Joy and knowledge

#WomenEd Unconference 4

Today’s WomenEd Unconference was to be an event unlike others I’d attended previously. It wouldn’t be my first, I wouldn’t be presenting, I wouldn’t be attending from the perspective of a middle leader in a college. My resulting pledges and response to the day would be very different from previous events.

The start of the day went much as a typical WomenEd event might. I had a smile on my face and felt the warmth of women sharing their ‘so what?’; being open about how they’d learned and grown from their involvement with WomenEd. Their simple yet powerful messages were filled with a new-found sense of belonging, sisterhood, a life they could decide for themselves, brave choices, and permission to accept 98% as enough.

Next was the chance for me to hear from Alison Kriel for the first time. Her keynote did not disappoint as she reflected on her experiences as a black female CEO; sharing experiences with both men and women that had been filled with the kind of prejudice that will have been familiar to many in the audience but that when spoken aloud were enough to elicit shock. She added words from Maya Angelou to messages of her own and transformed them to become messages of collaboration for the day ahead. As someone who makes full use of crying to release emotions, my tear-filled eyes may have just spilled over a tiny little bit. This is known as stage one (?) on the Carly Waterman cryometer scale, I believe.

At previous WomenEd events, I’d had very clear reasons for being there and attended workshops based on that purpose. This time, I arrived late and picked as the session started, changing my mind frequently before finally plumping for a room and dashing in at the last possible moment. My only hope for this year’s event was to surround myself with the honest stories and voices of a diverse range of women and on that count, the day most definitely delivered.

Instead of summarising my learning from each separate workshop, I have chosen to share some of the things I’m left thinking about as a result of all conversations on the day.

Choosing yourself

There were a number of moments throughout the day that addressed the concept of self, values, and what it would mean to choose ourselves. One really useful exercise was included in Jas Dosanjh’s workshop. She asked us to write down all of the roles we played in our lives and place them in order of importance to our sense of self and therefore also how much of ourselves we might be willing to sacrifice to maintain each. For instance, you might have parent at the top, writer second, teacher third, wife/girlfriend fourth, sister, daughter, citizen, neighbour, friend, volunteer and so on. I wrote my list and then had to start over several times. I like to think about these things carefully and will enjoy revisiting my own list as it grows.

As I wrote my list, I really just wanted to place ‘woman’ at the top but saw that no-one else was thinking this way and assumed I must be wrong. If I did my list now, I’d really like to do that. It’s the one role I have in my life where I have no obligation to anyone other than myself and the relationship I have with myself is the one I’ve learned to prioritise as the most important above all other roles I have.

A couple of attendees vocalised that ‘women shouldn’t’ put wife/girlfriend/partner near to the top of the list, instead investing their energies in other places as men come and go (problematically assuming there that we all have male partners). Whilst I would never reject someone else’s reality, we need to take greater caution over our use of language. I believe there to be enough expectations placed on women by society, by the media, by colleagues, by themselves that we don’t need to impose any further shoulds and shouldn’ts on one another. Our own reality, however similar, is never someone else’s and remaining mindful of that will enable us to push for progress as a collective.

I can say, like someone else in the room, that my role as partner is very high on my list. My relationship is a strong source of energy and love. We each have our own lives and identities but have endless reserves of support for one another’s endeavours and therefore it’s a role worth investing my self in. I recognise this will be different for other people; we each have our own set of values and circumstances.

Prioritising the small things

Further in Jas’s workshop, we were asked to state two things that we’d like to achieve before we die – for ourselves – and then consider what was stopping us. I reached my first one pretty quickly but then, having just achieved a long-held ambition to visit Florence, I couldn’t think of a second. Janice, sat on my table, spoke passionately about a walk of a lifetime to Santiago de Compostela she’d wanted to do. I think this kind of adventure needs some serious exploring and it occurred to me that such a journey might make a perfect WomenEd holiday. Ladies?!

In another workshop, conversations around wellbeing and quality of life emerged. I’ve recognised in recent months that it’s actually not the great lifetime achievements and successes that bring me joy. Much of what I’ve been led to believe in the past is that climbing the ladder of leadership, achieving big success, and grand experiences were the path I should be on. I could only be a good woman and feminist if I ‘had it all’, if I ‘did it all’, and if I could speak at conferences about how I had ‘worked hard to achieve it all’.

Today confronted me with this truth I’d been led to believe. In the last 12 months, I’ve been gradually dismantling that truth as I stepped out of a life that was draining me of myself and into a non-leadership position where I’m well on the way to finding me.

  • I’ve learned strategies to counteract my inner gremlin telling me I’m not good enough.
  • I’ve adjusted the distant boundaries I had that meant I was saying yes to everything and everyone above saying yes to me
  • I’ve given myself permission to engage in self-care that tops up my energy and allows me to experience and notice the present

I’ve decided I’ll write in full about self-care soon but I will share that the start of this journey was to recognise the positive knock-on effect self-care had on me. This enabled me to notice when it wasn’t happening and choose differently. I recently started to get into a bad habit with breakfast. I was eating it before work whilst checking emails. I’d fooled myself into thinking that at least I was having breakfast and it allowed me to ease into work but all it did was allow work to encroach on the time that should have been mine and made my day longer than it should have been. I’ve started to make sure I eat my breakfast elsewhere with a book. It seems like an incredibly small thing but it means I’m starting every day by choosing me. I’m now holding myself to account with breaks, lunch and finish time in similar ways.

The days when things don’t quite go to plan are the days when I’m practising forgiveness. The other days this inevitably goes out of the window are the days when I’m in the office; it’s so much harder to maintain a habit I know is good for me if my colleagues aren’t doing the same. My next challenge will be to continue these habits when I’m in the office.

Flexible working options benefit everyone

In conversations that emerged about flexible working throughout the day, I began to recognise the benefits that exist for everyone if a school can wholly embrace flexible working. It opens up the realm of the ‘possible’. My current workplace is supportive of working patterns and approaches that suit the individual as well as the organisation whether that be in hours, location, days of the week, or contract. I appreciate the lucky position that allows me to be in but some of the experiences shared by attendees today indicate that schools are well on the journey to doing and being better. There’s clearly a long way left to go before parents of any gender have all the options they might need in order to find the right balance for them and their families yet it was encouraging to hear from women who had successfully found a way to manage motherhood and work in a way that suited them in workplaces that support them.

The only part of these conversations that are niggling still is the the route of ‘having it all’. This phrase remains a dangerous one for women and society. Dr Mary Berry’s adage, ‘If you want it’ remains a useful one that adds context and whilst I’m far from a expert in this area, I still find it a problematic concept for multiple reasons. Instead of having the life they want, ‘having it all’ insinuates that a woman must have the full-time job (and do it successfully), that she must bring up the children and take on the lion’s share of care and organisation in this area. Perhaps it is the only reality women will ever get to experience and I recognise it as the reality for many women I know but I refuse to believe that we can’t fight for more than that through flexible working that adequately recognises and encourages a man’s role as a parent too. I also recognise that for some women, there is no choice as to whether or not they have it all. They’re forced to choose one or another because of money, or personal circumstances… and what of those women who choose to solely parent? We should support that choice as much as anyone else’s. Fighting for equality means fighting for choice. Fighting for women to decide the way their life looks as much as physically possible.

Today was my first conference attendance in quite some time. Sunday will be a day of rest to energise ahead of the challenges of the coming week. I’m looking forward to watching the recordings of some of the sessions I missed at some point and catching up on other people’s experience of the day. In the meantime, I’ll be making some pledges that prioritise me as a human first so that I can bring the very best of myself to all parts of my life.

My pledges – the two to continue

Continue with the journey my friends affectionately refer to as my retirement (albeit a rather productive and frenetic one right now). It’s allowing me to connect with my values, my truth, and my self; enjoying the moment, the small things and finding joy.

Continue to support #BAMEed by being part of their steering group. I’ll be blogging about the importance of this work soon.

My pledges – the new one to think about

Attending conferences always comes with nerves as I attempt to overcome my natural introversion and the fact that I don’t actually know anyone that well, beyond the odd tweet now and again. I heard an attendee ask another why they were so quiet and shy; suggesting confidence coaching. I don’t see shyness, introversion, or a quiet and reflective quality as a deficit to be fixed.

I’d like to explore ways in which we could support one another ahead of these events. For instance, meeting up at the start of the day, perhaps messaging in advance to get to know each other so we have some faces to at least say hello and a few words to. Finding introvert-friendly gaps so that we can escape the switched-on-ness of the day and find space to recharge. In the spirit of today, if anyone would like to collaborate on generating some ideas and making it happen then I’d absolutely love to work with you on it.


My writing commitment: I’m learning to honour my thoughts. I’m learning that my words can be shared before I’ve connected all the dots or learned everything there is to know. My writing can be a snapshot of a single moment in continually-evolving time.

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