The politics and the costs of looking ‘right’ for women leaders

We’re getting a little bit political in this blog today – but never fear, reader, it does all relate to school leaders.

Some of you might have seen the recent reporting and public commentary surrounding an article about the estimated cost of American politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (AOC) haircut, which a writer estimated to be around $300 (with a tip included). This number didn’t surprise me in the slightest, nor (I imagine) would it have surprised many women. If you aren’t familiar with the story, you can read more about this here, here, and here.

American politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has recently been the face of a heated discussion about the costs associated with having the right ‘look’ as a leader.

The article written about AOC’s haircut was written with a point of comparison included, which contrasted AOC’s hair with a prominent American male politician who would spend $20 on his own haircut – this is comparing apples and oranges at best.

The cost of looking ‘right’ is something we’ve talked about in the past and it’s something that keeps coming up as being a really significant issue for women leaders – clearly, regardless of their field.

This is also not the first time AOC has been put under intense scrutiny for her style – she’s a young, powerful, progressive politician who has certainly ruffled a few feathers in the political landscape. Indeed, her political achievements are incredible – she is the youngest woman ever elected to congress and as a leader, she has become one of the faces of the progressive political movement in the United States (and watched closely by people worldwide).

There are ongoing comments from the media, the public, and other politicians about her clothing and appearance. Previous efforts to stir up outrage have included complaints about a specific blazer of hers, as well as a cover story where she wore clothing from the magazine’s stylist (as would happen in the majority of cover stories).

Attacks often include the notion that she is supposed to be progressive and fighting for progressive causes, which she does while still meeting the standards of appearance that she’s held to. (Examples also abound of other political women being attacked and criticised for not meeting these standards as much as for meeting them.)

Ocasio-Cortez is deliberate about her wardrobe and styling choices, and uses her clothing to convey parts of her identity, and to convey messages. For example, she comments on why she wears what she wears or how her hair is styled when it’s interwoven with meaning.

So why does this matter for school leaders?


The good thing to come out of this is that it has really sparked a more open conversation about the standards of appearance, wardrobe, and dress that women leaders are held to. It has also reinforced the inequity faced by women in these positions in terms of financial cost and the time it takes – I myself am often overdue for a haircut because I can’t find 4 hours to sit in the chair at once. Some great articles have been written that highlight these issues, and they do reflect comments from our participants as well that spoke to the frustration they felt in relation to these issues, and the ways women are held to certain expectations about their appearance (and the associated financial implications of those expectations).

Finally, another issue has been addressed in some of these ongoing articles, when the cost of hair and beauty treatments are criticised (let’s not forget that these are highly feminised professions). Hairdressers are trained and highly skilled professionals and, as I have already mentioned, I’m rarely in the chair for less than 4 hours when I have to get my hair done. They deserve to be paid fairly for their work.

I’ve been really pleased to see the articles that are arguing for recognition of this as an important part of the cost of living – we need to shift the conversation away from these costs, towards a discussion about WHY people feel the need to meet these costs if they don’t actually want to. The implicit and explicit expectations to have the RIGHT hair, to look RIGHT, continue to have financial implications for women.

Do you think this is comparable (perhaps not quite on the same public scale!) for women leaders in education? We’d love to hear your thoughts.



gender and school leadership

We are really aware that our research must not skate over the importance of the realpolitik of wardrobe. What we choose to wear is an expression of how we see ourselves and how we want others to see us. In some cases, this is not a matter of choosing which jacket or scarf to wear today, but whether to dress as the gender you feel.

The story below powerfully illustrates the consequences for school leaders who make gendered choices that go against community expectations. It is perhaps illustrative of limits to the gender choices that school leaders can make.

We would be interested to hear other stories about school leadership and gender choices.

Shannon Daniels’ story

In 2018 Shannon Daniels, an elementary school principal in Massachusetts, wrote to parents of the school where they worked. The letter explained that while they were now ‘he’, they were gender-fluid and would in future be choosing to present themselves differently to the school community.

The district superintendent sent a follow-up letter out straight away expressing support. However, parents presented a no-confidence letter to the school district which listed several concerns, including the safety of children.

Just few weeks after sending out their letter, the principal was told they would be placed on paid leave for the rest of the year, and their contract would not be renewed. But after legal action and negotiation the district offered a lump sum settlement and permission for the principal to return to the same school in a different role.

Shannon Daniels is currently taking a year away from the school getting necessary licences to return to work as a classroom teacher.

(More information in this Boston Globe report  .)

leading – and wearing a mask

I first met Jane Baskwill when she was still a principal in Nova Scotia. She was also a published children’s author. She’d started work on a PhD and I was to be her new supervisor. Having moved out of schools and the principalship myself not so long before, I could immediately relate when Jane showed up at our first meeting carrying a box containing a mask she’d made.


Jane was investigating the experiences of her colleagues, other women who were elementary principals in the province. The mask became a pivotal point for her research.

This is how she wrote about her mask-making.

Instead of thinking in words, sentences and paragraphs, I found myself thinking in images and seeking mediums in which to convey them. I thought about the possibilities of the metaphor in terms of the ‘mask of administration’ I wear each day, a face that is formal and restrictive and one that I would rather not have to wear. I wrestled with the notion that, at times, I feel as if I do hide behind that mask and use the power the position affords to protect myself.

As the mask-as-metaphor took form in my mind’s eye, I felt excited and energized by this phase of the research process in a way I had not been previously. I set to work. The Mask of Administration was molded from my own face using plaster of Paris bandaging material. On its surface I glued segments of the Education Act that described the duties and responsibilities of the principal. I made the hair by putting the documents through the shredder and hot gluing the long strips to the molded form, giving the mask a wild look.

Throughout the making of this mask I felt I was engaged in an act of ultimate defiance. I was defacing a sacred document: The Education Act — the’law’. I took delight in what felt like a subversive act. The mask was an inside joke played on the ‘system’.

The mask allowed Jane to interrogate her own experiences and ambivalences in the job. But it also provided a focus for her interpretation of her colleague’s experiences and her relationships with them.

The Mask of Administration also symbolized for me the way I had had to camouflage the identity of the principals such that they became dis-embodied participants in this research. So that my use of their words would not do them harm, they had to remain ‘faceless’. However, by creating masks as another way to (re)-present my analysis of the data I was able to give them form and life. I was also able to externalize the dilemmas of representation and have “re-imagined” (Neilsen, 1998) masks as a form of textual representation.

As I made masks of my own I began to see them as part of my own personal mythology surrounding my work as principal and the (re)-presentation of that work and the work of others. I made 8 masks (in addition to The Mask of Administration), one for each of the 8 women whose transcripts I had chosen to work with. As I listened repeatedly to the tape recordings of the interviews, the visual images I had became clearer and clearer. I sketched my ‘impressions’ for each and listed possible materials I could use. I constructed each mask using my face as the mold. Each mask was a (re)-presentation not only of the transcribed interview but also of my experience during the interview. Instead of constructing categories and themes, or verses of poetic prose, I worked with plaster, clay, wood and paper.

Young (1998), says of his masks: “I want the masks to transport the viewer to places we don’t need to understand (and may not be able to) but do need to experience “. In relating this to my research I discovered that creating masks enabled me to (re)-present my thinking about the data. It seemed fitting to use this ancient art form to ‘give face’ to the otherwise anonymous ‘informants’. The masks afforded them protection but also gave face to their voices as I heard them.

These masks thus became “Talking Heads” which afforded me the power to replace one ‘reality’ with another — the principal-of-the literature with the principal-of-the-everyday. Through the masks I was better able to explore the emotions of the relationships, the forces, the pushes and pulls and the person in the otherwise faceless position. The creation of the masks afforded yet another way to place critical points of tension between the principal of the literature and the principal, as I ‘knew’ her. Later, when used as an integral part of a staged performance, the masks became both symbol and metaphor of the complexities surrounding research-with-others.

Jane’s PhD was ‘artful’ – in addition to documentary research on women principals, she wrote a play using her participant’s words. This was performed and a subsequent audience discussion about the position of women principals was recorded and analysed. If you are interested, you can read her thesis online and/or a paper that she wrote about her research and mask-making.

Jane’s mask-making resonates with the ways in which Amanda and I both experienced our own work as principals. Jane talked about the role of the principal as something formal and restrictive, profoundly shaped by external regulations and expectations, some of them current, some historical. Our everyday leader wardrobe choices – how we struggled with ‘looking like a principal” – offer a way to explore this issue. Just like Jane, we too will have to wrestle with our own research relationships with our participants, and how we represent what we are told. Whether we do something as creative as Jane’s mask-making remains to be seen!

And – we are still seeking volunteers for our women, wardrobes and leadership survey. If you are an aspiring, serving or retired school leader, we’d love to hear from you if you have twenty minutes to spare. We’ve been told it’s quite an enjoyable exercise to do!

welcome to the wardrobe


The ancient Greeks apparently said that ‘apparel makes the man” ( sic). Shakespeare echoed the sentiment in his play Hamlet. The statement is often repeated in advertisements for men’s clothing.

The aphorism reflects the notion that what we wear affects how others see us. Psychology Today puts it this way:

It’s been well-established—in the scientific literature and real life—that what we wear affects how others perceive us. Women who wear more masculine clothes to an interview (such as a dress suit) are more likely to be hired. People dressed conservatively are perceived as self-controlled and reliable, while those wearing more daring clothing are viewed as more attractive and individualistic.

Experimental psychologists make more evidenced claims. Adam and Galinsky suggest that what we wear can profoundly affect the way in which we feel about ourselves. And the ways in which we act. They coined the term ‘enclothed cognition‘, a process which depends, they suggest, on both the symbolic meaning and the physical experience of wearing particular clothes. They argue that it’s the combination of these two – the symbolic and the experience – that accounts for the ‘strange power’ that clothes have over us.

Pop psychology makes strong dogmatic statements about the combination of person and their clothing. According to a recent article in The Readers’ Digest (!) what you wear can make you a better thinker, make you smarter, make you exercise more, help you to get your way, and make you honest. Wow. We’d better rush out and buy more stuff then, eh.  We find all of this interesting, amusing even. However, it irritates us when the gendered dimensions of these claims are taken for granted and not held up to any kind of scrutiny.

As social scientists, we have a strong interest in the ways in which gendered, raced, able-bodied and aged social relations and practices produce and reproduce particular ways of being, becoming and acting. The material cultures of clothing – pun intended – do play out in life and in specific work situations. Like schools. Like leadership.

But how? We are very interested in exploring, through our own disciplinary resources drawn from education and cultural sociology, the part that wardrobe plays in producing and reproducing specifically situated social relations and relationships.

We hope that you will find our investigation and thinking about wardrobes, women and school leadership of interest. We will publish posts on our blog about our experiences, our reading and the progress of the research. We’d love to hear from you too and we really welcome other contributions to the wardrobe conversation. Do let us know if you’d like to talk by using the comments box below or emailing us.

And if you are an aspiring, serving or retired woman school leader and are interested in our research and would like to help right this minute, do complete our anonymous online survey. It takes about twenty minutes and we’ll be ever so pleased to have your views. Just click on the link above.

Photo by Sarah Dorweiler on Unsplash