walking the tightrope

This is a guest post by Lacey Austin. Lacey is an experienced secondary school senior leader and teacher of science. She is currently studying for an educational doctorate at Canterbury Christchurch University. As Women in Leadership Southeast Network’s Kent and Medway Champion, Lacey organises events to guide and support more women into school leadership positions. 

Clothes aren’t going to change the world, the women who wear them will.

Anne Klein

From a very young age I have been acutely aware of my ‘femaleness’ and how this can present as both enabling and constraining. I can honestly (and maybe naively) say that I have ‘walked the tightrope’ of embodied femininity most of my life.  Sometimes it has had its advantages (getting served at the bar first) but it has also been to my detriment (sexual harassment).  For a long time I thought that teaching was a gender neutral profession, and being a woman would have very little impact on my successes and disappointments.  I felt I had experienced some gender discrimination when I was passed over for promotion at 6 months pregnant, but at the time I ashamedly accepted that as a pragmatic decision. Maybe it was just my ego’s self-preservation, either way I still haven’t forgiven myself!

Now I feel very different.  I question more and I am beginning to challenge the intricate and sometimes barely visible discriminatory forces at work.  Since becoming a mother to two daughters and taking on the challenges of an educational senior leadership position, I have begun to question my younger self’s assumptions of the power dynamics and tensions at play between resistance and conformity. I am particularly intrigued by how these manifest in the teaching workplace.

Conceptions of the archetypal teacher have formed over generations of school experiences and its depiction on our screens.  An extreme common code of cultural markers such as the ugly, authoritarian, joyless headteacher is pitted against the dominated, kind and beautiful classroom teacher; is seen to be recreated again and again through children’s books, films and cartoons.  Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda’ presents us with a well-known example.  But images from the past are often in contradiction with those of the present.  I have lost count how many times somebody has told me I don’t look like a teacher, my responses vary from a polite “thank you” even though I’m not quite sure what I am thanking them for, to a more sassy “what does a teacher look like then?” Though I am sure meant as a compliment, these comments highlight that women are balancing on a difficult tightrope.  Looking too young, too trendy or too sexy for example, raises eyebrows, draws attention and gets people (men and women) talking and, speaking from experience, not usually in a nice way!  Therefore ‘control’ of the professional body can become a principal (and distracting) concern for women in their professional lives (Braun, 2011).

Recently I have been reflecting a lot about how I dress at work and how this has changed over time.  By drawing a divide between my teacher-self and senior leader-self I am reminded of my promotion to the senior leadership team.  At first I still retained my subject leader responsibilities, I sat in both camps, walking a perceived tightrope of allegiances.  When I eventually relinquished by subject duties I had fully moved to ‘the dark side’ as we good-humouredly called it.  I remember celebrating my promotion with a shopping trip. New suits, formal shirts, structured dresses.  It was clear that I had internalised some expectations of dress that required me to distinguish myself as a senior leader rather than a classroom teacher – a required business-like attire.  I wondered whether I was physically embodying Whitty’s (2008) suggested fragmentation of the teaching profession.

The expectations for teachers’ and leaders’ professional and corporate identity is becoming progressively ordered and legitimised on the basis of quality assurance, league tables and culpability, as opposed to autonomy and trust. The internalisation of these discourses and their articulation through identity including ‘presentation of the self’ illustrate a disciplinary force of self-control and self-surveillance (Foucault, 1991).  The stakes that are involved for schools have necessitated the growth of managerialism, and the development of a distinct managerial tier within schools.  Defining what it means to be ‘professional’ therefore defines occupational characteristics that everyone must conform to.

These reflections have prompted me to think more deeply about a particular item of adornment – my shoes.   It takes very little to send me off on a tangent of thoughts about shoes.  I am back on the tightrope, an amusing image of teetering along in a pair of high heels with arms flailing in the air.  Opening up my wardrobe and looking at my shoes I wonder where the boundary is.  It would be revealing to consider where I would draw the line of what I would wear to work and what I wouldn’t.  I was intrigued to self-assess my boundaries of ‘shoe resistance and conformity’.

Starting by ordering my shoes from those I considered most conforming through to least,  I took one shoe from each pair in my wardrobe and placed them side by side. Re-arranging the shape from a spectrum line to a circle enabled the most and least conforming to be positioned next to each other, providing stark contrast. It is clear from the shoe spectrum how the gendered aspects can be drawn out from this imagery.  When comparing the extremes of the spectrum we can contrast the masculine shape and structure of the most conforming shoe with the stereotypically female high heel and platform.


The consequence of crossing the boundary and wearing such a high heel/platform shoe is the increased potential to be considered a sexual rather than a professional being (Tretheway, 1999).  As Frost reminds, distaste and humiliation are the sanctions that guarantee outcomes of conformity (Frost, 2005).  Thus, the fear of losing hard-fought credibility as a result of excessively sexual or an undisciplined body assumes me the burden of negotiating this fine line.  Negotiating an appropriately sexualised identity is a challenging task.  Which shoe to wear today is always a conscious choice.

My response to this is to keep my body in check, to discipline and control – walking a tightrope that balances expectations of professionalism with personal identity, whether that results in looking like a teacher or not!


Braun, A. (2011) ‘Walking yourself around as a teacher’: gender and embodiment in student teachers’ working lives, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 32:2, 275-291

Foucault, M. (1991) ‘Questions of Method’, in G. Burchell, C. Gordon and P. Miller(eds) The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Frost, L. (2008) ‘Researching Young Women’s Bodies: Values, Dilemmas and Contradictions’, in A. Bennett, M. Cieslik and S. Miles (eds) Researching Youth. Basingstoke: Palgrave/Macmillan.

Trethewey, A. (1999). Disciplined bodies: Women’s embodied identities at work. Organization Studies 20, no. 3: 423–50.

Whitty, G. (2008) Changing modes of teacher professionalism: traditional. Managerial, collaborative and democratic. Exploring professionalism pg 28-49




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