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


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