looking ‘professional’


We have started to analyse the women and wardrobe survey data. While the survey is still open for further responses, we have already downloaded the first 300 surveys or so worth of data.

One of the things that struck us immediately was how many respondents said that women leaders both wanted and needed to look professional.

So we have begun to think about what this term ‘professional’ means. And like good little researchers we ’ve been having a bit of a look at what other people have said.

There’s a distinct idea in the texts we’ve read of a managerialist professional. This is someone whose work is primarily about, well, management above all else.  So while all leaders have to ensure that their organisation runs smoothly, managerialist leaders are those who think and act as if management is all that counts.

Managerialism is often said to produce a ‘low trust’ organisational culture, through multiple forms of regulation via documentation and monitoring, regular auditing of various forms of performance measures, tight control of staff and a heavily hierarchical structure. Decision-making is carried out separate from staff who are expected to implement those decisions. Feedback is often through highly formal processes.

Managerialist professionalism is contrasted with democratic professionalism where a high trust culture is developed through flat organisational structures, ongoing discussion and collaborative decision-making. Activist professionalism goes further, suggesting a role and responsibility for the professional in advocating for the profession and its wider concerns.

Many books and papers about educational leaders suggest that the very idea of an educational professional has changed over time to now mean a managerialist. Where an educational leader was once thought about as a caring, knowledgeable teacher, they are now thought about as someone who manages, is entrepreneurial and business-like.

This view is challenged by other researchers who say that there is no sharp boundary between managerialism and management, and that life in schools is just messy and complicated. In this context, being a professional means managing the complexity without letting staff and students suffer the worst effects of externally imposed policies.

So what might this all mean for our survey and “looking professional” in schools? for wearing clothing that signifies the wearer is a professional?

Is “the jacket” the symbol of an expectation that today’s educational leaders are inevitably business like and managerialist?

That they are interchangeable with any other leader in any other occupation?

Is the jacket a managerialist mask that is taken off when the most judgmental observers are not looking?

Does wearing corporate clothing make a school leader become more managerialist – do the clothes begin to wear them and not the other way around?

Or something else entirely, none of the above.

Welcome to our ambiguous world of interpretation!

If you have any thoughts on what ‘professional’ means to you, we’d love to hear from you.


Some of our reading:

Gary Anderson and Michael Cohen 2018 The new democratic professional in education Teachers College Press

Kathleen Lynch, Bernie Grummell and Dymphna Devine 2012 New managerialism in education. Commercialisation, carelessness and gender. Palgrave Macmillan

Judyth Sachs 2003 The activist teaching profession Open University Press



Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash


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