‘We mind the gap’: how to challenge gender inequality in 5 steps

Laura Ralph
International Women’s Day this year will take on a bitter taste, after gender pay gap reporting reveals how entrenched gender inequality is in the UK. But how can schools and MATs advance real change? We give you 5 steps to making progress towards gender equality in your schools.

International Women’s Day is here, and I bet you’re celebrating it. Schools around the country will have some empowering messages for students in assemblies and lessons today: learning about female role models who excel in their fields, and the suffragette movement, 100 years on from the first women getting the right to vote.

But this year’s celebrations will also take on a bitter taste. 2017 brought in the requirement for organisations of 250 employees or more to publish their gender pay gap data, to show the difference between pay for men and women. And it’s not looking good in the education sector.

Gender pay gap reporting on GOV.UK reveals that a significant number of MATs above 250 employees have a gender pay gap problem. Men dominate the top quartile of the payroll and a number of MATs have a 20-30% pay gap, with several above 40%.

Ofsted might be below the national average at 8%, according to SchoolsWeek, but men are still getting 20% larger bonuses than women.

It’s one thing seeing the data and being transparent about it. But how did it happen in the first place? None of us think we are being discriminatory. Yet the numbers speak for themselves.

So what can schools and MATs actually do to break society’s entrenched habits? We look at 5 steps you can take to address the hidden cultural barriers to gender equality.

Step 1: Understand where the issue comes from

Gender pay reporting is different to equal pay. Acas explains that unequal pay means paying someone less for doing the same job. It’s against the law to pay people unequally for being a man or a woman.

The gender pay gap is different – it doesn’t indicate that women are being paid unfairly for what they do. But it comes from a history of discrimination against women, where society has assumed that women will take lower-paid roles and leave the leadership positions to men.

But if you only see men in leadership roles, rather than women, your brain starts to forge connections between the two, without your permission. Mary Ann Sieghart, BBC journalist, explains this in a documentary on how we miss the clues on gender bias:

“… if our society is filled disproportionately with men in top positions, we are going to associate “male” with “leader”, “success” and “competence” and “female” with “home”, “children” and “family””.”

Hidden assumptions like this, and the cultural expectations which come with them, lead to men dominating the boardrooms and women missing out.

Measuring the pay gap and publishing it is a good start. But it isn’t enough to enact real change.

Step 2: Watch out for unconscious bias

To find our hidden assumptions, we need to look for them – and that can be difficult to spot if you don’t realise what you’re looking for. Consider training if you think you’re missing the signs.

A teacher friend of mine has found a great way of highlighting bias with her students: through Disney. She’s using clips from Disney films to show her pupils how the representation of women has changed, from Cinderella through to Brave. Her pupils will apply the Bechdel test, which follows simple criteria: whether the film has at least 2 women in it, and whether they talk to each other about something besides a man.

Try the Bechdel test when you’re next watching a movie, and share the results with your class. Talk about unconscious bias with your students in fields they care about, perhaps from sport, culture and politics. Gender representation in the Oscars nominations could be a good, and timely, place to start.

And when recruiting for a new role, Mary Ann Sieghart recommends you are wary of unconscious bias, perhaps being overly “forgiving of a man’s shortcomings” or thinking “the timbre of a woman’s voice lacks authority”. Governors, hold your school leaders to account. Check they use the job specification ruthlessly to decide who gets the job.

Step 3: Show the path to greatness

Women need to see what they’re aiming for. It’s much harder to aspire to leadership if you’ve never seen it up close.

One female teacher working in a MAT told me that having a female CEO and an equal gender split amongst the senior leadership team makes women in leadership the norm. It won’t be a crusade of activism for her to apply when the time comes.

We need to go above and beyond to correct the gender balance for time gone by, and we can learn from best practice in other professions.

Mentoring can support women to identify their career ambitions, craft a strong professional identity and practise skills such as assertive negotiation. Form an ‘informal network’ of peer mentors, for women to watch out for each other and notice opportunities to step out and step up.

Another tip from big businesses is not just placing women where there is a vacancy which needs filling. Try reshuffling your team so that women experience working with a woman in a leadership position for them to emulate.

Your students will learn from what you do, not what you say. When you bring in assembly speakers, or hire a new head of department, think about what messages you’re promoting if women are in the minority in the school’s own public sphere.

Step 4: Watch your mouth

I spoke to teachers who call out sexist jokes and assumptions regularly, in the classroom and, even harder, in the staff room.

If you’re struggling to identify where your gender bias might be creeping through, one teacher suggested videoing your lessons and watching them back with a colleague. Are you engaging with both genders equally in the classroom? A ‘hands down’ policy might help you choose student contributions more fairly. If you’re feeling bold, you could film your staff meeting, too – is ‘airtime’ representative of the genders present?

It’s also challenging to counteract stereotypes in subject choices. This teacher said she teaches her students to be aware of the tendency for boys to study STEM subjects, and girls to study arts, so that they are equipped to consciously choose by interest, not by stereotype.

Another has expanded subject management of STEM into STEAM, incorporating the arts so that it is seen to be of equal value. The arts are essential to problem solving in her school, and using design and creativity as an equal part of the package make for a better end result, for any project. Making the subjects equally valuable means the gender stereotypes have less of a negative impact on women.

Correcting these assumptions will give women a freer choice in their career paths, and in daily life. No more ‘boy jobs’ and ‘girl jobs’ for us.

Step 5: Make leadership sustainable – for everyone

The elusive work-life balance in schools and MATs is a challenge for us all, but it also plays into retaining women in leadership positions. We need to be creative about sustaining the leadership lifestyle for the longer term.

Women commonly think about starting a family at the same time they’re on the cusp of a leadership position. If we assume women have historically been raised to be less mercenary, does this affect whether they will focus on family and not salary when making decisions about their role?

Flexibility over teachers’ pay could also be leading to discrimination by gender, according to NASUWT General Secretary Chris Keates. Female teachers are no longer necessarily retaining their previous main or upper pay scale salary when returning to work after a career break.

Make it clear in your organisation that you can achieve a balance between your career and your life outside work, for men and women. Otherwise you won’t retain those who want to invest more time in their family, and historically, the majority of those has been women.

Moving forward

So how are you going to make this happen in your workplace? I challenge you to talk to someone else in your school or MAT about what can be done differently, for just one of these steps, today. Share your ideas about how to promote gender equality in education with the hashtag #wemindthegap and get the conversation heard.

Remember: one small step for women, one giant leap for womankind. And if we all hold each other to account for making progress, the sky’s the limit.

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