Why schools may be the key to gender-happy workplaces

Recently, questions of gender, workplace practices and professional behaviour have made their fair share of headlines. Perhaps most obviously, we learned that barrister Charlotte Proudman had taken the decision to ‘shame’ solicitor Alexander Carter-Silk who had sent her a message, in response to her own seeking a connection on the professional social media site Linkedin, in which he described her profile photograph as ‘stunning’. She replied with a rebuke, and then published an account of the transaction on Twitter.

Predictably, the behaviour of both has drawn criticism. For some, he is a chauvinist – arguably emblematic of the culture ascribed to some of the country’s top companies by Clarissa Farr of St Paul’s Girls’ School, which she says sees high-flying young women driven out by ‘laddishness and low-level discrimination’. For others, she is a ‘feminazi’, who has chosen to misinterpret a well-intended compliment as an act of sexism.

I have no personal stake in this particular debate and no strong feeling as to culpability, or with regard to any prevailing trend. In my many years at work in a variety of professional environments, I have heard equally belittling and sexist comments from both male and female colleagues – the Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus idea that the sexes are from different planets sometimes still prevails. However, as the headteacher of a co-educational prep school (Bedales was one of the first independent co-educational schools in the UK), I have more than a passing interest in how educational institutions might help to foster respectful, kind and supportive relations between men and women.

In July, Dr William Richardson of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference drew attention to the problems of a ‘laddish’ culture in some corners of Britain’s universities – a subject that in recent years has been a concern for the National Union of Students (NUS), and on which it is seeking institutional responses. My strong feeling is that the work of educational establishments, which are influential in the earlier lives of young people, may be the key to the ways in which they relate in gender terms later in life, and that this has implications both for what our schools do and how they are constituted.

It is important that all kinds of schools, whether co-ed or single sex, take care over the subliminal or even overt messages that they send out to young men and women about the opposite sex. If it is our shared wish that employees in Britain’s organisations might see each other as fellow human beings and professionals, then all schools share a duty to ensure that equality runs deep throughout their approaches to school life. If schools are truly to prepare our young people for their future places of study and work, then they should offer an environment that has close to equal numbers of both men and women in the staff room and girls and boys working, playing and building friendships together from a very young age. Teachers must set the example in how they treat each other in the workplace and take equally swift action in any behaviour that is sexist from girls and boys. The same rules must apply to staff themselves: I hope that we have the kind of ‘equalist’ environment at Bedales Prep School where we can pay each other compliments and know that they are meant with kindness and respect – we want our staff and pupils alike to have skins that are neither too thick nor too thin. That Charlotte Proudman was upset by the ‘stunning’ comment may say as much about the conditions within her places of work and learning as it does about her. That Alexander Carter-Silk felt confident in making it perhaps says much the same.

By Jane Grubb, Head of Bedales Prep, Dunhurst

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