Reclaiming Bossy: seeing women and girls differently in education and work 

“Reclaiming Bossy: seeing women and girls differently in education and work”, Let’s Go Further Podcast, Ep 6, Series 2

New episode of Let’s Go Further from the Skills and Education Group is out now! 

In the latest episode of Let’s Go Further Joe Mcloughlin talks with Jess Phillips MP and Debra Gray MBE about the challenges facing women and girls in education and work. They discuss reclaiming the term ‘bossy’, and how to overcome structural limitations on women in leadership.  

Jess Phillips is Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley and Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding. Her career has been dedicated to serving victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence from her early work with Women’s Aid in the West Midlands to her current role.   

Debra Gray is the Principal and Chief Executive of Hull College where she works to make the education inclusive. Debra has worked in various roles in the Further Education and Skills sector, including her previous role as Principal and Deputy Chief Executive of the TEC Partnership.  

Joe first asks about their childhood and the impact of education on their career development. Debra shares her experience growing up in a single parent household living in a council estate in Sheffield and how her mother showed her the value of education, particularly as a vehicle for social mobility. Jess discusses her love of primary school and the impact of her teachers as positive female role models. She also shares her experience in grammar school education and being “naturally rebellious against the elitism of it”.  

The three then turn to barriers to women in leadership with Debra commenting that these barriers start in childhood where leadership attributes in boys are praised while girls are often called ‘bossy’. 

“I think when we value leadership skills in young men, and we apply a derogatory term in young women, it sets women on a path that leadership is not right for them”

Debra Gray, Principal of Hull College

Jess and Debra then detail how as adults, women are hindered from achieving leadership positions because of lack of support with childcare and social pressure to take on caring responsibilities for other family members. The UK has the most expensive childcare in Europe which particularly disadvantages lower income mothers and prevents them from using education to up-skill and get into positions of leadership. 

“I still think that we have not even come close to getting the idea of the structures that would be needed to be put in place to ensure that that is available to women. The biggest one being caring responsibility both at the beginning of somebody’s life and the end of somebody’s life, which still incredibly falls entirely on the shoulders of women.”

Jess Phillips, MP

Joe closes the discussion by turning to potential policies and solutions. Debra highlights the need for greater funding for adult education to allow women to progress towards leadership roles, alongside funding for after school and holiday clubs to facilitate women studying and taking exams. She also argues for a better understanding of why diversity (including gender, age, class background and ethnicity) in the workplace is important for better decision making.  

Jess highlights how being a woman is incredibly beneficial in her line of work to be able to comfort and support victims of domestic violence, where her male counter parts may struggle because of the lived experience of the women she works with. She finishes with an urgent call to address violence against women and girls so that their time and capacity is not spent on keeping themselves safe so they can truly reach their full potential.  

The Let’s Go Further Podcast is produced by the Skills and Education Group in collaboration with Research Podcasts and is published fortnightly.  

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Freya Peake, Research and Administration Assistant at Research Podcasts