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A Female Perspective on Ambition and Leadership

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Bolton School Girls’ Division was delighted to welcome back ‘one of its own’ when Sally-Anne Huang (née Blakemore, Class of 1990) agreed to deliver the inaugural presentation in a new ‘Perspectives’ series of lectures. Her talk, entitled ‘Bossy Women’, focused on ambition and leadership from a female perspective.

Addressing a Zoom audience comprising of members of the School and local communities, Head Girl Sarah Walker opened the evening by recapping Sally Anne’s illustrious career, which in September of last year saw her become the first female High Master of St Paul’s School in its 510-year history.

A delighted Sally-Anne opened by saying: ‘It is always a pleasure to be asked to give your opinions and reflections but this means a great deal to me personally because it is for Bolton School. I have really happy memories of my time at school in the 1980s and a constant sense of gratitude for how it set me up for life and inspired me to have a go and step up for things. I recall when I was young, prior to my Bolton School days, being called bossy quite a lot.  I don’t think boys get called bossy in the way that girls do; of course, no-one said to me at the time that I was demonstrating incredible leadership skills and strategic thinking!’

Sally-Anne laid down the disclaimer that her views were purely personal and did not purport to be an expert on anything but her own life. She explained that her talk would mean different things to different people and that she had come to appreciate Kierkegaard’s maxim that life can only be understood backwards but must be lived forwards. ‘I realise now’, she said, ‘that a lot of what I did in my career was because I was a woman and had a female perspective, although I did not really see that at the time. In many ways, this is a talk to my 18 year old self.’

‘My journey started at Bolton School, where leadership and ambition were absolutely celebrated.’ She recalled getting prizes for what she was good at and all sorts of leadership opportunities, including editing the school newspaper, being encouraged in public speaking and making it to the position of Deputy Head Girl. She recalled a Women in Industry week and procuring work experience at The Times. After being awarded a place at Oxford, she realised that the world was her oyster. From the age of 11-18, she was very much inspired with an attitude that you can go out and rule the world. After all, Mrs Thatcher was the Prime Minister at the time and there was supposedly equal pay for women. However, she did feel that she was not entirely prepared for the real world. On leaving school she was under the impression that feminism had already arrived and no one had warned her of the sexism that she would face. Sally-Anne recalled that her naïve arrogance took her quite a long way to start with but it had not prepared her for a world of misogyny and prejudice. Oxford wasn’t a particularly enjoyable experience for her but fruitful in that it provided her with a good degree and an husband, both of which she said had stood her in good stead! She came to realise that her original career choice, journalism, was not for her and moved into teaching – a profession that allowed her to talk about Shakespeare on a daily basis, to retain a degree of work-life balance and to support people. She realised hers would be a life of service and fulfilment. She implored girls to find a job where you can be yourself and if you want to lead, find an area where your personal style is going to suit and where you don’t have to compromise your values and principles.

Sally-Anne recalled how the Bolton School spirit kept pushing her forwards and how she became a boarding housemistress by the age of 25. This curtailed her social life but helped set up her career. She spoke of her 50 year old self, being thankful to her 25 year old self for this. Sally-Anne said that sometimes women can be held back by only applying for a role if they can do everything on the job description, whereas men will apply if they can do one thing on the job description! She takes the latter approach and so far it has served her well! She also said there has nearly always been a cheerleader or mentor within the industry that has encouraged her when applying for a new position.

Sally-Anne explained how all was going well with her career, until she became pregnant. She decided she wanted to keep working and remain in her boarding school job and her husband encouraged her in this. She said that motherhood has always been something of a taboo subject amongst female leaders and that being a mum is almost seen as being in contrast to being a leader. She conceded that things are better now than what they were in the 1990s but still thought having children is the biggest thing that will impact a woman’s career and it needs to be discussed. She recalled her first pregnancy, where she went from wunderkind to liability and where the treatment she received made her consider using her legal rights to fight her employer.  However, an older female mentor advised her to lose this battle in order to win the war. She also did not want to be earmarked as a troublemaker. The episode cemented her style of not banging her fist on the table but of taking stock and coming back stronger.

When she had her second child, at a different school and this time under a female boss, the experience was much better. Sally-Anne noted that childcare costs in the UK are outrageous. She recalled how at one point because of her hours, they had to employ a nanny and her gross pay was more than Sally’s net pay so they lost money by her working. This was another battle she chose to lose. She also offered thanks to those that have helped her along the way, including her husband, parents and in-laws. One of the advantages of parenthood, she said, was that it got her out of a toxic way of working. She realised it is important to have a sense of humour and to have something else to turn your attention to besides work.

Considering her style of leadership, she said she quickly realised she was not going to be a big shouter. Her style, she said, is to sit and listen quietly and then use evidence and authority in her decision making – a bit like Jackie Weaver of Handforth Parish Council! She told the audience that it is important to not be too pushy but you do need to make sure you get noticed. Addressing the question of appearance, she said it is one thing that women have to think more about than men and reflected on having worn a lot of grey and navy suits as a Head. She did not feel she would get away with having messy hair like the Prime Minister!

Thus far, Sally-Anne was relishing her latest challenge of becoming the first female Head at St Paul’s. She received lots of positive comments on the appointment; the most blatant hostility she got was from other women – some accusing of her seeing boys’ education as being more important than girls’!  She finished by saying that when she left her first job she was mocked for being too ambitious – she advised the audience to take any such negativity and use it to your end.

Sally-Anne then provided insightful answers to a range of taxing questions from students and former pupils. Asked how she has found the culture in an all boys’ school, she replied by saying that she tends to take a general approach rather than a gender specific approach. She pointed out that there is certainly no sign of it being a toxic masculine culture, the boys are very focused on their studies, although many do have busy London lives outside of school too.

Asked who her role models were, Sally-Anne said she had always been drawn to powerful women. She had grown up with a woman Prime Minister, she had been influenced by her female Head at Roedean, Patricia Metham, and by Lucy Pearson, Head of Cheadle Hulme, who had inspired her with her work on diversity with the HMC. Her own mother and grandmother had also been hugely influential – neither of which had been able to have full careers but had found ways of channelling their interests.

Addressing whether she ever felt imposter syndrome, Sally-Anne said she had but not where you might expect it. She had never felt it in a job as such but she did recall a visit to the House of Lords, when she was Chair of the Methodist Independent Schools Trust, and wondering what she was doing there. Even tonight, she said, she is broadcasting from the High Master’s house in Barnes and she sometimes feels a little intimidated by that.

Considering tips on maintaining authority, she recalled being aged 32 and in her first Deputy-Head role when a Head of Department shouted at her about a decision she made. She decided then to react calmly and to rely on evidence and data in her arguments. Get your facts straight and have the objective information was her advice.

Looking back on her days at Bolton School, she said she was inspired by the late Miss Dickinson, who was great and set up her work experience but also by the late Mrs Carr, who taught History and by English teacher Mrs Todd, who inspired in her a love of the subject and whose technique for teaching Macbeth she still uses to this day.

Asked about finding a work-life balance, Sally-Anne said it is important to have a support team - someone to watch your back! She also said don’t let perfect be the enemy of good and don’t feel guilty. There was a period at Roedean when she was Deputy Head and she had two small toddlers that it was really tough – her advice was to not make big decisions during difficult times. She said besides becoming High Master at St Paul’s, she recently became Chair of the HMC and had Covid at Christmas, but this was nothing compared to having small children!

Reflecting on what she has she given up which the generation after her will not have to, she said it is now much more socially acceptable to be a working parent and that she hopes the next generation won’t have to think about it as much as she did.

In answer to the question of whether going to a girls’ school helped her, she replied, for sure, this definitely gave her confidence and encouragement. The final question asked her about the most difficult challenge she had faced. She thought this was probably pastoral issues, often intractable problems faced by staff and families and also, as already mentioned, the period of her first pregnancy was a very hurtful time.

Headmistress Sue Hincks thanked Sally-Anne for an incisive talk and felt it had set the school on a great path for this series of lectures. Details of the next Perspectives presentation will be announced shortly. 

You can watch Sally-Anne Huang's full lecture here.

Prior to becoming High Master at St Paul’s, Sally-Anne Huang (née Blakemore) had been Headmistress of James Allen’s Girls’ School in Dulwich and Kent College, Pembury when she was also Chair of the Methodist Independent Schools heads’ group. Earlier appointments included being Housemistress at Sevenoaks School and Deputy Head at Roedean. Having left the Girls’ Division to read Classics and English at Oxford, she also has an MSc in Educational Leadership and Management and, more recently, a Masters degree in Children’s Literature. She was appointed as Governor of Bolton School in 2018, and is the 2021 Chair of HMC, the Headmaster’s Conference. Married to Alexis, Sally-Anne has two adult sons and two dogs. Her interests include young adult fiction, playing the tenor saxophone and watching rugby.

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