Are your female colleagues generally less confident than males when it comes to climbing the further education career ladder? The question crops up time and again when discussing the lack of women in senior management positions in colleges.
The issue is controversial because it implies that women are less confident. Some women may not recognise this situation or even the question, having managed their careers and seized opportunities every bit as effectively as their male peers. But the latest figures show that only 36 per cent of principals across the sector are women, yet women form 64 per cent of the total FE workforce and 61 per cent of managers.
Since both women and men are capable of work at a senior level, the figures suggest at least two possible explanations. One is that there are barriers for women, because of the systems and processes within FE that fail to recognise and promote talented women. Another is that there are more subtle obstacles to gender equality in FE, including the confidence, determination and frequency with which women seek out and present themselves for promotion.
Some light was shed on the issue by a poll conducted last month for FE Focus among senior women managers and principals attending the annual conference of the Women's Leadership Network (WLN). Of those polled, 72 per cent admitted to being worried that they would not be up to the job of principal or that they might fail - just over half the respondents were concerned about the level of responsibility that came with the role.
If nothing else, this reveals levels of self-awareness and honesty about their own strengths and weaknesses that, had we had time to poll senior men in FE, we might have been able to show as being more common among women.
The findings ring true to Heather Maxwell, principal of South Devon College. "What I have discovered over the years is that women are very good at being self-aware but they are not as confident about themselves as they should be," she says.
"Generally women will talk in a language that reflects less high achievement than men. So, if I am interviewing someone, a man will come across as very ambitious and a woman will come across more as `I could do that but I haven't had the opportunity'."
The question is to what extent does such self-awareness handicap a woman in seeking and applying for promotion and to what extent is this quality likely to be valued by her superiors or future employers as a positive trait?
Interview processes, particularly those for senior positions, are thorough and professional across most of FE. So, are we to believe that interviewers are more easily impressed by one candidate's unshakeable self-belief than another's more considered approach?
"Everyone is different and everyone leads in different ways and so the language they use is very important to convey what they are about," says Ms Maxwell.
"When governors seek to appoint a principal, they are looking for leadership, strategic direction and values. It is important that the candidate conveys these while being true to herself.
"Twenty years ago there was the business of disguising your true self by adopting more male traits. But now governors have to be very aware of the way people use language."
Pat Bacon, principal of St Helen's College on Merseyside and the next president of the Association of Colleges, says: "It is about women themselves and about women having the confidence to take on the jobs. In that sense, I recognise the comments from the survey of WLN delegates.
"I think there is a confidence issue. It would never have occurred to me early in my career that I could become a principal."
To keep things in perspective, it should be noted that women are not particularly badly represented at the most senior levels of management in FE compared with other sectors. Take higher education, for example, which boasts just 21 (or 16 per cent) female vice-chancellors compared with 130 women who are principals in FE.
However, Rachel Curley, national head of equality for the University and College Union, points out that FE has a more feminised workforce than HE (64 per cent compared with 53 per cent in HE). So, one might expect more senior women in FE.
But the figure is misleading, since many of the women are in part-time and casual jobs, says Ms Curley. In contrast, men tend to be in the sort of full-time permanent posts from which managers tend to be drawn, she said.
The latest staff individualised record (SIR) data, for 2007-08, from Lifelong Learning UK, shows that 61 per cent of all managers in FE are women, but only 45 per cent of senior managers and, according to the WLN, just 36 per cent of principals.
Women make up 59 per cent of all teaching staff, but just over half (51 per cent) of full-time teachers are men and 65 per cent of part-time teaching staff are women.
Almost 60 per cent of FE staff worked part-time in 2007-08, of whom seven out of 10 were women, according to the SIR data. Almost 54 per cent of all full-time staff were women.
Women account for three-quarters of all administrative and professional staff. Nearly 85 per cent of clerical staff are women, as are 70 per cent of support staff and 70 per cent of assessors and verifiers.
"How work is allocated can affect people's promotion prospects and whether women in these roles are encouraged to think about taking their career forwards," says Ms Curley. "It may well be something to do with occupational segregation among subjects and types of roles."
This assessment suggests systemic problems within FE for women because less time and attention is paid to the careers of its casualised, part- time staff, who tend to be female. If so, women are disadvantaged not in any overt or deliberate way but as a result of the division of labour and modes of employment in FE.
According to Ms Curley, similar issues apply to many industries because of the greater caring role performed by women in society, meaning part-time or temporary work is often the preferred or only option.
She says that the important point is that FE employers should ensure they are monitoring and auditing career progression within their institutions. But, she says, the level of monitoring varies across the sector.
"We need evidence of why women are not putting themselves forward: is it through choice or because they see barriers?"
Many colleges have set up mentoring systems to encourage people, whether male or female, to apply for promotion. Some, such as Newcastle College, have gone a step further by operating very open management systems which prize communication between departments and across divisions as well as up and down the line management structure.
"We have a lot of contact with managers across the college," says Bev Robinson, the principal. "At all levels, we have the debate about management structures, succession planning and talent spotting. It makes it much more open. After all, we all see different things in people. And one of the mantras we have here is that (promotion) is nothing to do with who you know or your contacts. It is all on merit."
In common with many other colleges, Newcastle operates a "balanced- scorecard" interview process that includes interviews, presentations and review panels to provide opportunities for all personality types to shine and make gender less of a factor in appointments.
Female role models can have a significant impact on the achievement of women in FE, Ms Robinson says. Of her college's senior management team, 65 per cent are women, including Jackie Fisher as chief executive of the Newcastle College Group.
"I think that if you see a strong role model and have some interaction with them, then that raises aspirations and creates more development opportunities," says Ms Robinson. "My experience has certainly been about strong female role models. Maybe other organisations do not have that."
Ms Bacon of St Helens says: "There is no doubt I was influenced by other women that had gone first. I remember how stunned I was the first time I saw a pregnant woman speak at a conference."
Nadine Cartner, director of policy for the Association of Managers in Education, says that while tremendous progress had been made by women in breaking through to senior management and leadership positions, these female role models now have to complete the process by reforming the culture and systems.
"The sector has come a very long way since the 1990s," says Ms Cartner. "But it is just possible that it is still sexist and that women who are getting through are appointed because they are approximating to a culture that is male dominated.
"So it is not just about looking to get women through to senior management positions - we must make sure that all the things that women can bring to leadership come with them too."
Ms Cartner also acknowledges that part of the problem is the "internal mental barriers" created by women who underestimate or lack confidence in their abilities. She says the more supportive and inclusive style of leadership that women tend to bring to management would help women overcome these barriers.
However, the changing nature of the principal's job, in terms of the increasing workload and scale of responsibility, presents a potentially major obstacle to women continuing to make progress in FE.
Ms Maxwell at South Devon says: "Because the principal's job now demands so much, women may be less likely to apply. Many women will think of their work-life balance and will choose not to apply.
"Fewer people are applying for principals' jobs than 10 years ago, so there are even fewer women coming forward."
Last month's survey of senior women managers and leaders for FE Focus by the Women's Leadership Network lends support to Ms Maxwell's point, since 53 per cent of respondents were concerned that their work-life balance would suffer on becoming a principal.
Many in FE, including Ms Cartner and Ms Curley of UCU, are agreed that a great deal more research and monitoring of the process of application and appointment are required to find out if women are applying and failing to be appointed to top posts or whether many simply never try.
As Ms Curley noted, looking from the top down, senior management may see only open doors for their staff. But looking from the bottom up, many staff - including women - may see only barriers.
Editorial, page 6