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High price of toppling sexism

Susannah Kirkman reports on a survey suggesting there is life above the glass ceiling in FE for women - but sometimes at a great cost

The glass ceiling in further education is beginning to crack, according to a recent survey of women principals of FE colleges. But women need determination and stamina to get to the top in what is still a male-dominated environment.

The most encouraging sign is that the number of women principals has risen sharply over the past few years, from 13 in 1990 to 81 in 1997. Yet overall only 17 per cent of FE college principals are women, according to Women at the Top in Further Education, a research study published by the Further Education Development Agency.

Although women's flair for "people" skills now appears to be more highly valued, some of the principals surveyed said that college governors still seek qualities such as ruthlessness and business acumen, which are more generally associated with men.

One said: "The current FE culture favours the macho-style principal who will be a 'hatchet man' in a downsizing. The present efficiency squeeze is making this tendency worse and governors don't think they need to appoint people who are able to take staff with them."

Another said that governors rate business expertise more highly than educational experience: "There are currently two ways to achieve promotion - either by being a good human resources manager, backed up by curriculum experience, or by being a good accountant . . . the softer curriculum pathway to promotion is disappearing and the 'hard' skills are now what count."

If things go wrong, there is also a tendency for women to be attacked because they are women and they may have handled issues in a different way, according to Joanna Tait, who is principalchief executive of Bishop Auckland College in County Durham and vice-chair of the National Network for Women Managers in Further and Continuing Education.

"A lot of men objecting to what a woman principal does will be hammering away at her simply because she's a woman," Ms Tait said. She knows at least two cases of women principals sacked and scapegoated in situations where she believes men might not have faced the same criticism.

What strategies can women use to fight sexist attitudes? The women principals surveyed say that they try to be as open as possible with staff and governors and they take care to avoid emasculating male critics. One principal invites all new staff to tea to explain her personal style. She feels that this helps to reduce the likelihood of staff later hampering her with their "baggage" about powerful females.

But others insist that, while women should build on their own strengths without trying to be men, they have to be better than men to succeed. "The only way to beat the system that I have found in what is still a male-dominated profession is consistently to deliver what you promise," said one principal.

Another option is to specalise in areas less often associated with women managers, such as finance, accountancy, estates, industrial relations or employment law.

Effective professional development is seen as crucial for success. Secondments and work placements, together with management training run by industry, all helped to fire the future women principals with career aspirations. They can be the catalyst in encouraging women to recognise their own worth.

One principal reported: "IBM . . . spotted me and decided I was headship material. Someone believed enough in me to tell me and try to help me."

And Joanna Tait commented: "It's still an issue that women underrate themselves while men will overrate themselves."

The Further Education Development Agency, the staff college for FE employees, encourages women managers by holding an annual event for them and by conducting research into their situation.

Women also draw support from informal mentors, usually other women in senior jobs, who will urge them to believe in themselves and to build credibility by gaining the appropriate experience and qualifications. Networking with other women is supportive, too, although Joanna Tait thinks women should also use networks more like men - as a way of changing attitudes and getting things done.

The pressures of succeeding in a male environment can take their toll on women's lives. The study says: "One principal commented that women tend to think they need to prove themselves and are reluctant to risk being seen as someone who cannot cope. Another believes that women tend to put themselves under considerable stress when they feel the need to be seen to 'out-macho' the men." Stress was affecting the health of several of the women principals interviewed and three planned to leave FE because they found the stress levels unacceptable.

The women principals were only too aware of the strain of balancing the needs of their families with the demands of their jobs. Although the majority have children themselves, some advised would-be women principals not to start a family. One warned: "There will be many times when the job will have to take priority over familyself."

Two conflicting pieces of advice from the women principals to other women high-flyers side-by-side in the study neatly encapsulate the dilemma:

"Moving children to suit a career causes too many problems," is followed by, "Be prepared to move."

As Joanna Tait points out, although men face the same conflicts, it is still largely women who are held responsible for the emotional well-being of the family.

Despite, or even because of the challenges, the women interviewed were generally upbeat about their work and optimistic about women's chances of success. "Go for it - it's hugely demanding but intensely interesting and worthwhile," said one. "Go for it. Recognise the strengths of being a woman rather than the weaknesses," said another.

A third concluded: "Have confidence in yourself. Senior posts are not impossible, they are developments of what you are already doing."

FRIDAY MAGAZINE, pages 20-26

Women at the Top in Further Education by Clare Stott and Liz Lawson is published by the Further Education Development Agency, price Pounds 12. It is available from: FEDA, Publications Department, Citadel Place, Tinworth Street, London SE11 5EH Tel: 0171 962 1280Fax: 0171 962 1266.

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