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.