First of all, who is your feminist role model?
I suppose I take different people for different things. I really admire Jacinda Arden’s leadership of her country, New Zealand. I think she’s warm, empathetic and decisive. I really admire the quiet stoicism and dignity of Angela Merkel, Germany’s president. But professionally, somebody I really look up to is Ms. Burgess who was headmistress for 18 years at South Hampstead. And what I admire most about her is her kind of common sense, can do, positive attitude and the fact that she gave such long service to the school.
We decided to research some former heads of SHHS and we came across Mary Benton who was very much a feminist icon. Whilst head of South Hampstead, she backed a teacher who went on trial for violent suffragette activism. So we were wondering, if you had been headmistress at that time instead of Mary Benton what would you have done?
I think I would have supported any colleague who cared about women’s suffrage. I’m not sure if I would have condoned violence, and somebody I’ve always admired is Millicent Fawcett who was the figurehead for the suffragist movement. And I think, arguably, that was a more effective approach, to work with Parliamentarians, to listen to people, and perhaps she got more change. So, I probably wouldn’t have condoned that teacher, but I would’ve supported her passion.
Moving back into the present day, you went to Oxford and hold a very high-positioned job. How much sexism would you say that you have faced on your path to getting to where you are today?
I’ve been lucky that the education sector is a really good place for women to thrive professionally. The majority of teachers are women, although the majority of headteachers and senior leaders are men. But have I actually faced sexism? I’m not sure I have, or maybe we just didn’t talk about it as much. I think the times when I found I was frustrated was actually some of the well meaning, slightly stupid things people say. I remember when I was on maternity leave, I would get all sorts of questions from other women, making assumptions about the fact that maybe I’d be going part-time, despite the fact I was the main breadwinner but my husband didn’t have to face any of those questions at all. And that was probably one of the first times where I thought, maybe things are different for women. Maybe I am being treated differently.
Just to lead on from that, how did you deal with these microaggressions that you describe?
By going back to work and cracking on with it! I did become conscious, when I was in my early 30s, that my path was quite different and I was always clear that I was on a different path from women that had made different choices than me. It did make me think about what it means to be a woman and what happens when you get to your 30s, because that’s when some of the biggest gender pay gap issues arise; when women take time out to bring up children or to take maternity leave. I think one of the best things to do is for people to pay men more when they go on paternity leave. It’s common for a man to take paternity leave that’s only for about two weeks, but they’re actually entitled to take up to a year’s leave. The parents can easily just share it out between them but it often seems that that still falls to the mother, to take that time off to care for a family and I think that that’s because we don’t pay partners enough.
Our generation faces a lot of sexism which is primarily in the form of sexist jokes from people around our age. So what would you say is the best way to respond to someone who does say something sexist, for example: women belong in the kitchen?
Oh, has someone said that to you?
It is quite incredible that someone would say that in 2021. I would say, call them out on it. I’d probably say that they ought to get back to the 1950s because that’s where they belong, not in the 21st century. There’s nothing wrong, obviously, with enjoying cooking but that’s an outrageous thing to be saying and if anyone says that, they need to be called out on it.
As a school, we talk a lot about achieving equality in traditionally male dominated areas of work but teaching is a traditionally female dominated career path, so we were just wondering what is SHHS doing to help achieve equality in that field?
Well actually, if you look at our teachers, about 35-40% of our teachers are male, which is quite a high figure. I think that it’s very good to have a diverse workforce and we can definitely do a lot more to increase its diversity but I think that SHHS has quite a good gender balance. In terms of gender pay gap, the GDST published a report several years ago, which showed pay is 1% in favour of men. It was partly because certain senior roles were more commonly held by men. But how do you change it? I think it comes down to, when you’re recruiting being really mindful of some of the unconscious biases that can play out. For example, directors of finance and operation within the GDST are more often male but they don’t need to be; they could just as well be female.
Recently, a lot of attention has been brought to the issues women face. So what is South Hampstead doing to help students start conversations, stay safe, and learn about combatting sexism?
Our whole culture is geared towards instilling a sense of empowerment, initiative and confidence in young women, in all sorts of different ways. It’s about that unseen and unspoken culture that says this is a school where girls can do anything that takes their interest and we always want to hear great ideas and I think that does build young women’s confidence. So I think the school’s culture is one of the things. In terms of what we explicitly educate about, I think it’s really important that we talk about issues like consent, pornography (which, unfortunately, probably has a huge impact), and I think it’s about recognising that some of the issues we faced as teachers are the same as the ones young people face today, but some are really different. So I think listening to pupils and giving them a safe space to talk about anything and everything, makes them feel heard and feel like we are listening to them. It’s fundamentally all about hearing pupils' voices, and understanding their experiences.
A lot of allegations have come out from the Everyone’s Invited movement from schools such as UCS. As a girls' school, do you think we should be creating more communication and classes with boys' schools on these topics?
We have planned some student workshops with UCS for next year. It’s something we’ve been thinking about doing for a couple of years and the Everyone’s Invited movement led us to return to the idea. If you talk to people, you develop a sense of mutual respect. I think the behaviour seems to stem from a lack of respect and not treating sexual partners or girls as equals or humans, instead just seeing them as objects that you can score points with to gain status with your friendship group. Talking with people is really good because it makes people see each other as humans and understanding the effects of these actions really brings it close to home and makes people reevaluate a lot. Sometimes to create change, all you need is a little catalyst and from that, you build up each step to a better world.
As we all know, SHHS’s mascot is the penguin, so we were wondering, what’s your favourite species of penguin?
[Long pause] Well I suppose it would have to be the Emperor Penguin - after all, I am a classicist!