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Why aren’t more women in charge in schools?

Females are still woefully underrepresented in senior leadership for education, says Victoria Cameron – but a groundswell is building for change...

  • Why aren’t more women in charge in schools?

Victoria Cameron, an Account Executive with Mango at PLMR, looks at the challenges facing women in education and the groundswell that is building to increase female representation in senior leadership.

Globally, teaching is a feminised workforce, yet there is a disproportionately small number of women in senior leadership positions.

In the UK, 62% of teachers in secondary school are women but only 39% of heads are female. This imbalance is also evident at the global level, where the OECD reports that over two thirds of the education workforce are female, yet less than half of those in school leadership positions are women.

What’s more, during a time in which there is a teacher recruitment and retention crisis, one in four teachers who quit the classroom in recent years were women aged 30-39.

Enter #WomenEd – the global grassroots movement born to disrupt these statistics and improve female representation within education.

Driven by my feminist intrigue, I joined the #WomenEd movement at the recent London ‘unconference’, themed ‘10% braver’, and spoke with female teachers and members of the #WomenEd leadership team, gaining valuable insight about the steps that need to be taken to create more effective, sustainable career pathways within the profession.

Glass and concrete

The limitations of the glass ceiling for women cuts across sectors but for black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) women in education, the ceiling could more aptly be described as concrete.

Alongside the existing challenges many women face – including a lack of self-confidence in pursuing career progression and a lack of available, and importantly, geographically-suitable roles – BAME women in education are also often exposed to racial bias that produces an overarching sense of isolation; something that is exacerbated by the lack of diversity in leadership roles.

It’s important that we don’t treat ‘women in education’ as a homogenous group – these individuals account for a wide range of personal experiences.

Instead, what’s encouraged is an intersectional approach that foregrounds the complex and interwoven nature of social factors such as class, race, disability, gender, and sexual orientation.

Each of these forms of social stratification informs the female teaching experience in education and should be taken into consideration when looking for structural weaknesses that can help break through the ceilings inhibiting career progression.

Representation is also an important factor and post-recruitment, BAME women in education should be adequately supported with career growth opportunities.

In 2015, the National Union of Teachers published a letter calling for teachers to demographically reflect the communities they serve, a sentiment that has been echoed by Sameena Choudry, founder of Equitable Education.

Ms Choudry, also a national leader at #WomenEd, commented on the challenges saying that “at a time when the pupil population is becoming increasingly diverse in terms of ethnicity, the equivalent representation of ethnicity and gender amongst the leadership of schools remains stubbornly low.”

Children spend the majority of their time at school, so it is important that learning environments mirror communities in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity as this not only helps breakdown pupils’ misconceptions but also lays the groundwork for a more equitable future.

‘He’ for ‘she’

Far from finding themselves alienated from the cause, men have been encouraged to join the movement to increase female representation at the senior levels of education, and my experience with #WomenEd has shown this to be an intentional part of the strategy.

Chris Hildrew, headteacher at Churchill Academy and Sixth Form, and contributor to #WomenEd’s book, is one of the many fighting the good fight and spreading the word about the ways in which men can help provide a more inclusive work environment for their female colleagues and support equitable promotion practices.

Mr Hildrew encourages his male colleagues to check their privilege at the door and to consider what implicit biases may be forming their decision-making and judgements as a crucial first step.

Another useful practice he supports is celebrating the achievements of female teachers and implementing a reverse mentoring scheme. Difficult decision-making forms a large part of leadership roles and is something that men and women are equally capable of achieving.

However, the perception radically changes with the gender balance. Deferring to traditional gender stereotypes, men are seen as naturally strong leaders capable of making balanced decisions, while their female counterparts are often positioned as being unable to avoid personal bias or hidden agendas.

Reverse mentoring schemes are an effective way of allowing male mentees to learn about their female colleagues’ perspective and experiences thus reducing barriers to progression, reducing stereotyping, and counteracting bias.

The pay gap

Education had the third largest pay gap of all industry sectors across the UK in 2018 – sitting alongside finance and construction, which traditionally, unlike education, have a masculinised workforce.

In education, the pay gap is also evident at all levels, from primary through to higher education.

However, given equal pay for equal roles is assured through legislation in the UK, in this context, the gender pay gap is less about equal pay and more about under-representation within senior ranks.

According to Vivienne Porritt, vice-president at the Chartered College of Teaching and co-founder of #WomenEd, unconscious bias has a lot to answer for.

She says, “women are trained not to promote their own agendas but instead, to focus on the needs of others”, and it’s these behaviours, shaped by stereotypes at a young age, that influence the ‘female’ approach to job applications and salary negotiations.

Encouraging female teachers to close the gap, Ms Porritt suggests that women negotiate their salary from the start of their career as this sets a positive precedent.

This is also backed by trend analysis, showing that those who don’t negotiate their salary in their first teaching job are far less likely to negotiate future offers.

This trait accompanies disheartening statistics that only 7% of women in education attempt salary negotiations in comparison to 57% of men – something that needs drastic improvement through confidence-building and supportive workplaces and networks.

Despite these challenges, though, the tide is turning, slowly but surely – and I witnessed this myself at the #WomenEd ‘unconference’ when women who had leveraged the support of their peers and this network proudly announced the career progression they had achieved over the past 12 months.

The future is getting brighter for women in education and by returning to the values of confidence, collaboration, and community, the gender balance in senior leadership positions is bound to be transformed.

The roadmap to a more-equitable future

  • Build a pipeline to ensure female career progression
  • Develop recruitment strategies that actively increase the number of female and BAME applicants
  • Conduct regular reviews and appraisals
  • Reflect on the attitudes of senior leadership teams
  • Provide access to professional networks and mentorship

Victoria Cameron is an account executive with Mango at PLMR.

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