Smashing our heads on the glass ceiling: what Public Service in the North does to intelligent women
CP Reece // 22 March 2012
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.
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.
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?