dress, jacket, suit – what’s in a name?


The first writing from the initial women and wardrobe survey has now been published. We called our book chapter Manufacturing the woman leader, with a nod here to the idea of fabrication and construction, but we didn’t try to do anything really clever with the idea of clothes themselves.

Perhaps we should have.

Amanda’s university press office covered our publication and came up with a great wardrobe oriented title – Hanger management. Their press release was picked up by a few journalists – one of whom headed her piece Suiting the part.

We are aware of how many clever and/or groan-worthy titles might be made about our project.

There’s still more to do with the word suit. Who is suited for leadership? is probably a title that we will use at some point. Such a title will allow us to write a paper about the overt and hidden selection criteria that are used to recruit and appoint people to the job. We do have some information about this and we would certainly like to collect more.

We often think about the publication that might go with a title like Leadership as straight jacket – rather than straitjacket. This title might help us to talk about leaders having to walk a straight line enforcing government policy whether they agree with it or not. Perhaps this title gives us a way to come at the kinds of restrictive expectations that seem to sit around the leader role. The straightjacket title would give us the option to talk about leaders’ autonomy, what freedoms are possible, and what aren’t. Importantly, the double meaning also provides a way to talk about the gendering and de-and re-sexualising of leadership – and what is sometimes called “heteronormativity” in the leadership and organisation literatures.

Then there’s the possibilities of dress. We think of the notion of add-dress. A paper on add-dress might talk about the career pathways to leadership, and being “called” to the job. An add-dress paper could talk quite literally about what the position is called – I had someone use the term headmistress to me just the other day, so gendered titling has not entirely vanished. Or perhaps we could use the notion of re-dress to think about the ways in which the job might be redesigned, how discrimination in recruitment and promotion might be got rid of, how past injustices in the system might be recognised.

Titles of papers are always a bit of fun. But playing with words has a serious side. Word play allows us to think about the ways in which we can come at our/your data to write something that is important about women in leadership positions.


Photo by Amanda Vick on Unsplash


a dressing down


Unwashed hair and pokemon pyjamas not wanted here. Why? It isn’t professional and your students deserve better.

That’s the abbreviated version of a recent advice column in Insider Higher Education. The advice is directed to academics teaching online, academics working from home.

There’s been a lot of understandable heat about the piece on social media. Lots of people have pointed out that it’s really hard to combine home schooling, parenting and working “normal hours” and students need to cut their lecturers a bit of slack. Others have queried the idea that “professional” is something that relies on appearance and that it’s the quality of teaching that matters. The gendered nature of the article has also been noted – the disappointing appearances were highly feminised, as were many of the issues in the responses – women bear the brunt of additional parenting and domestic labour.

There was also a strong cry for evidence – what made the graduate student writer think that unwashed hair and PJs were even happening? Was there really a slip in standards as was alleged?  

But the mention of pyjamas in the article somehow made me think of times in schools where teachers don’t look as expected – and contra to this article – it is actually all OK. Better than OK in fact.

What I am thinking of? Well –

  • World Book Day. Teachers and leaders come to school dressed as their favorite book character. WBD is a chance to be a bit imaginative and show something about yourself that might not be obvious. It’s a chance to have a bit of fun, to play a part, to teach as if you are the Gruffalo, to run a staff meeting as Jo from Little Women.
  • Casual day. The kids come without uniform. Maybe the staff wear school uniform or they too adopt much more casual clothing than usual. Everyone’s a PE teacher in trackies. Well. It’s all a bit more relaxed isn’t it. We see each other as if we are not at school, but at home, on the weekend, at the supermarket.
  • Melbourne Cup Day. Typically a short day. Frocks and fascinators. Florals. Stappy high heels. A chance to dress up and reveal our glitzy selves. A bit of glam inserted in the usually business-like school. It’s OK to party now and then. (Ditto school socials.)
  • School camps. Yes the pokemon PJs and bedhead hair are on show at the school camp, as school becomes an everyday/everynight affair. And yes teachers and leaders wear slippers and no makeup too, just like grownups at home.

It’s not like these divergent clothes days happen all the time. They are exceptional and extraordinary – as well as welcome.

Contra to the chiding of the IHE article, I reckon school students really love seeing their teachers out of professional clothing now and then. Rather than seeing them as unprofessional, they see teachers as having personal as well as professional lives, teachers and leaders playing and working out, teachers and leaders as parents, teachers and leaders as ordinary.

And my hunch is that school students are likely to forgive the occasional online lapse in business like appearance during the pandemic, and be understanding about their teachers doing the best they can under extraordinary circumstances. Perhaps that is because they are exposed now and then to teachers and school leaders dressing differently. Perhaps also school students just have stronger relationships with their teachers than university students do with their lecturers. Whatever the reason, I find it hard to imagine the “unprofessional” critique coming from school students.

Perhaps I am just kidding myself. Perhaps not. What do you think?


Phot: Preston Manor staff: Brent and Kilburn Times March 7, 2019.



the power of the image


Last week Amanda and I were in the same place at the same time. Yippee!

And we were able to do two pilot interviews. One was to see how it was interviewing by video. The other was to see what an interview with a retired head/principal would yield.

We aren’t going to tell you who these two people were, as our ethics protocol is that people and their data are anonymous. But we’re really enormously grateful for the help at this time, as we learnt a lot. We thank our two anonymous women leaders for their time and generosity.

Here’s one of the things we found out.

The retired head brought a whole load of photos of herself at various stages of becoming a leader. These were official school photos of all of the staff taken at the same time as the annual student class photos. We hadn’t asked her to do this, but she brought them because they showed the point she thought we would be most interested in. Her initiative was sooooo helpful.

The retired principal – let’s say RP1 for the moment – had been told when she was a Deputy that one of the reasons she wasn’t successful in job interviews for the top job was that “she didn’t look like a leader”.

Her first photo illustrated what this un-leader-like look was – spiky hair and bright prints. Now we do have to remember that this was the early 80s and her look was fashionable and, at the time, hardly outrageous. Yet it wasn’t apparently conservative enough. Over time, she modified the look, smoothing down her hair, and opting for more tailored clothes in block colours and patterns.

The Deputy who was successful in an interview wore, according to RP1’s school photo, had a different style. This was epitomised in a school pic where she was wearing a dark maroon shirt with a tied loop at the neck – not a pussy cat bow, but something that definitely referenced a male tie. Her hair was “normal” as was her clothing, whereas in previous photos she stood out from the crowd, being just a little different from the other women in the staff picture. Now she fitted right in.

Later however, when RP1 was a principal, she showed us how she was able to modify her look again. Make it less conservative. This was in part through an asymmetric haircut, often with a noticeable red streak. There were still sometimes the pearls she had adopted when going for principal interviews, but now accompanying tailored, fashionable clothes, often black.

While Amanda and I of course knew that many women leaders did modify their appearance in order to become acceptable to conservative interview panels, we were really surprised how telling the changes were when presented as a sequence of chronological images.

The changes RP1 showed us were not just changes in fashion, but a re-fashioning of a leader image to “fit” the job, and win it. We had tangible evidence that an unwritten dress code, known colloquially as “twinset and pearls’, was strongly in play in the past, determining who would get promoted, and who wouldn’t.

Amanda and I are now very keen to do a lot more work with photos and see what else we can learn. Visual – image based – research has begun.


Photo by Cornelia Ng on Unsplash

the visible leader

School leaders are highly visible. They stand at the front of school assemblies and speech nights in full view of parents, staff and students.  Their photo appears in school prospectuses and school websites. They meet and greet visitors and represent their school at all manner of gatherings. They may even find themselves interviewed by the media, their person beamed all over the region, perhaps even the world.

It is little wonder that with this much exposure, the wardrobe choices that leaders make matter.

Having said that, not all leaders respond in the same way to possible critical appraisal of their “self”  – and by implication, their school.

It’s clear that there are a number of possible ways to deal with visibility. Here’s a few of the most obvious:

  • In order to avoid any negative views of the school and me, I will wear the most professional clothing I can manage.
  • In order to deal with the critical stare of others I will choose clothing that makes me feel good, and feel powerful.
  • I feel a bit like an imposter in this job so I wear clothes that work as a protective armour.


  • I want people to see that I am my own person and do the job my way, so I  choose clothing that expresses my individuality.
  • I want people to know that I am likely to get down on my knees with children at any time of the day so my wardrobe is always practical.
  • I don’t think what anyone wears is particularly important – neat, clean and ordinary is good enough.
  • I want the focus to be on the school not on me, so unspectacular professional clothing is what’s needed.

These are all responses that we saw in our survey. But we are sure that there are other views too.

We hope to get around to interviews at some point so we can hear what else people have to say. We are however having some difficulty in finding some funding for this stage of the process – but we do hope to move on from documents and the survey at some point soon.

out of hours wardrobe


Holidays in both the Southern and Northern hemisphere – yay, although there was a much shorter break in the north. But there was some time to ditch the work persona and wardrobe. To become something else – parent, party goer, movie audience, just another shopper.

Most of the leaders in our survey told us that their wardrobe changes when they are away from school. Well OK. Not entirely all. Some leaders continued to wear much the same thing on the weekend as they did during the week. But for the most part, shedding the jacket was part of signalling that school leaders were Not Working.

However, we know from research that this is not actually true. School leaders do a lot of work when they are at home. Regardless of whether they are still in business dress or changed into comfortable trackies and slippers or jeans and a tee shirt, school leaders keep working long after the school bell.

The failure to separate leisure from work is a characteristic of professional life according to Christena Nippert Eng. Studying staff in a laboratory, Eng showed that technical staff were much more successful at separating work from the rest of their life than their professional scientist bosses. Scientists not only worked in home offices but also often had work-related ‘stuff’ spread out all over the house – kitchen table, bedroom, lounge room. Sound familiar?

Eng’s insight is helpful for our wardrobe study as it suggests that work clothing is not associated with all of the work of leading, and is in fact only needed for part of the total. The part where you have to be on display as a leader. The part where you represent the school. The part where you are, as many of our survey respondents told us, a role model for students. The part where you have to signal “I’m at work”, not on holiday.

But the actual job of leading goes on long after the jacket has been hung up.

Photo by Marcos Rivas on Unsplash


handbag, satchel or backpack?

When I was a child, a doctor decided that the scoliosis in my spine was not severe enough to be treated. I am always grateful for that decision, the thought of back operations or some form of iron corset support fills me with horror. But I had always been aware that the bendy backbone might lead to a problem as I got older. What I hadn’t thought about was how my choice of work bags might contribute to the problem.


As headteacher I routinely carried a satchel of stuff home each night. This often included some marking from the one class I managed to teach, as well as most of the day’s correspondence, official documents I had to read and so on. The satchel was usually functional rather than stylish. Roomy. And generally hefty and heavy. With a strap as well as a handle. I always had a handbag – definitely more stylish than the big bag.

My usual practice was to sling both satchel and handbag over my left shoulder leaving my right arm and hand free to manage greetings and doors in between me and my destination – another meeting in another part of the school, the school car park, the regional office car park. This bags-on-left-shoulder habit meant that I had to lean from the waist to the right side to counter balance the weight.

Well you can see where this is going. The result is permanent damage to a somewhat vulnerable back.

These days, as an academic, I still carry a load of stuff to and from work. I now also have a re-usable cup, re-usable shopping bag and a re-usable water bottle to add to the books and correspondence.  But now I have only a backpack which, particularly when it’s very heavy, holds my back straight and – bonus – generally gets rid of any back ache that has been caused by too much sitting down or too much standing on one spot when teaching.

Why didn’t I just use a backpack then?

Well, in my defence I was a headteacher a long time ago, and backpacks were far less common than they are now. Most of them were designed for walkers and travellers and they were all a bit earnest.

But even if there had been the equivalent of my current sleek Scandi leather backpack available, I’m not entirely sure I would have opted for it. I do wonder whether I would actually have chosen something that looked more ‘casual’ than the (standard at the time) headteacher handbag and satchel. I like to think that if I really knew that bag-carrying would contribute to the bad back I now have that I would have chosen the backpack. Sense would have prevailed.

But there’s something rather informal about the backpack. Something a bit student-y. Something that perhaps doesn’t entirely fit with the jacket and professional dress code expected of the boss?

Amanda and I haven’t asked headteachers about their bags. But I think we will. I do wonder if it’s another one of those areas where how we think we are seen by others, what we think the unspoken norms and expectations are, actually influence our wardrobe choices.

Do any heads use a backpack and not a handbag and satchel I wonder?


Photo by David Pisnoy on Unsplash

great expectations


There was outrage recently about the report of an executive development programme at Ernst and Young. According to the Huff Post, women executives were told to dress and act nicely around their male colleagues. This meant, according the a 55 page document given to the HP reporter, that women were to have a “good haircut, manicured nails, well-cut attire that complements your body type”. Executive women were also told “don’t flaunt your body – sexuality scrambles the mind (for men and women).”

Now, while this kind of professional development really does sound as if it comes straight from the ark, it did make me think about the benefits of having norms made explicit. When something is put into writing or said out loud, it can be dealt with. What’s said can be rejected, refuted, resisted.

What’s harder however is when these expectations and attitudes don’t disappear but just go underground. They become a kind of hidden curriculum that can be ‘seen’ and ‘heard’ only in actions or in patterns of outcomes.

I vividly remember an incident from my last headship. I was talking with one young man about his unacceptable behaviour. At one point he told me that “Everyone would take you more seriously if you wore a suit everyday like Mr (name of the head of a neighbouring school)”. I laughed – I am sure this wasn’t the response he expected. But while this was just another variation on his teenage-challenges-to-school-authority, his comment did make me wonder what kinds of conversations went on between the students about how I and other senior women on the staff dressed. What kind of expectations and norms were hidden from me/us?

Now I am quite sure that I wouldn’t have changed the way I dressed if I knew the answer to this question. But I would have done something to address it.

We are interested in the idea of a gendered hidden curriculum of appearances and behaviour. We see the traces of its existence in our other research in schools, and in some of the answers to our survey.

We know from professional experience and research that any kind of hidden curriculum matters. And it may matter quite a bit in relation to leaders. After all, it may be a hidden curriculum which frames relationships within and without the school rather than any  written code. And a hidden curriculum may also be a serious issue in employment, promotion and performance related judgments.

Surfacing the hidden curriculum of gender and leadership, seeing and hearing it, is a much more difficult task than that faced by the Huff Post reporter who had it all laid out for her in a 55 page text. But equally important.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

not just any brooch


Many of us who follow the dismal story that is British politics will have noticed the commentary on Lady Hale’s spider brooch. Headlines included – it draws the eye but repels; a perfect icon for our times; say it with a brooch.

And of course the inevitable merchandising followed – tote bags and T-shirts first off the merch mark – some of it worthy fundraising.

Nothing I read about the brooch quite got into the obvious cultural reference –  Spiderwoman with superpowers taking on the Evil Establishment. No-one negatively referred to those 1930s devilish movie heroines dressed in sequinned Black Widow web frocks, or to the elegant de-fanging of this stereotype by Morticia from the Addams Family. Opportunity lost.

The Guardian predictably noted the fusion of fashion and politics:

Hale is a brooch trailblazer. She has a particular fondness for creepy crawlies – frogs, beetles and the like. On her profile on the supreme court website, she wears a brooch of a caterpillar – like the spider, it’s an animal that hardly has the cute factor on its side. Madeleine Albright, as secretary of state under Bill Clinton, was open about her use of brooches – or “pins” to Americans. After being called an “unparalleled serpent” by Iraqi state media, she wore a snake brooch to her next meeting with the country’s officials and her brooch-as-statement career began. Albright published a book called Read My Pins in 2009 and has continued to allow her pins to say it all. The smashed glass ceiling design, worn to watch Hillary Clinton make her nominee speech in 2016, broke the internet. 

US Vogue similarly commented

Hale’s ability to take on Boris Johnson while maintaining her signature sense of style has done the impossible and made brooches politically relevant for the first time since Madeleine Albright used them to subtly convey her feelings; perhaps they’ll go the way of Senator Wendy Davis’s pink filibuster sneakers and turn into bona fide resistance symbols.


We wished they’d said more. We are very interested in jewellery as more than ornamentation. As nosy researchers with an interest in wardrobe, we want to know what went through Hale’ s head as she chose the brooch to wear that day. It sure wasn’t an accident.

What exactly did Hale hope to communicate through the spider?

Some of our women and wardrobe survey respondents told us that they use jewellery to individualise their work-wear and to send messages – arty, boho, bold were three adjectives used.

We wonder if any  women leaders out there select individual jewellery pieces to send very specific messages? Do any of us do a Lady Hale?

Do any of us wear a women’s symbol to work on particular days? Everyday?

Do we wear pins with messages?

Do we opt for something slightly oblique but nevertheless communicative, like Lady Hale’s spider?

Please do tell us via the comments or on social media if you use any of your jewellery in very particular ways. We’d love to know. (And pictures, yes please, pictures).

not looking enough like a leader

Leaders are always under scrutiny. They can be critiqued not only for what they say, but the way they say it. And the way they look is also often up for comment.

Women leaders seem to come in for much more critical public commentary than their male counterparts. Think of the mainstream media on Thatcher’s bouffant hair, Julia Gillard’s blazers and buttocks and Hilary Clinton’s hair and pantsuits. Angela Merkel recently commented that “It’s no problem at all for a man to wear a dark blue suit for a hundred days in a row, but if I wear the same blazer four times in two weeks, that leads to letter-writing from citizens”. This was, she suggested, a double-standard.

Social media heightens the focus on women in leadership positions. The comments made by the public are often abusive and misogynist. Sometimes they even include rape and death threats.

The latest target of sexist derogatory remarks is Derbyshire’s Deputy Chief Constable Rachel Swann. Appearing on national television to explain emergency actions taken to prevent a dam collapsing, at least some people thought her hair more worthy of comment than the multi-service rescue response she was very effectively coordinating.

Deputy Chief Constable Rachel Swann’s hair was called scruffy, a toilet brush and a sign of lapsed standards.

While school leaders are always conscious of the fact that students, staff and parents may be scrutinising their appearance, most do avoid appearance-based trolling. The risk is always there, of course, that some kind of sudden media attention might bring unwanted and unwarranted comments. It’s too too hard to imagine a Rachel Swann style troll attack happening to a headteacher/principal.

Writing about the way in which media chooses to comment on women leader’s appearance, Amanda Hess from Slate Magazine said

In the United States, male politicians are set up with a pretty uniform dress code—dark suit, necktie, nondescript dress shoes—and it is never news. This is a code that evolved at a time when women did not run companies, states, or government agencies. By the time they migrated out of the kitchen and the secretary pool, women had no default uniform that would help them blend seamlessly into these male-dominated worlds. How every powerful woman chose to navigate that sartorial minefield became a reflection of her individual decision-making skills and thus code for her worth, her politics, and her feminism. Even seemingly mundane choices were seen as statements: Minnesota state Sen. Ellen Anderson was the first woman to wear pants on the Senate floor—in 1993. Hillary Clinton’s uniform of pantsuits (you know, a suit like a man wears, but for a woman) spawned endless think pieces. These wardrobes became the subject of political fascination not because the clothes gave any actual insight into these leaders as individuals, but because they reinforced the fact that they were women first and people second.

Hess’s argument might equally apply to women other than politicians. Her text might also speak to some of the hidden work that women leaders do – we must make ongoing choices about how we will represent ourselves to our communities, potentially critically communities. We are judged on the basis of those choices and they become code for how well we do our jobs.

How can we present ourselves as leaders first and foremost? What kind of wardrobe becomes over-masculine or too girly or too young or too dowdy or too unchanging or too fashionable or too boring or too much like my mother or too sexy or too tasteless or or or  – and therefore draws attention to gender rather than the job we are doing?

Many of the respondents to our survey referred to the need to dress to meet a public ‘gaze’ and we are very interested in this. We wonder what more when can find out when we finally get to have actual conversations!

you don’t look like a leader


Many years ago Jill Blackmore and I did some research looking at principal “supply” – issues in recruitment, employment and retention. At the time there was already a notable problem for some schools in getting people to apply for the top job. We were able to research in South Australia and Victoria – another Australian state refused to be involved.

One of the things that we looked at was the way in which interview panels worked. We talked with people who had been interviewed for principal positions, and also with some people who had been on interview panels.

We came to the conclusion that interviews were often ‘homo-sociable’ – that is, panels tended to employ people just like themselves (Blackmore, Thomson and Barty, 2006).

Gender was a major marker of same-ness and difference in interviews. Sometimes all male or male-dominated interview panels just couldn’t see “merit” in many of the women who applied, nor in a minority of the men.

We didn’t ask people about clothes at the time. We probably should have. But what we were told was enough already. Here is a tiny taste of our findings:

Many research participants believed that women, in general, still faced an element of disadvantage as leadership positions continued to be perceived, by conservative panels, as belonging to men. There was a enduring association between masculinity and strong leadership (disciplinary and directive).

‘I would say’, one male principal said, ‘that my female colleagues have had to apply more widely’ though many were competent and highly talented. Although prejudice against women had fallen away considerably at an organisational level, that is, that is, within the Department and in most schools, he believed, it continued to exist in some localities as ‘… some communities have some old- fashioned, deep-seated attitudes towards appointing women to leadership positions’.


Still going on? 

In response to our last two posts on bare legs and tattoos, we have heard that this kind of discrimination may not have entirely disappeared. It seems that some people are still being told that they need to be – and to dress – a certain way in order to get a job.  We were told of interview panels where being bare-legged would have been seen by panellists as meaning unfit-for-the-role. One women told us that she had been told she wouldn’t be taken seriously for leadership until she put her hair up – long hair worn loose equated to not-leadership-material. We also heard from some women that they cover their tattoos in particular situations – such as interview panels –  in order not to elicit a prejudicial opinion.

We are interested to hear from any aspiring, serving or former school leader who has had experience of wardrobe-related employment troubles. We are particularly keen to hear whether clothes have been read as a non-verbal signal of either leader readiness/suitability or not.

We would love to hear from you – anonymously if you’d prefer – about any troublesome wardrobe incidents that have affected you.

Please use the comments below, social media or email us at patricia.thomson@nottingham.ac.uk or amanda.heffernan@monash.edu.


Blackmore, Jill, Thomson, Pat and Barty, Karin (2006) Principal Selection, Homosociability, the Search for Security and the Production of Normalized Principal Identities. Educational Management, Administration and Leadership 34(3) 297-317

Photo by Syd Wachs on Unsplash