In the spring of 2015, Deputy Principal Helena Marsh attended a conference called Empowering Women in Education Leadership, which brought together serving and aspiring women leaders from both the state and independent sectors at Newton Prep School. The event explored the issues facing women in educational leadership and how they can be addressed. Inspired by the day, Helena wrote a post for the blogging platform @staffrm, entitled What glass ceiling?, which concluded:
“I left the event with a bounce in my trademark red-heeled step, ready to combat everyday leadership sexism and hold out the ladder for other capable women to empower them into educational leadership.”
Helena’s post was widely read and commented on. Former head Jill Berry was one of those who wrote a @staffrm post in response, Lost leaders, in which she reflected on the women she had worked with over the years who had perhaps not fulfilled their leadership potential for a range of reasons. The posts struck a chord, many more posts followed, and a group of seven women, including Helena, got together to launch the #WomenEd initiative, beginning with an ‘unconference’ in London on Saturday 3 October 2015. This was held at the Microsoft Offices, as Microsoft had stepped up to offer partnership and support. There were 200 participants, and more than 65 speakers.
An 'unconference' launch
The ‘unconference’ was special, as, unlike traditional conferences, it did not consist solely of wellknown paid speakers who turn up to deliver their session and then disappear again. At the #WomenEd unconferences, many of the participants speak – in keynotes, workshops, leading discussion groups – in groups of varying sizes, and when they are not presenting they are supporting other sessions. At these unconferences, everyone contributes and everyone benefits. The atmosphere was electric, the mood energising, and so many of the participants left the event fired up and determined to tackle personal and professional challenges with increased confidence and commitment, and, importantly, to support other women along the journey.
Since that first unconference, two more have taken place in Reading and Sheffield; there was a #WomenEd residential at Wellington College in Berkshire, regional groups have been formed and many local events organised and held, and, crucially, relationships have been built and supportive conversations held using Twitter and Yammer and the world of blogs. Initially, many of these blogs and occasional ‘slow chats’ were accommodated on @staffrm, but, since the demise of this blogging platform, a bespoke #WomenEd blog has been launched. It is not unusual for women leaders at all levels to exchange their stories, face-to-face and using social media, about how their professional lives have been transformed through their engagement with the grassroots movement.
In spring 2017, Dr Kay Fuller of the University of Nottingham and Jill conducted research into the first two years of #WomenEd – why and how it had developed, what it had achieved, what issues it had raised and where it might be going in the future.
It is important to remember that #WomenEd is not about disadvantaging men, and it is not even about advantaging women. It is about men and women acting together (as the many #HeForShe supporters would vociferously attest), to make sure women in educational leadership are not disadvantaged, but are actively encouraged and supported.
Jill Berry is a leadership consultant, a former Head, and #WomenEd co-researcher.
Helena Marsh is Executive Principal at Chilford Hundred Education Trust and co-founder of #WomenEd
Jill and Helena are co-leading a breakout session Why #WomenEd? How can it help you to develop your professional potential, and support others? at ASCL Annual Conference 2018 at 11.45am, Saturday 10 March.