International Women’s Day Matters; A Governor’s Perspective

As it was International Women’s Day yesterday, I started to think about what that meant for me as a governor. Boards in the corporate world have traditionally been male dominated with women occupying only 19% of the FTSE 100 Board seats. School governing boards do seem to attract more females than the boards in the world of business. My governing board has seven women and five men. I’m not aware of any research into gender composition of school governing boards so don’t know if the gender composition of my board is typical or an exception. I am also not aware of any research which has looked into problems faced by women governors. I can only talk about myself, so here goes.

The first problem I faced (and to be honest, still do) is child care. Our Governing board meetings are held in the evenings and that means leaving my children at home while I attend these meetings. I know governors are allowed to claim expenses and child care expenses would qualify. My board has not adopted a governor expenses policy and even if it had I would not claim for childcare. This is because I stopped working when I had my eldest daughter as I wanted to be able to spend time with her. I now have three children and none of them have been in the care of baby sitters or child carers. As they are unused to this concept I would not employ baby sitters just to be able to attend board meetings. Please don’t get me wrong. This is not a judgement on others who work or use childcare facilities. This was and is my choice and I am happy with it. Luckily, I was able to afford to stay at home. Others may not want to give up work for various reasons. Whether mothers work or don’t, childcare will be an issue they have to deal with if they decide to join a governing board.

The second problem I face is related, in a roundabout way, to the fact that I am a stay at home mother. Sometimes, when I have read papers and pointed out something which I think is not quite right, I have been told that as I don’t have a “day job” it’s easier for me to read papers and pick up anomalies! This is something women board members in the corporate world probably don’t hear! Now, I don’t know about you, but I think that insults stay at home mothers! Yes, it was my choice not to work but that doesn’t mean that I don’t work! Everyone needs to read papers and if they don’t have time to read the papers before coming to meetings because they have a “proper job” (another term I have been told doesn’t apply to me!!), then, with all respect, they are not doing justice to being a governor and need to think if they should be on the board.

The “stay at home mother” label also means that some people think I don’t have skills or qualifications to be on the board. It is almost as if people are thinking that if I had qualifications I wouldn’t be “just a mother” but that I would be holding down a job. Again, this is as far from the truth as can be. I have qualifications and did have a very good job which I gave up when I had my children. I don’t think I should have to justify not going out to work or to explain that I did have a job which I gave up voluntarily. Again, this is something which I would not have encountered had I been a member of any other board as that would have been my day job. I would hope that with time this attitude would change and that people would stop implying that I’m a school governor only because I have time on my hands and don’t have qualifications to hold down a job. Another piece of research I would like to see conducted is to determine how many stay at home men are school governors. By this I mean those men who have chosen, for whatever reason, not to work and not those who have retired. I would be interested in finding out if they encounter the same attitudes as I do. My gut feeling is probably not, but I may be wrong.

The other problem I constantly face is the fact that governing, for me, is pretty time consuming at the minute. We were recruiting a new Head and also had to have few extra meetings for various reasons. Add to this the fact that I place great importance on training and being the Governor responsible for training, lead by example. I have also signed up the NCTL Chair Development Course. Resent is too strong a word, but I know that my children don’t like the amount of time I spent on governance. This may be related to the fact that they have been always seen me stay at home and therefore are not used to my going out to attend meetings. Again, I don’t have any figures or research to back my claim, but I think women board members face greater problems than men do balancing their domestic life and working as a board member.

Do other women governors face similar problems? I expect so. I would love to hear what your experiences have been. Is there any easy solution? No, I don’t think there is. There are of course things which can be put in place, for example, an expense policy so childcare can be claimed for so women may be more willing to join boards. (This, by the way, applies equally to both sexes! I’m writing this from my point of view and that happens to be that of a mother!). Should boards actively recruit women? Well, if my board is a typical example, then women are very well represented. If my board is an exception, then although we must encourage women to think of joining governing boards, I don’t think we should go down the positive discrimination route. Good governance of our schools is crucial for their success and so we need to appoint people fit for the job and not those who fit a desirable profile.

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