With current cuts to public services, things can only get worse for women trying to smash the glass ceiling that still exists here in the north. Some will lose their jobs. Some won’t get promoted in the first place, because they might cost the public purse more by having babies (that still drives some senior appointments up here!) And more will be found wanting and shunted out in an increasingly patriarchal, data-driven, aggressive environment.

    I left about a year ago. It still hurts. Some days I cry, some days I smash things, some days I despair. I was one of the lucky ones in terms of having enough money to live on and start a new life: as a writer, campaigner and long distance walker. And my conscience is clear. I know I did a good job, all things considered. I know I opened windows of opportunity for thousands of young people in disadvantaged areas. I know I had a pretty well unbroken record of raising results.

    But I worry about those who have been left penniless. And I worry about those ambitious women who come after me, and those I tried to push up the ladder, because they were talented and intelligent. What will be left for them?

  • Comments From You

    Saranga // Posted 22 March 2012 at 3:37 pm

    I work on projects witah lot od audits so I’m very interested in this comment:

    “the “done to” top-down model is a patriarchal one which discriminates against woman managers in all sorts of subtle ways”

    Could you elaborate? It’s not something I’ve considered before.

    Peter // Posted 22 March 2012 at 4:22 pm

    Yes I was interested in that comment too. I will confess I’m not entirely sure I agree with the author about the female-unfriendliness of Northern public sector organisations. I’ve experience working with councils in Greater Manchester, and I’ve not seen that really – there’s any number of very senior women, and especially women in schools. Also, the school teaching workforce in the UK is overwhelmingly female, particularly in primary education, and most headteachers are female.

    Also, I’m not sure that women are perceived as not being able to handle budgets. Women are actually rated very highly in his area IMHO, as they’re assumed to be good at juggling household finances. Bit of a stereotype, but one in women’s favour. I think the idea that men ‘oop North, especially miners and mill-workers, are somehow retrogressive, is a bit out-dated and a bit of a stereotype itself to be honest. It’s not all kitchen-sink black and white films up north you know. We’ve got Harvey Nichols and everything. I mean, you’d be hard put to find a miner nowadays, and anyway the miners were actually very respectful of womens contributions – look at the miners wives during the 1984 strike.

    The dangers of one’s mentor or ‘sponsor’ moving on apply to both men and women, though I am intrigued by the idea that when a woman is assertive it’s perceived negatively, and when a man behaves assertively it’s perceived positively. I’d be very interested to know what others think – I’m sure there’s something to that.

    Overall though, I’d be cautious about applying a broad-brush of patriarchy and sexism to issues that I feel are actually just fairly generic of the demands of the modern workplace. We’re alll expected to meet targets, we all find it stressful, and we all find some people difficult.

    Lisa Ansell // Posted 22 March 2012 at 6:36 pm

    You should see how they get rid of the women at the botttom. Its a gristle mill. The social workers get a particularly nasty pattern, administrators in local authorities. Once you get to contracted out level, no terms and conditions so anything goes.

    Loved the ex miners line, and ultimately that is what it is- the combination of public services with a deeply misogynist political system. I have never understood how patriarchy was upheld. Spend a year hanging around a left elitism and misogyny define the left and the right.

    Jolene Tan // Posted 23 March 2012 at 7:41 am

    “Overall though, I’d be cautious about applying a broad-brush of patriarchy and sexism to issues that I feel are actually just fairly generic of the demands of the modern workplace. We’re alll expected to meet targets, we all find it stressful, and we all find some people difficult.”

    Peter, I don’t think it’s a “broad brush” at all; it’s a description that reflects the experiences of many women. You’re right that everyone faces challenges in the workplace, but the manner in and extent to which those challenges play out are definitely influenced by factors like gender, race and class. For example, while everyone strives to manage being both assertive and likeable, achieving a balance between the two which is read by others as acceptable is generally much harder for women than for men. Women often have to choose between being read as “cold but competent” or “nice but useless”, whereas there is a much wider window of behaviours which in men are perceived as “nice and competent”. Women don’t imagine or read sexism and patriarchy into things: it’s there in our everyday experience.

    I’d also be careful about suggesting that a “positive” or “benevolent” stereotype, even if it does exist (and it seems that CP Reece has encountered the opposite) is genuinely a good thing. It can become an excuse to hold someone to different standards based on gender, or to ignore ways in which someone is competent if they don’t quite conform to the stereotype in question.

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