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Gender balance

Why is it that there is an even gender balance among ringers in the early stages of ringing, but the gender distribution changes at more “advanced levels?

I got the ringing “bug” when I was in my 40s, when I decided to learn my first method. The word “obsession” would be a good one to describe my feelings from then on, and although it has waxed and waned at times, I remain an obsessive, ambitious ringer. I have encountered many barriers to progress, most obviously my age, which has prevented me from achieving the speed of learning I sacrificed by leaving it so late. So the first thought I would contribute, would be, if we want women to reach the top levels of ringing, it is essential that we recruit and retain individuals during their childhood.

This age factor wasn’t readily apparent to me when I started – I was absolutely determined to work as hard as it took, to make progress. And I have progressed, it just took an awful lot of time, hard work, and as I inched my way up the mountain, I increasingly understood just how high and steep it is, and observed younger learners sailing up past me. However, there is much satisfaction to be gained, in ringing at lower levels, and in sitting listening to top level ringing whenever I can…

I have heard it said that it is easier to progress away from one’s own tower, and that certainly is in accordance with my own experience – it was a challenge learning my first, second and third methods, but once I had those under my belt, and had in fact mastered pretty much all of what my home band could ring, I was very frustrated by only being able to ring more complex methods on sporadic occasions. With the wisdom of hindsight, I also realise that I was also unable to improve my striking beyond my home district’s – if each row contains several errors, a learner isn’t able to easily sort out their own personal mistakes.

I had the luxury of spare time. Being self-employed with older children, I was able to drive many miles a week to other practice nights, but had I still been working full time with young children, spending several nights a week ringing would have been completely out of the question. My wider reading on women’s experience in England, tells me it is absolutely commonplace for women to shoulder the lion’s share of the burden of childcare and domestic tasks in the home. Ringers are probably no different – we may have extremely limited spare time after work and home life. It can be a challenge to even make practice night OR Sundays, let alone both on a weekly basis.

I think if we want at least some women to progress, at least the very ambitious ones, we need to make it absolutely OK to move to a more advanced tower at the right moment. That will enable talent to be developed on home turf – if you can make it on a Sunday, you can be ringing something well struck, on the edge of your comfort zone, not rounds and call changes. A ringer moving on should be seen as a great achievement for their home band… at present it is seen as terrible disloyalty.

I am very heartened to see the rise of focus practices. If you are trying to progress beyond Bob Minor, it is so helpful to attend an evening where that is the stated purpose. The general purpose, mixed ability practice is a lovely model for those with plenty of experience, great for friendship, and good for quick (young) learners who can pick up a new method with ease. However, a practice devoted to your target method is so much more suited to an ambitious (older) novice with limited spare time…

I was lucky in my home District to be encouraged to organise focus practices if I wanted to, and they were well attended and other novices really appreciated them as well. So returning to the gender issue, if we want women to progress we need to ensure they are comfortable to take a leadership role, and others need to be comfortable with that too. Here I think ringing is a reasonably level playing field – I have never once been given the feeling that I shouldn’t be in charge because I am a women. However, I was lucky to have had leadership experience in my professional life. Not all women get that and they may need help and encouragement to organise a quarter peal for themselves.

I wonder sometimes, how much of women’s reluctance to take charge is a symptom of a lack of ambition, and how much is a simple case of needing more courage than they possess to stick their necks out. I have at times stuck my neck out at Guild or National level, and received vitriolic feedback. When upset, I was told I should develop a thicker skin. I would hope and pray that novice women coming along behind me will never be given this treatment. However, again referencing the non-ringing world, I know that female MPs receive a barrage of criticism and bullying, especially on Social Media. If we want women to progress in the technical side of ringing, we need to also facilitate them progressing in the committee and leadership dimension, and be prepared to use adjectives like “innovative”, “strong”, “visionary”, rather than “difficult”, “challenging”, and “bossy”. And for “sensitive” to be a positive label, rather than one used in scorn. Not all women are sensitive (the others may perhaps find the Exercise less challenging!) and not all men are insensitive. But we absolutely must not make it impossible for a sensitive person to thrive in a leadership capacity.

On the subject of criticism, we need to be aware of what we judge to be the “done thing”, and make sure it continues to meet people’s needs. If a ringer is checking a method before they ring it, have they really failed to do their homework properly? Is it not also possible that they are just conscientious and doing a final check to reassure themselves they can ring it correctly? If they are running through a method on their phone while sitting out, are they really wasting time that could be better spent observing? Is it not also possible that they have had no opportunity at all this week to work on their chosen method, and this looks like a good moment? If they only turn up once a month, are they really showing lack of commitment? Or have they got issues with childcare? If we have a mental model of “this is what an enthusiastic, talented learner looks like”, we need to be very careful that we don’t really mean “this is what an enthusiastic, talented teenage male ringer looks like”.

I can think of wonderful experiences when I was able to make really tangible progress with my ringing. They all relate to situations where I had just ONE THING to concentrate on, and was able to think about it, and work on it PROPERLY for a stretch of time. I will highlight some examples in case they are of use to other people getting frustrated with their slow progress:

  1. A ringing course. A solid 3 days ringing Bob Minor with an experienced band around me, a good supportive Ringing Master, and excellent theory sessions. No cooking, no washing up, no children to distract me. And the opportunity to discuss the theory of just one method, with experts. Also, no members of my own band present to judge my progress or feel threatened because a woman was moving faster than them, or to remember if I made an idiot of myself or was too demanding.
  2. A series of mornings at a local tower, as a helper by invitation, in a Plain Bob Doubles and Minor Course. Again, very supportive leadership, with a culture of supporting each other to do better, referring to A3 printouts of the Plain Courses to identify the location of errors, and a focus on one tiny objective (like making the Bob) rather than expecting everyone to master the whole thing at once. This gave me a wonderful grounding in all the work of Plain Bob and helped a lot with learning Surprise Minor. It also allowed me to learn to call Bobs and Singles. I scored my First Quarter as conductor there. The course was the brainchild of a female tower captain and I felt the ethos and approach were spot on for me. Several of the learners were women, and were very positive about the experience as well. Several scored their first quarter peal as a result, one after years as a ringer when she could only ring call changes. Small steps on the foothills, but an extremely rewarding experience for all of us. One commented on how she really wanted to progress but wanted to ring in her home tower. Perhaps because of the supportive, positive atmosphere?
  3. Setting up and running a District quarter peal club. I hand-picked an excellent (male) conductor who quietly held each performance together, and NEVER shouted. I chose a centrally-located tower with small bells. A decent Quarter once a month, specifically organised for people who were finding it hard to get the quarters they wanted, was brilliant. Gender-wise, over one year 6 women and 10 men took part. The women did around half the ringing. At the time I didn’t think about the gender dimension of the club, but with hindsight I realise the ethos was very female-friendly. One woman who had a longish break from ringing when she had children, said it had given her the confidence again to ring proper methods. For another accomplished ringer, in her 20s with a full time professional career, it was the only chance she got each month to ring surprise methods. All the ringers enjoyed it and continued to come along, so I think it was really successful. We advertised regularly and openly for new members so nobody had to know the right people to join!
  4. Being Visiting Ringing Master for a learners’ practice, where my lack of conducting skills didn’t matter. We worked solely on Bell Handling and Call Changes. We had an enormous lot of fun and success, and one of those learners is now the Captain. I was able to be very experimental, and bring in my professional experience as a teacher. I was off home territory, which I think was really important. I was nowhere near being the best individual ringer in my home tower, but I did feel I had something to offer as a Ringer Master for novices at that time. To step into a new role you need to “fake it until you make it”, and that is easier if your husband isn’t watching!
  5. Ringing with a really excellent band on a weekly basis, and after asking the (male) Tower Captain to help me improve my striking, being given detailed “standing behind” advice on my ringing. Meanwhile, to counter my feelings of being hopelessly out of my league, the (female) tower secretary frequently reassured me that I deserved my visitor’s seat in the tower, nobody wanted me to leave.
  6. Being given the opportunity by the same Captain, to take part in a concert which required ringing to an auditory metronome, and having to strike perfectly in time for several minutes, taking no notice of the other bells. This rather off-the-wall experience forced me to think about where my hands were when the bell sounded, and how much in advance I needed to pull in order to sound it at exactly the right moment. This has fed into all of my ringing and tangibly improved my bell control. Grateful thanks to the Tower Secretary who, when I wistfully hoped that I might be chosen for that concert, encouraged me to actually volunteer.
  7. Ringing Peals. It took a lot of courage to start, but the solid 3 hours of each method was invaluable and improved my bell handling. After my first 3 peals (all part of FirstPeal2015), I put the word around that I would love to ring more. I am sad that I have only been included in 3 more. Perhaps I am too rubbish? And perhaps it’s all about “who you know”. For a period of time I had to regretfully turn a couple down due to shoulder strain. Did I burn my boats?  I have always been a bit mystified by how to be picked for invitation-only ringing. Aware of the danger of being seen as “pushy”, I don’t usually ask. I think “pushy” is word we use to punish women for their enthusiasm. I don’t often hear it being used of male ringers.
  8. Learning Handbells. That’s the lockdown project. After many years of frustration about not being able to make progress as a bob caller from a light bell, I am finally able to RING THE TENORS and look at the compositions from the (male) viewpoint of the composer. It is bliss. They look logical and easy. The challenge of ringing 2 bells at once pales into insignificance beside my previous attempts to translate “the 6 does wrong and home 3 times” into what it would look like from the 2, and it so much easier to pick out the sound of your own bell if you ring the BIG bell… Some years ago I made a really solid effort to learn to ring big bells but I am not very strong and eventually injury sent me back to the front five… so handbells are great, I am actually strong enough to conduct. I have been told many times that anyone can ring big bells, it’s all about skill not strength. I have every admiration for women who can do it but I suspect a lot of us find it harder than the average man. If I am right, it would explain why there are only a few excellent female ringers who ring big bells. They have needed exceptional skill to achieve it, and there will always be exceptional individuals.

I am not sure if there is an easy solution to the problem of compositions being written from the biggest bell. Musically, those bells do dominate. Striking-wise, they dominate. There are lots of ways for women to work around the problem, including conducting in a tower with a light tenor, calling from another bell (fine for Plain Bob Doubles!), learning to ring heavy bells, or even learning a whole composition translated onto a small bell (my head hurts!!), but I look forward to someone actually SOLVING it, i.e. Writing easy-to-learn compositions where a small bell is unaffected and the music sounds great.

I know 2 women who rang a lot of handbells – both are good conductors and both are tower captains. It is so sad that handbell ringing is always invitation-only. Perhaps Lockdown will result in open handbell practices?

I think female leadership is crucial, because it is leaders who set the ethos for ringing, and this ethos (ie the unwritten, unspoken rules) are what underpins everyone’s individual experience of ringing.  We have a long and largely unchanged culture in Ringing, it is surprisingly consistent from place to place. And most of it was in place before women began to ring in any significant numbers at all. Without any intention of doing so, men created an Exercise which was a suitable level playing field for men. As the number of women at each level increases, we have questioned the ethos simply because it doesn’t quite fit us. We are not men.

Next time you recruit a young female ringer, aim to teach her well, let go of her cheerfully when she needs to move to a more advanced band, and try to always see her as the next top conductor, composer, National 12 bell judge, or Tower Captain. Keep in mind that your aim is for her to advance far beyond your own level.

Next time a woman walks into your tower after a decade (or two) out of ringing, please try to listen to her as she works out how she will find her feet, resurrect her skills, embed ringing into her other responsibilities and work.

Next time a ringer turns down the opportunity to try something more advanced, talk to her afterwards. Find out what stopped her. If it was a desire to do PROPERLY what you suggested, after having prepared, then brilliant, she can do it next time after some homework. Talking about expectations, standards, being explicit how to progress – this all helps. It’s also a lot more effective than shouting/being scornful/writing people off.

I think that a lot of women are really ambitious in ringing but simultaneously they are terrified of mucking something up or being seen as pushy and difficult. In a culture where the higher levels are only accessible by invitation, this isn’t just a paranoid fantasy, it is critical to “stay on the right side” of the more advanced ringers in one’s own locality.