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 or


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


it’s all about the red

I was talking to my friend Jill Blackmore the other day about her research on women leaders. For those of you who don’t know her work, Jill did two of the early Big Books about women and leadership  – Gender matters in educational administration (with Jane Kenway) and Troubling women: feminism, leadership and educational change.

I remembered that Jill had written about the importance of “the red lipstick” and so I asked her to tell me more about it.

Jill said that the women she interviewed told her that there is something significant about the colour red. They associated red with power and strength and thus connected it to leadership.

Now before I go any further, let me reassure any doubting readers that Jill’s research participants are not the only ones to think there’s something about red. Australians probably remember the moment of Julie Bishop’s resignation from her federal government ministry and the red high heels she wore to deliver her press statement. Well the shoes were spectacular – red satin with bejewelled heels. There was much press coverage of the shoes at the time, and again when Bishop donated them to the Old Parliament House museum.


Columnist Stephanie Peatling writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, said

“Red is a powerful colour, rich with symbolism associated with strength, wealth, war and fertility Archaeologists believe it might have been the first colour used by humans due to its use in ancient cave paintings.

Bishop herself, reported in the same article agreed, saying

“When in doubt wear red. Red is one of my favourite colours. It evokes power, passion and fashion. In power I always noted that many nations have red in their flags and that’s because it symbolises courage and freedom. Passion, well, you know, red hearts, red roses. And fashion – that’s why they call it a red carpet – and red lipstick, red nail polish, red shoes.

But Bishop wasn’t expecting the public reaction to the newspaper photograph of her shoes.

“I was surprised that so many people read so much into it but I have been a big fan of the red shoe emoji in the past and so a number of people saw it as a statement of women’s empowerment which is what I believe the red shoe emoji is intended to be.”

In the days following her resignation several of Bishop’s Liberal women colleagues wore red in Parliament, an act variously interpreted as solidarity and/or a sign of further rebellion to come.

So it’s perhaps not entirely surprising that school leaders often think and do something similar with red, as Jill observed.

In her many research projects Jill was told countless times that, when they were having a bad day or had to go to a difficult or important meeting, women leaders reached for the red lipstick, red jacket, red scarf, red shoes. Wearing red meant that it was impossible to fade away into a sea of corporate navy and grey. Red said – “Here I am, you can’t ignore me, I’m going to have my say.” Wearing red seemed to equate in women’s minds with being assertive, taking charge, refusing to be cowed, exercising the power attached to the position of leader.

And indeed, as you’ll see from my picture on this blog, I too did just this. Whenever I had a big meeting or important event, I got out the red shoes and the red jacket too.

Interesting eh. Do you associate any particular colour or clothing with times when you have to assert yourself? Was it red, or maybe black, or perhaps yellow?

We are really interested to hear about this and any other experiences you might have of the collision and collusion between leadership and wardrobe.

We’d also love you to fill in our survey – which will close soon  – and we’d like to hear any responses you have to our research.

And we love guest posts too!