Women in Leadership – Is the tide turning?

Sam Draper talks to School of Education tutors to find out if they are seeing new trends in the schools they visit.

Education has long been a female dominated profession, but suffered from the classical gender pay-gap and glass ceiling to leadership. In the current climate, with the DfE and Ofsted showing awareness of well-being, workload, teacher retention, and funding issues, is this untapped resource still being overlooked either consciously or unconsciously by our profession?

Statistically, for the last decade or so, the education workforce has been 75% female, but followed the trend in the rest of UK Ltd with a drop off in women in leadership roles. Roughly 66% of headteachers are women, with a shockingly low percentage in secondary schools, where the only 39% of headteachers are female. So has anything really changed in the last decade?

The difficulty will always be that, as a profession, we battle with funding and other complexities to retain and train a workforce appropriate for the challenges of modern teaching. However, within it, formal and informal structures are in place to make the gender and ethnicity changes in education leadership that better reflects the populations of our workforce, as well as our students. Between 2010 and 2016, the number of women in school leadership roles increased, but this is countered by the speed at which leadership is achieved – the average experience of a male primary leader is 6 years, whereas it is 9 years for women leaders.

This might be an all-too-familiar picture in your school, or you might be someone who is successful challenging these stereotypes in the burgeoning and powerful WomenEd movement? We asked some of our female tutors to share their own personal experiences of the barriers or benefits of being a woman in an educational leadership role. What causes this disparity? How has it affected them? And what can be done to change it?

All of the women we contacted have impressive CVs, having occupied or currently occupying leadership roles in a variety of educational circumstances. They themselves don’t fit any particular pattern or type, other than that of strong educationalists. However, they all saw an “under-representation”, “a gap”, “a lack of”, or “disadvantages” for women in leadership. Which led me to the question of why?

We asked over 15 women leaders about their experiences, and the consensus built around three major areas acting as blockers: perception of women as leaders, a lack of role models and societal / educational stereotypes.

It seems too trite to suggest that in 2019 women still fail to apply for leadership or are not considered for leadership due to their role in family life. However, so many of our women leaders acknowledge the concerns of colleagues who don’t want to sacrifice family life for additional responsibility, or recognise strong women leaders who seemingly prioritise one over the other. The expectation placed on themselves and their colleagues fits firmly into the idea that any form of family life or maternity leave inhibits the ability of women to take up leadership roles. In some cases, it is self-denial from a lack of confidence, encouragement, or options that make a leadership role unworkable.

Anecdotally, governing bodies and interview panels, seemingly still favour a male teacher over a female teacher for a leadership role, based on stereotypical gender traits that may or may not truly exist. “In the 70s and 80s the question at interview would be asked if you were married and when you were intending to have children? One was made to feel that married women were not deemed to be ambitious or worth investing in.” Even thirty years later, the expectation is that a woman will invariably have a career break at some point, or even sacrifice a role to follow her husband / partner. And all this despite Shared Parental Leave legislation that allows mothers or fathers the opportunity to take career breaks.

Those women who do take up leadership roles are perceived to have made some form of sacrifice and there is an expectation that women have to fit a certain set of characteristics to apply. Those characteristics are clumsily male and not necessarily appropriate for all elements of leadership in education. “I think there are two gender styles for women – those which think they have to lead like a man, so can be aggressive and ambitious, or those who lead as they would like to be led as part of a team.” If the majority of leaders are men, where do young teachers see a form of leadership demonstrated by women? In some schools, the chance to job-share, to engage in leadership roles, and the positive role of women in leadership is apparent. But if you’re in a school where leadership for women is limited to certain roles, what are your choices? “The only women I know were Deputy Head in Charge of Girls Welfare, HOD in Girls PE, Domestic Science, sometimes in subjects like English, History or R.E. If a woman had a pastoral role, it was mainly for Year 7. In all girl schools there tended to be more women in roles of responsibility, but timetabling was still left to a male Deputy Head.” Even if that picture isn’t so true of modern schools, the role model for a female leader is a clear defining influence on other teachers to take on leadership roles.

With that in mind, are men just more likely to ask or apply for leadership roles? If professional expectations lead women to avoid or not be considered for leadership roles in favour of family, and in some cases a lack of role models, is it simply a case of challenging women teachers to step forward and see themselves in these roles? “As a tutor I still see female trainees doubting themselves and some male trainees being too confident, but it may be changing. One or two female trainees have started to be more confident in their ability, being forthright about their rights and roles and long may this trend continue.”  One possible solution to this might be in coaching or mentoring from existing women in leadership roles. Breaking down any concept of self that prevents a highly qualified strong female teacher from applying for or even discussing a leadership role.

The discussion of women in educational leadership will undoubtedly roll on, but it does throw up a range of valid questions that we need to continue to ask if we want the balance to change. Does your school attempt to create flexible working options for female teachers regardless of maternity? Does your school promote Shared Parental Leave to male teachers as an alternative way to alleviate that expectation on women taking a career break? Are part-time leadership roles even an option for discussion? Would you be willing to ask for an alternative working arrangement to balance work and life? And would that include continuing with your leadership role? Have modern societal norms changed enough to lessen the impact of ideas around parenting and career breaks?

In many areas of the profession the story is more positive and the trend is being bucked. In all cases, the battle between the views and choices of female leaders and those colleagues around them rages on. A key challenge to this is educational discussion combined with mentoring and coaching of women by women to foster the kind of educational leadership that reflects the gender balance of the workforce and also, most importantly, breaks down some of the stereotypical barriers for women teachers to become leaders in a profession they dominate.

Clearly there is still some way to go, and to keep the conversation going we would love to hear your experience of women in school leadership, feel free to leave a comment below.

3 thoughts on “Women in Leadership – Is the tide turning?

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  1. An excellent blog. It must surely be true that schools need to start thinking more flexibly about part-time work and job shares. Women with childcare responsibilities might be the first to benefit, but men would do and, above all children need good teachers and leaders.

  2. Great to see this topic presented for reflection. Well worth reading “What Works: Gender Equality by Design” by Iris Bohnet which provides a very thorough review of the issues and current practical methods to tackle these.

  3. In the 4 years since we launched #womened we have seen movement – positive developments in schools embracing PT roles, co-leadership & flexible roles. The DFE have invested funds into the sector through the Diversity & Equality grants, the Coaching Pledge & the Women Leading in Education networks. However, there is much work to be done to break down the glass ceilings instead of pushing them up higher & to expose the glass cliff female leaders find themselves on.

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