Inequality rules, and it's not OK

By the end of 2000, one in four college principals was a woman. The glass ceiling had not disappeared but the first cracks were showing. People were excited about the fast-growing number of women leaders in further education.

So what has happened since? Not a lot. By 2005, the number of women principals was still about 100. At 28 per cent of the total, it was a slight increase since the 1990s. However, this was partly due to college mergers and closures, and the retirement of men.

Women make up more than half the FE workforce and may even be over-represented in first-line management, figures from the Learning and Skills Council suggest. Indeed, data from Lifelong Learning UK shows that in 2005 there were 8,670 women in management, compared with 6,275 men.

It is difficult to know why so few women move on to the more senior posts.

They clearly have a strong thirst for leadership, since about two-thirds of participants on courses run by the Centre for Excellence in Leadership are women.

Some people insist women are less likely to gain promotion because only one third of college governors (who influence appointments) are women. Also, a recent study for CEL shows that women staff are far more likely than men to take career breaks, mainly to have children or care for relatives. College principals, on the other hand, rarely take career breaks.

Since 2000, attention has rightly focused on the under-representation of ethnic minorities at all FE management levels. The number of black and other ethnic minority principals has risen from three to 11 (five of whom are women), but far more must be done to ensure equal opportunity. At the same time, leadership barriers facing women must not be overlooked. From April, colleges must comply with new statutory duties to eliminate discrimination and promote equal opportunity.

In May, the National Women's Network will be relaunched at the House of Lords. The network was created in the early 1990s to support women seeking leadership roles in FE and to encourage more to apply for principalships.

Sadly, it has not been active since 2000. The women who helped to establish the network know it is needed just as much today as it was 10 years ago.

But others need to be shaken out of their complacency.

While colleges are crying out for dynamic leaders, women are not making the strides in senior leadership that they should be. This in a sector that claims to value everyone's skills, regardless of gender.

Lynne Sedgmore chief executive of the Centre for Excellence in Leadership

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