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The role of women in education leadership

Posted on: October 19, 2021
Female leader in education setting

While the teaching force is largely composed of women – both nationally and internationally – there exists a concerning underrepresentation of women in its leadership positions. Imbalance persists across the board, from salary and benefits to recruitment and promotion.

DODS Diversity & Inclusion offer a snapshot of the current discrepancies between men and women in educational workplaces throughout the UK:

  • 63% of teaching staff in secondary schools are female, compared with only 38% of headteachers
  • At primary school level, men are present at senior level at a ratio of almost 2:1 of their representation overall – while just 14% of teaching staff are male, 27% of headteachers are
  • Across all state-funded schools, female headteachers earn on average £5,700 less than male headteachers overall
  • Within higher education, only one in four professors is female, despite half of lecturers being women, and more than nine out of ten institutions paid their average male employee more than their average female employee, with British universities reporting an average median pay gap of 13.7%

What’s behind this absence of gender equality at senior level? What can be done to redress the lack of career advancement and professional development for women?

Barriers to progression

Gender and leadership case studies have unearthed a number of obstacles for women seeking educational leadership roles.

Leela Cubillo and Marie Brown outline the reality of both the “glass ceiling” and the “glass walls”: namely, the horizontal and vertical barriers faced by female educators. While these barriers are not necessarily uniform across societies and cultures, there remain key contributing factors behind the disparity in the education sector – often deeply rooted in traditional, patriarchal cultures and perceived male dominance of management. It seems women, as a whole, have to work harder to prove themselves capable as school principals and educational leaders.

Maternity care and related bias has been shown to have a significant impact on women’s pay and progression. Undertaken more often by women than their male counterparts, career breaks and part-time working arrangements as a result of childcare can mean female teachers miss out on promotions and pay awards.

Promotion criteria itself within the education system has also been identified as too narrow. In higher education settings, quantity of both research papers and grants count towards progression. For women, who hold disproportionately more teaching-only contracts than men, this can be a significant disadvantage.

Another obstacle women encounter can be confidence and the ability to surmount bias and adversity. Historical and social influences, such as the economic status of women and “women’s occupations”, often prevent them from pursuing senior leadership roles, linked to imposter syndrome. Conversely, women may also not be viewed by others as possessing the abilities needed to lead. This lack of peer and senior support – particularly from male teachers – together with a lack of supportive mentors, significantly reinforce the challenges faced by women.

Championing women leaders and managers

What can be done to address gender differences and increase the number of women in school leadership positions?

There are clear and complex interrelationships between the roadblocks placed in women’s career paths. Only by examining and dismantling these can we support women in educational leadership.

Where women are involved in the decision-making processes, greater balance and gender equity is likely to be achieved. There is a need for role models and mentoring programmes; as well as guiding the way to management roles, these serve to increase confidence and knowledge that women belong in boardrooms. Promotion procedures and other processes which discriminate against women must be re-examined. Organisations such as WomenCount and UN Women advocate for targets and reporting for female professors and women on boards.

Collaboration must exist between all educational stakeholders. They must recognise the role gender inequities and influences play in women’s efforts to succeed as school leaders. The absence of women in the field – across policy, practice and decisions – means their influence is limited and should be urgently addressed.

Female leaders as catalysts for change

McKinsey & Company research into leadership behaviours suggest that women, more frequently than men, exhibit leadership styles and traits that are highly applicable to future global challenges.

It concluded that “traditional leadership behaviours” of control, corrective action and individualistic decision – largely regarded as “masculine” behaviours – are the least critical for future success. Far more important are intellectual stimulation (which men and women apply in equal measure) and five other traits (applied and exhibited more frequently by women). These are:

  • Inspiration
  • Participative decision making
  • Expectation setting and rewards
  • People development
  • Role modelling

It’s also recognised that female leaders bring a host of other skills and attributes to educational leadership. For example, they: work to develop a collaborative environment with a common vision; value people and their contributions; use power and make it expandable to others; and resist practices that interfere with overall goals. As such, women actively confront issues in their positions as responsible educational leaders.

If female principals, headteachers, and others in key educational administration roles are numerous enough to enact meaningful, long-lasting change within school settings, it can only benefit the younger generations who witness this in classrooms. Girls and young women grow up to see women in leadership positions; boys and young men not only benefit from a more inclusive culture, but expect this as the status quo in future workplaces.

More widely, leadership demographics across education and business must be re-examined. Intersectional hiring practices encourage change beyond female leadership: by demanding greater all-round diversity and inclusivity, institutions would reflect society on a broader scale.

Join the forefront of educational leadership and management

Are you passionate about social justice amongst leadership? Keen to develop the skills to advocate for equity and inclusivity amongst school leaders?

Keele University’s online MA Education Leadership and Management programme equips you with the skills to succeed in leadership – across sectors and around the world.

Guided by experts, you’ll develop critical and theoretical perspectives on a diverse range of educational matters and focus on strategic leadership in complex and changeable environments. As well as organisational management, this programme explores business ethics and the identification, mitigation and management of organisational risk and sustainability.

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