Photographs of my mother aged 50+ scared me when I turned the pages of the photo album. Tightly permed grey/white hair, frumpy shoes, boring outfits gave me a horrible vision of what I might look like when I edged towards 50.
Maybe that was why I was a secondary school headteacher at 42, worked for the Department for Education and as a senior leader for University College London Institute of Education before I was 50. I had a successful career and believed it would continue in exciting ways. I hung onto shoulder length hair because I believed it made me look younger, even though all the advice for my face shape was to shorten it. I wanted to stay as youthful as possible and avoid those photos. Did you see similar photos of your mother? I think lots of us did as there are websites and YouTube channels dedicated to helping us avoid frumpy.
At 55 I was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer and what I looked like should have been the least of my worries. Yet my first question was whether I would lose my hair. As treatment progressed, and hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, and a breast disappeared, I began to let go of my frumpy fears. I realised I had invested too much in my desire to look younger. My TEDx talk about this experience asks us to focus on what makes each person unique, rather than what they look like, the colour of their skin, length of their hair or their background.
Ironically, giving up my fear of being frumpy gave me a new belief in what I could achieve. As my new hair began to grow, I made plans to work for myself after bottling two previous opportunities. I also wanted to pay it forward and support others to be their unique best. My radical side emerged again,and I watched with anger the way women’s voices were silenced and their ambitions trashed on social media.
Connecting with other women on Twitter helped me so much when I was ill as, whilst I couldn’t read a book, I could manage 144 characters. I did what I previously thought onlyfrumpy women did and ranted on Twitter. I ranted about the inequity I saw for female educational leaders who weren’tallowed a view. Several of us ranted about why 75% of the education workforce are women yet more men are senior leaders. And when I saw the gender pay gap in education was nearly 20% my anger and that of my wonderful female colleagues gave birth to the joyous community that is #WomenEd.
We have grown from a hashtag to a global community of 29 networks empowering women leaders in 20 countries. We have written two books, have 31,200 twitter followers and are enabling women in education to be 10%braver. We are also influencing policy and practice for all women who can and will lead education in an ethical, strategic, and collaborative way.
I am nearly accustomed to my new face in the mirror every morning but, with apologies to Jenny Joseph, I don’t need a red hat to cover my short hair. I am proud to wear purple, however, as #WomenEd adopted suffragette purple as our colour. We had our 5th birthday on May 19th and are excited to move forward on our joyous, exhilarating journey. Most importantly, I am proud to use the F word again and I have never felt better.
Twitter @WomenEd #WomenED
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