Moving beyond narrow images of school leadership

We are really conscious that our work shows exactly what we – the collective ‘we’ as a profession – risk losing as a result of the restrictive images of what a leader looks and acts like.

We hear from participants about the myriad ways the explicit and implicit expectations of ‘looking like a leader’ have presented blockers towards who feels like they can aspire to leadership, who is given opportunities to lead, and who is supported to take up those opportunities.

This, we think, is an incredibly important aspect of our project. When we started, Pat and I knew we had shared experiences of pressures associated with ‘looking’ like a principal and we suspected that this was a wider phenomenon. Our fieldwork has borne this out. We have heard from hundreds upon hundreds of women who have shared their experiences. Every now and then – rarely, but it has happened a couple of times over the last couple of years – someone has told me they don’t ‘get’ this project. Why wardrobes? Why women in particular? Why focus on this? This post is an example of a deeply complex and abiding problem with school leadership that is highlighted by discussions around expectations of appearance, wardrobe, identity, and opportunity. Wardrobes give us a way into exploring some really wicked problems associated with school leadership.

In our recent book chapter, we wrote about some of the ways we can come to understand the experiences of women leaders by using wardrobe as a starting point. You can read our publication here. We know that our own experiences as white Australian women leaders are naturally going to differ significantly from the experiences of women who are of a different cultural background to us, and who experience different barriers than we did or continue to do. We wrote about the importance of having an intersectional lens and understanding of participants’ experiences. (Read more about Professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and the development of the theory of intersectionality here.)

A colleague from the US, Dr Terri N. Watson, has written a forthcoming article in the Journal of Educational Administration and History where she talks about ‘performative wokeness’ and how we tend to use terms or phrases that make us feel like we’re calling out racist practices without actually naming those practices. Dr Watson’s work focuses on Black girls, education, and Black women leaders and you can access more information about her research here.

As I was reading Dr Watson’s article, it made me reflect on whether I was clear enough about what I was trying to get at in the original draft of this blog post. And I wasn’t. I was trying to discuss the fact that we know that there are systemic issues that still present blockers for us having a diverse principalship, but I didn’t name the issues. Racism, sexism, and ableism persist and they mean that the principalship remains largely homogenous, in Australia at least.

I wanted to share an article that highlights the need to have more open conversations about race and racism in educational leadership. It was written by Dr Edith Rusch and Associate Professor Sonya Horsford, and it’s openly accessible in the link below.

Rusch, E. A., & Horsford, S. D. (2009). Changing hearts and minds: The quest for open talk about race in educational leadership. International Journal of Educational Management.

I am writing this from Melbourne, Australia, where according to the latest TALIS data, Australia’s school leaders are largely white, and women continue to remain underrepresented in school leadership given the feminisation of the teaching profession.

If we continue to work with the idea that a leader has to look and behave a certain way, we are going to continue to perpetuate leadership that is largely white, middle-class, and denies opportunities to people who do not fit that mould. Pat, along with Jill Blackmore and Karin Barty has researched about this in the past– the ways selection panels continue to reproduce themselves (see Pat’s blog post about it here).

Those of us who are in positions of power – those who hire people, who promote people, who mentor people, who are part of the ‘tapping on the shoulder’ that still makes up so many of our school leadership hiring practices – have a responsibility to understand and acknowledge our own complicity in these systems and practices, and work to ensure we are not perpetuating the same cycles.

I wanted to share two articles: “When Feminism Is White Supremacy in Heels” written by Rachel Elizabeth Cargle as a starting point to think about “the type of behavior that rests under the guise of feminism only as long as it is comfortable, only as long it is personally rewarding, only as long as it keeps “on brand.” But if the history of this movement taught us anything, it is that intersectionality in feminism is vital.” 

And finally, I wanted to share this op-ed written by Dr Terri Watson, who pushes us further in “The Problem with Kindness” to think about how ‘kindness’ has been wrapped up in ‘glitzy’ easy to digest packages for educators.

We need to recognise and acknowledge the ways we benefit from current structures, and dismantle those structures. I finish with Flavia Dzodan’s famous essay “My feminism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit”.

If It Isn't Intersectional, It Isn't Feminism(Image: PopSugar)



We have decided to move to monthly blog posts where we examine some of the issues and findings related to our project in more depth. Our research project is ongoing and we are currently working on some new publications – stay tuned for more! 


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

Blurring the ‘leader’ and ‘home’ lines

A lot goes into the careful construction of what a person might project to the outside world. For the women in our study, we’ve spoken about how their morning routines give them a sense of constructing the ‘leader’ persona, and how they don the clothing and appearance of a ‘professional leader’ as part of getting ready. This can get them into the mindset of being ready for the day, of tackling the challenges associated with leading schools, and of the sorts of complex interactions they’re going to have throughout the day.

We’ve been really interested in what this all means for women who are working from home at the moment. We’ve explored the wardrobe choices women are making, as well as some of the critiques that felt inevitable as soon as all of this started. Something that keeps coming up is the challenge of the video conferencing background. While some of the twitter accounts, such as this one that rates the credibility of experts based on how many books are behind them on screen, are funny, there’s also a lot of really serious critique about what it means to essentially open a window into your home life, for people who are usually able to set boundaries and define what is a private or public part of their lives.

Many of us are working from hastily set-up spaces which means the hidden parts of our home are on display in the background – bedrooms or kitchens: the spaces where many people might have thought of as the places they once decompressed from work. They’re now right there, undeniably in screen and blurring the boundaries of work and home even more.

As a result, we’ve seen a surge in clever video conferencing backgrounds and discussions about how to find the perfect one (by the way, I have the final answer on this: I present to you, my Ramones brick wall background in the form of the hotline bling meme – this took more effort than you’d think).

Screen Shot 2020-05-10 at 10.10.05 am

I had a discussion with some school leaders about this last week and the general consensus was that it adds a layer of unexpected worry to the interactions leaders are having with people. There were a couple of people who hadn’t even thought of it, but others who had planned and constructed backgrounds with precision to convey a certain image – or to keep the separation between home and work. We’re interested to hear what your experiences are – how have you approached this? Is it something you’ve even thought about? Get in touch with us on twitter! We’d love to hear from you.


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.



Business on top, trackpants on bottom? #workfromhome wardrobes

We know – and have written about – how wardrobes help people get into working mode for a certain role. We know that the morning routine of getting dressed and getting ready for work can sometimes serve as a routine of getting into the mindset and headspace for the day ahead, or putting on the character of the ‘leader’, which is different for everyone.

So what does it mean when that morning routine is gone?

We’ve been hearing from a lot of women at the moment and having conversations with teachers and academics who are doing a lot more of their work online. When much of the world is working from home, with only a small portion of a person as visible to surveillance and the public gaze as they usually are (if at all).

When you’re teaching at home, the routine goes out the window for many people, in part because ALL of the routines are out the window. There have been fascinating decisions and conversations about the effects of this on their work mindset, the way they’re interacting with people online, and the way they’re working with their colleagues and students.

We’ve heard from women like Beck who has, in the past, shared snaps of her work heels, who is now updating us on her home wardrobe (keep it coming, Beck!)

At-school Beck:

RemoteLearning Beck:

Pat and I have both commented about this too. Pat’s comment about zoom-eyeliner clearly struck a chord with people:

We wrote recently about the way the blazer sits on many women leaders’ chairs as a quick wardrobe item to throw on and feel more prepared / professional. I realised I had done a similar thing with a ‘zoom cardigan’:

Twitter has been giving us some hilarious commentary around these issues – as well as some important insights into people’s perceptions of the importance of appearance. Some schools have been advising students to wear their uniforms for video conferences, and there’s an enormous amount of discussion from teachers about what’s appropriate to wear while teaching synchronous video sessions. There’s heated debate on both sides and we are taking it all in, thinking of what it means for this project.

I’ll leave you to think on these issues with this tweet, one of my favourites:


We’d love to hear your thoughts! Tweet us at @chalkhands and @ThomsonPat

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

Heels: practicality, comfort, and style…

When you’re researching wardrobes, you start to really notice the number of news articles and conversations about clothing, appearance, identity, and careers.

You also start to notice what people wear. This is partly because people now often comment to me about their clothing / outfits (and I love the conversations that come after that) but I find that I’m also more observant just in the day to day of things. I was in Sydney earlier this week and walking from the city to the university and, for whatever reason, I was paying attention to people’s shoes.

There were so many people in sky-high heels who appeared to be uncomfortable, or who were walking slowly in the steady flow of foot traffic. Of course, there were others who were striding down the footpath like Naomi Campbell stomping down the runway – just so you know I’m not skewing the anec-data here! It did make me think about our survey data, though, and the split comments from women about their shoes and what they represented.

When participants spoke about the times they wore heels, for example, it was often to look more professional (we’ve written about this in the past). Leaders reported wearing heels when they were ‘on show’ – meeting with governors, speaking on assemblies, or for ‘high stakes’ occasions, in one participant’s words. Participants described expectations to wear heels, and some people noted that even when they like wearing them they do find them to be uncomfortable.  There were comments about wearing them to be taller (an issue I’ve never had to think about at 5’9”, admittedly) to offset power dynamics.

Some of the participants questioned the need to wear heels. Their explicit resistance was about comfort (“as I have got older, I have begun to wear flat boots”), about the expectations placed on women (“would you ask a male leader about his footwear?”) and about practicality.

The issue of practicality of wardrobe choices was not limited to shoes, though it did come up a lot with shoes. Wardrobe choices were determined by the day’s tasks (playground duty, teaching classes – “Again full time teaching a young class where I am up and down from the floor and on my feet most of the day demands comfortable non restrictive clothes and no heels”), the weather (heat, rain, snow – our diversity of participants are well represented in their climates!), and safety concerns (“I have to be involved in the positive handling of students. Unconsciously I have stopped wearing any jewellery other than my watch and wedding rings so I don’t scratch them or my selves.”).

Of interest was the participant who described her wardrobe as changing when taking on a leadership role, becoming “less practical, more ‘professional’” in nature. One standout response was the Deputy Head / Deputy Principal in a primary school who described her job & her subsequent wardrobe choices in terms that were familiar to both of us: “Practical for the environment I work in.  Able to work on the floor, clean up stuff, plunger toilets, move quickly in an emergency. Brightly coloured for the kids.”.

The practicality of shoes are a recurring theme – women in our study have expressed an expectation (sometimes explicit through dress codes) to wear heels. When considering practicality of shoes, issues of distance walked throughout classroom visits during the day, stairs, being ‘on the go’ (“I am never a high heels person and prefer flat shoes or boots so I can run if needed!”), and wanting to be able to move freely (“I hate wearing heels but can’t break the habit – being taller also makes me feel more in control but I often take my heels off to teach. I want to look adult and be taken seriously but I also want to be able to prance around teaching Shakespeare.”).

We’ve written about shoes in our blog before. Pat has reflected on her heels that were both a ‘don’t f**k with me’ armour, and a little bit of an uncomfortable match. Our guest blogger, Lacey Austin, wrote about balancing on the tightrope of expectations for image and what it means to look like a teacher. This is clearly a rich area of thinking – partly because of the images and discourses/connotations associated with heels, but also because they are quite literally debilitating. You can’t easily run, jump, dodge or weave, and we know that heels cause permanent and painful damage to our feet. (More here‘This is what wearing heels all day does to your body’.) When women are still required to wear heels as part of either explicit expectations (dress codes), or implicit expectations, we need to better understand their effects.

I write all of this as an academic who, many days, manages to get away with wearing jeans and sneakers to work. But – like all of the data – on days when I have to teach, or when I have important meetings, the dresses and ‘nice’ shoes come out. I always get comments (maybe because of this project, maybe because of the mismatch in image) and I inevitably refer to it as having to look ‘like a grown up’ that day. Then I kick myself – ‘what am I saying!?’. I’m still thinking through how those ‘off the cuff’ responses influence our thinking and our rules about wardrobe. And, check out my cool and comfortable shoes today while I do that thinking.



We’d love to hear your thoughts, either on our survey if you haven’t yet taken it, or on twitter – Amanda – @chalkhands and Pat @ThomsonPat