I’ll start by taking you back in time to a rather overcast weekend in the quaint town of Shepton Mallet. Hardly the ‘hen weekend’ capital of the UK, but nevertheless the setting for where this blog begins. Amongst my nearest and dearest the games began, amidst tea, cake and copious amounts of Prosecco. I was wrapped in loo roll, unwrapping sordid gifts before finally being subjected to a rather embarrassing version of ‘Mr and Mrs.’ Those of you of an age will know the premise; your partner gets asked a series of questions. Your challenge is to be asked the same questions and gauge what you think your partner has said about you.
It started off well…favourite actress? Julie Andrews. Tick. Favourite food? Cheese sandwich. Always. With a side of Wotsits. Tick. A marriage meant to be…
“What is her most annoying habit?”
The Prosecco had truly kicked in by this point, rendering my filtering systems defunct. A barrage of random idiosyncrasies emerge (not to be shared on this blog; what happens in Shepton Mallet, stays in Shepton Mallet, dear reader…) to no avail.
“What is it?” I cry in desperation.
The answer? That I say sorry. A lot. Too much. So much so, my (now husband) rendered it a bad habit, akin to nose picking, or teeth grinding. This particular habit it seems has remained with me and has infected my career. Many a time I have started a whole-school CPD session with an apology that a) staff were there (they needed to be), b) they had to listen to me (was I really that bad?) and c) that I would be as quick as I could (possibly likening my pearls of wisdom to a tooth extraction or a smear test – it would all be over soon…). I’m also well-known for my emoji-tastic emails, in attempts to soften what to others might seem an overly-assertive set of expectations.
Taking the time to really reflect on this, what has startled me is that this isn’t a unique phenomenon, particularly for women. Whilst watching candidates present for Head Boy and Head Girl at the school in which I work, I was taken aback by the innate differences. Whilst all students did an amazing job, there were marked contrasts. The boys were confident in what they were ‘going’ to do, succinct and assertive in how the role would play out, should they get it. The same was not to be said for the girls. They were apologetic in the copious amount of work they had produced, the depth of their PowerPoints and the clear amount of time and effort that had gone into it. Phrases such as “I’d like”, “I hope” and “If I’m good enough” trickled off their carefully- rehearsed tongues, alongside a plethora of ‘sorry’. It was as if it was an accident they were there at all.
This was also the case with friends. Amazing women that I know, who questioned their eligibility for job applications, because they “needed to get a year under their belt” and “felt they weren’t quite ready” for jobs they could probably do standing on their heads. Friends that completed marathons for charity and raising hundreds of pounds, prefixing Facebook photographs of their glorious achievements with the hashtag #sorrynotsorry. (Are they apologising for not apologising?).
Such is the scale of my ‘apology-affliction’, there is even money to be made from it. A Gmail plug-in called ‘Just not Sorry’, which you can use when sending letters or emails. It acts as a ‘spell-checker’ for any self-deprecation detected and a handy little pop-up will critique it and berate you for its tone. (I envisage hours doing battle with said plug-in, apologising every time it told me off for my apology).
Is it such a dreadful thing, to have the trait of the apologetic demeanour? While many argue that it suggests a deeper notion of self-worth, through years of social conditioning to be ‘compliant’ and ‘good’, others argue (to quote a wonderful article in The Guardian by Elizabeth Day and Barbara Ellen):
“Some women carry the people-pleasing gene to the point of self-harm, but let’s not forget that women can also be superb, hyper-intuitive people-readers and managers – fielding skills and qualities that burn bright in the workplace.”
In a culture of pace and expectation, targets and judgements, is it so wrong to actually feel apologetic when dealing with staff? In The Curse of the Good Girl, Rachel Simmons argues that “Apologising is one way to make yourself more accessible and less threatening". Equally, are those staff that may possess some of the characteristics shown by the students and staff mentioned earlier losing out and not putting themselves forward, for fear of getting it wrong?
One of the really positive things coming out of my meetings with the Women Leading in Education group, is the need for us to consider and address some of these factors that may affect promotion and to be proactive in how we support those staff (men and women). How many of these self-deprecating staff are not putting themselves forward for promotion in schools; how many of them aren’t letting their managers know about the work they do, often working hard in isolation; how many are not asking for help, because they feel guilty for taking up time or feel it’s a sign of weakness?
What I have taken from our work thus far, is to think about what questions schools could ask themselves, in order to address some of these issues. What if we looked at recruitment literature, changing the semantics of language for columns that dictated what was ‘essential’’ and ‘desirable’ (how many of us haven’t gone for a job, feeling we don’t meet what might seem a small section of the ‘essential’ criteria)? How can leadership teams in schools really identify the experience and talent in their staff and noticing those not always as visibly ready for promotion? How are schools ensuring that part-time staff (who often unavoidably miss opportunities and can often be overlooked) still have the same access to CPD and opportunities as everyone else?
These are just a few examples; as someone who always cites moving into leadership ‘by accident’, it was actually because I was noticed beyond my babbling apologies and overly-laminated resources at interview; because people gently nudged me into having confidence in what I was doing; because people made me see my mistakes as learning points, not failures, that I bucked the trend as a (ready for this?) part-time Mum who was on the leadership team as part of a job share. (I know, right?)