Upon his selection by Conservative MPs, Rishi Sunak was rightly heralded across the world as the first British prime minister of Indian heritage, and representative of an increasingly diverse and inclusive country.
However, Sunak’s cabinet appointments hardly reflected this diversity, particularly in reference to its gender split. Sunak’s cabinet has the fewest female appointees of any single-party Conservative government in the 21st century, with only seven of the 31 cabinet positions going to women.
This is not the first time that Sunak’s actions have been criticised with a gendered lens. During his leadership debates with Liz Truss, Sunak was repeatedly accused of interrupting, talking down to, and ‘mansplaining’ to his opponent.
Even before this, Sunak had got into trouble before with sexist language, thanking “mums everywhere” for “juggling childcare and work” during the Covid crisis, without once considering that men might be involved in parenting while working too.
It is worth seriously considering whether our new prime minister may have a somewhat problematic attitude towards women. And, looking at his past as a student and head boy at Winchester College, it is not difficult to imagine how that might have come about.
Winchester College: an elite institution with a dark side
Sunak’s alma mater, a private boarding school which now charges students £46,000 a year for admission, is hardly representative of a typical education. With alumni including Olympic rower George Nash, film director Josh Whedon, and a range of prime ministers including Hugh Gaitskell, Nick Bowles, and Seumas Milne, it’s not hard to see why parents fork out such a substantial sum to educate their sons there.
What is less well-publicised are the frequent stories of a dark culture that has existed within the confines of the school.
Multiple teachers have faced accusations of inappropriate sexual conduct and assault. The college also had a reputation of a cover-up culture, firing staff who blew the whistle on malpractice and failing to disclose information on a “cult-like” Christian society with a reputation for abuse.
Nor has the conduct of the school’s students been much better, with accusations of a culture of racial abuse in the early 2000s.
And with (until very recently) an all-male student body and institutions that actively encourage traditional views of gender norms, the school breeds an attitude to women that may at best be termed unhelpful and at worst misogynistic.
Winchester’s institutions: gendered and deeply traditional
Winchester’s students – ‘Wykehamists’ – enter the school aged 13, almost exclusively as full-time boarders, and are sorted into 11 boarding houses. These are run by a male ‘housemaster’, assisted in pastoral matters by a female ‘matron’. Within the houses, all of the students’ needs are met by a largely female domestic team – providing food, cleaning and laundry – up until they leave at age 18. The message is loud and clear: women are there to serve.
During their time at the school, students are inducted into the values of a series of traditional institutions. Winchester has deep ties with the military, with a ‘combined cadet force’ founded in 1860, in which students have to do a year of compulsory military training. Students walking to class pass through Europe’s largest private war memorial, War Cloisters, and memorials to students lost in combat can be found in each boarding house.
Religion is also a common part of life, with compulsory attendance at multiple chapel services a week.
The ‘question of girls’ – dropped under threat
Sunak studied at Winchester from 1993 to 1998 during the 15-year tenure of headmaster James Sabben-Clare, noted by The Telegraph as “one of the most gifted schoolmasters of his generation”. Part of Sabben-Clare’s mandate was to bring female pupils into Winchester yet, this did not happen during his time as headmaster and is only now on the verge of being achieved, 40 years later. The reasons why this has taken so long shine a light on a sexist culture among Winchester’s alumni.
Sabben-Clare seems to have been seen as unusual for the time: not only did he immediately ban corporal punishment upon becoming headmaster, but he appointed several women to the college’s staff. This may well be because his background was far from that of the boys he taught; growing up penniless after the death of his father, he had only been able to study at Winchester thanks to a full scholarship.
In 2005, with girls still absent from the school, a second attempt to secure their admission was embarked upon, with the formation of a ‘question of girls committee’. Multiple sources have confirmed to Yorkshire Bylines that on hearing of the idea to admit girls, a number of alumni threatened to withdraw donations left in their wills, at which point the idea was dropped.
Girls finally admitted – still too soon for some
In February 2021, the school finally announced a plan to introduce female students to the sixth form. Headmaster, Dr Tim Hands, explained the move, saying, “We believe that co-education in the sixth form will prepare all our pupils better for life outside the school, and that it will enrich life in the school in multiple ways”.
However, the negative reactions with which this announcement was met online are all too clear. They included a petition against the change started by ‘A Concerned Alumnus’, which garnered over 800 signatures, with many presumably coming from other former students.
One alumnus, GB News filmmaker Charlie Peters, even took to the pages of the Spectator to voice his concerns, while praising Winchester’s existing environment:
“It is a deeply strange but beautiful place packed with self-effacing boys who prize academic scholarship and friendly collegiality above all else. Their formative years have not been hit by the nervousness afflicted on young men by the constant presence of girls. Boys are free to be boys. This is where lifelong friendships are made, where self-worth is developed, where camaraderie and mutual support underpin all aspects of school life.”
This attitude is indicative of much of the low-grade sexism redolent in the school’s alumni body. It is an attitude which sees women merely as distracting influences, generally lowering the standards of academic scholarship, and, to put it cynically once again, undermining the male bonding, networking and sense of entitlement that Winchester boys have previously regarded as theirs by right.
Rishi Sunak: proud alumnus on a well-mapped route
Of course, Sunak cannot be held to account for the views of fellow Wykehamists. But all indications show that he is happy to associate with the school, describing it as an amazing opportunity that “put my life on a different trajectory”. Earlier this year, it was revealed that Sunak had been admitted into Winchester’s ‘benefactors’’ club for those who had given over £100,000 to the school. Sunak is also close friends with fellow alumnus and Spectator editor James Forsyth, acting as best man at Forsyth’s wedding.
On leaving school, Sunak followed a well-mapped route for the elite boys’ school graduate by going on to study at Lincoln College, Oxford, then taking up a job in the male-dominated financial industry. Sunak appears to have worked exclusively with men in this period, particularly with Patrick Degorce, who employed Sunak at Theleme Partners.
Sunak: the boys’ club politician
How has this background affected Sunak as a politician? In addition to the sexist behaviour already mentioned, a few other things emerge.
First, Sunak has never endorsed a woman as Conservative leader, picking Michael Gove in 2016, and Boris Johnson in 2019. Second, Sunak has often had male-dominated teams of appointed advisers, going as skewed as employing five men and one woman in 2021.
It is also intriguing to note that Sunak was endorsed disproportionately by male MPs in the last leadership election. Some 114 of Sunak’s 137 endorsements were from male MPs (83%), while 73% of Conservative MPs are men. Do women perhaps pick up on the attitudes towards them he may have learned at school?
None of this is compelling proof that our prime minister can be labelled as sexist. But a picture emerges of a man raised in a series of sexist institutions, from an all-boys boarding school to the machismo world of finance, who has consistently elevated men to positions of power over women, and who struggled not to talk over his female opponent during election debates.
Manners maketh man
The irony of Winchester’s journey is that it started as a radical project: founded as a school exclusively for children from impoverished families. Since then, it has transformed from an institution tackling inequality to one perpetuating it.
This is not too far a cry from Sunak’s own career. Having come into the public consciousness as the chancellor behind furlough and ‘eat out to help out’, he has since come to embody the most traditional fiscal conservatism, from his national insurance rise to the return of austerity.
As the college seeks to make itself fit for the 21st century, Sunak similarly faces the challenge of shedding his old school’s baggage and the regressive culture in which he was raised.
Gaping inequalities still exist in British society, not least the gender gap. If our new prime minister fails to address these, the history books will not be kind.