Schools must not miss out on women leaders

There is inequity in school leadership, particularly at secondary level where men outnumber women almost two to one. An equalities network set up by ASCL is aiming to redress the balance

Women significantly outnumber men in teaching, except when it comes to secondary headship where the reverse is true.

This is not new, but progress has been slow in redressing the balance. However, this year is going to be critical in turning the tide.

Female leadership networks as well as programmes and events to mentor future leaders have built up a real sense of momentum in bringing about change. Research, such as that carried out by The Future Leaders Trust, has also helped to put a sharp focus on the reasons for the under-representation of women.

First, the figures. Only 37 per cent of secondary heads are women compared with 63 per cent of classroom teachers. This imbalance begins at deputy and assistant head level where the number of women shrinks to about 50 per cent. Add to this the very small number of black and minority ethnic (BME) women leaders and we come to see the inequity in school leadership.

There is also a mismatch in primary school headships but it is not as pronounced – 72 per cent of heads are women compared with 87 per cent of classroom teachers.

The Future Leaders Trust suggests the careers of female school leaders suffer as a result of motherhood, whereas men tend to benefit from fatherhood. More than 75 per cent of respondents believed this so-called “motherhood penalty” negatively affects women’s promotion opportunities. These negative perceptions then deter women from applying for promotion as some feel they have to make a choice between being a parent and being a senior leader.

The stereotype remains that secondary schools need tough men

The under-representation of women in secondary school leadership roles may also be the result of entrenched perceptions about what makes a secondary head. Selection panels may sometimes have an unconscious bias towards a male candidate.

Schools Week reported earlier in the year that when recruitment was handed over to professional assessment groups from governors, the number of women appointed to headships increased.

A stereotype that secondary schools need a “tough man” in charge still prevails, even though there are many outstanding female headteachers with exceptional and authentic leadership skills.

While it is difficult to overcome ingrained attitudes, there is good news.

ASCL has set up an equalities network, which more than 60 female senior leaders have joined, to offer women who are considering applying for headships advice and support with applications and the interview process.

We also are running courses offering practical advice to women applying for posts, as well as helping them to develop confidence, grow their own leadership styles and manage family commitments.

Other programmes include BME leadership, run by schools and teaching partnerships using equality and diversity funding from the National College for Teaching and Leadership, and the use of social media such as the #WomenEd Twitter group.

Research suggests that a key way of encouraging women to apply for leadership posts is to match them with women mentors, leaders who can act as role models and coaches.

These research findings were presented at the Women into School Leadership Conference in June, and included a presentation by Dr Kay Fuller, associate professor at the University of Nottingham, on gender and leadership that highlighted the importance of leaders encouraging and supporting. The development of support networks and targeted programmes is playing a crucial role in fulfilling this need.

We need to consign to the past false perceptions that secondary schools need tough men in charge or that motherhood is incompatible with being a school leader.

This is not only essential for the sake of equality and fairness but to ensure schools and children do not miss out on the exceptional leadership that women can offer.

See ascl.org.uk/events for more information about the association’s “Confidence for Headship” courses on December 1 and February 4

ASCL is one of the founding members of the Leading Women’s Alliance, which is holding a summit in London on January 15

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