Part 1 - Overcoming prejudice to reach your goal
As a longstanding campaigner for gender equality in FE, Sally Dicketts talks candidly in this two-part report about her support for equal career opportunities and how she has pushed aside male prejudice on her way to a top job in the sector and her current AoC presidency.
“As a sector, we are very open and welcoming. Women in the main are well received and the situations they face now have really improved since I entered teaching in the 1970s. There’s no glass ceiling but there are parts of the country and perhaps governing bodies where it may be not so true. Some institutions still view the idea of a very assertive male as wonderful but the idea of an assertive woman as absolutely unacceptable!”
So one of Sally’s first rules of engagement for female job applicants is to watch and be careful about the organisation they join. “The sector as a whole is not sexist but some parts still are. Things I would originally probably never have noticed as sexist have now become absolutely unacceptable. But our expectations of equality and diversity have also changed.”
Back in 1997 Sally became the first chair of the then newly formed Women’s Leadership Network and focused particularly on the importance of coaching women to adopt the right mindset when applying for leadership and other roles. “I wanted to counter ‘imposter syndrome’ that affects both women and men - and the old adage still with us that ‘Oh, I don’t think I’m good enough’. When I started teaching - in schools - I’d look at a job advert, work out if I could only do 75% of the job description, and then not apply. Yet I’ve worked with male colleagues who say ‘This is for me - I can do half the job already!’ I've sat there thinking: ‘Really? You’d apply even though you can only do half the job?’”
Equally, Sally was once helping recruit for an AoC post where candidates were asked to rate themselves 1-5 in saying how strategic and how operational they were. “I thought [if I had been a candidate] I’m no Oxford professor of strategy but am quite strategic and so quite logically I would have given myself a 4. I got my biggest shock when we were shortlisting - the two male candidates had given themselves all 5s! The two professional women recruiters working with us - and both were from industrial backgrounds - said if you don’t have the confidence to believe you are a 5 you’ll never survive in this job. I remember thinking: ‘Wow! I just would not have been shortlisted.’ For me, it was about integrity and a salutary lesson in where women score badly. One-off? Maybe - but you can only go by your own experience.”
Besides gender inequality, Sally has had to cope with dyslexia that was only diagnosed when she left school after A-levels to attend Redlands teacher training college in Bristol. “At school, I failed dismally - I was described as delightful, popular, sociable and thick and put in a remedial stream.” She found it difficult to write and spell and did all she could to avoid doing it. “The college also told me I was very well behaved but exceptionally lazy! It was the first time I had been ‘outed’ for that so I had to start working.”
After moving up to O-levels at school - she’d been doing CSEs until then - she passed maths in just nine months and wanted to take it as one of her A-levels, only to be told her previous CSE studies and just nine months at GCSE did not give her the background to cope with A-level. Her request was refused and, very discouraged, she decided to become a teacher herself so as to encourage students like her to progress, not falter. Redlands encouraged her to stay on to do a BA in economics and education and she’s not looked back.
What singles out campaigners like Sally is a willingness to call out unacceptable behaviour that many people - both men and women, and some even now - used to accept as ‘normal’ - events that have sharpened her passion for equal opportunities.
“At 19, I was queueing up for lunch at the school where I was on teaching practice when the head of PE standing behind me said: ‘If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?’ It went completely over my head and I said: ‘Thanks, that’s very nice.’ When I told my housemates, they were enraged, saying didn’t I realise what he was trying to do - embarrass me! I went scarlet; I’d just not appreciated his intention.”
In Sally’s first college job, as head of business studies during the 1980s, she was using a typewriter at a desk outside the principal’s office before meeting him and a contractor who was initially very pushy and flirtatious. When the principal introduced her as head of business, the contractor was “absolutely floored”, apologised and said he didn’t realise who she was. Sally replied: “It doesn’t really matter who I am - you should treat everyone with equal respect.”
In her mid-30s as a senior manager at Milton Keynes College, she was at her first meeting with a governing body, when one governor, “a delightful guy once you got to know him”, said: “It’s great having such lovely, attractive young women on the staff.” Sally replied: “Yes, so when are we going to get some tasty guys on the governing body?” The governor was in hysterics but it was not taken well by the male chair who Sally doesn’t think ever forgave her.
When she later became vice-principal at the college and used to meet up with the chair of governors, he would always say would she mind getting the tea? “Finally, on one occasion I did speak out and said, ‘Actually I do mind. Why don’t you ask one of my colleagues [ie the other, male, vice-principal]?’ You could see what he was thinking . . . ‘But he is a man!’ That would never happen now. People are much more subtle.”
In job interviews, Sally would know things were not going well when she was asked questions like had she any children or was she thinking of starting a family and if so would she have enough time to do the job? Interviewers are now not allowed to ask such questions but Sally says they may still be thinking along the lines of here’s a newly married 34-year old - how long before she has a baby?
“Overt sexism did at least reveal the type of organisation you did not want to work for. It’s much more difficult to know now.” When, for example, Sally talks to BAME staff their issue is often why have they not got the job - is it because they are BAME or women or what?
Sally has been principal at Oxford-based Activate since 2003 when she was hired to merge three financially poor-performing colleges. Eighteen years on under her leadership, the group comprises seven colleges, along with seven schools (including two university technology colleges) and three training providers under the umbrella of the Activate Learning Education (multi-academy) Trust. The Activate group has increased its turnover from £30m to £150m and also been working in Saudi Arabia for six years.
“What’s interesting is that some people including certain governing bodies don’t believe women can do all that,” says Sally. “They see women as wonderful nurturers of an organisation and its culture but don’t understand that you need to nurture a culture to grow in the first place and that a ‘ballsy’ strategy only works if you have the right culture and people - governors sometimes misunderstand women at interviews because the candidates are not assertive enough.
"One size does not fit all. You can have a very quiet, softly spoken person, male or female, who can do amazing things but governors don’t always recognise that.”
An Interview by Richard Doughty