FE is a feminist issue
Everyone is welcome to study in further education. It's an inclusive environment that leads you gently by the hand towards your goals in life, no matter what your personal circumstances or abilities. But do we have the same fierce commitment to levelling the playing field for our staff?
As with many of my colleagues, FE was not my first career but a return to the world of work after taking a career break to have a family. I was able to fit childcare arrangements around a part-time teaching schedule and, in this respect, FE proved to be an extremely progressive and accommodating employer.
The stereotypical gender balance of childcare is a possible factor in the fact that 72 per cent of all part-time FE employees in 2012-13 were female, according to the Education and Training Foundation. The same source puts the female proportion of the sector's workforce at 64 per cent - less than the 80 per cent in schools but still significantly higher than the 47 per cent female representation in the UK workforce as a whole.
These figures tell a positive story for equality at teaching level, but when it comes to FE leadership and governance the numbers are less optimistic. The Women's Leadership Network estimates that only 42 per cent of principals are female. This is a rise from 36 per cent in 2009, but there's a long way to go before the figure matches FE's wider gender bias.
Why the discrepancy? It's a difficult one to pin down. From first stepping into an FE college as a student, through teaching and then into consultancy work, I have never felt in any way restricted by my gender. I have worked for a number of inspirational leaders, some of whom happened to be female.
My experience tells me that promotion in FE goes hand in hand with a commitment to CPD, tenacity and an enormous amount of hard work. All of which are gender-neutral.
But let's not get too comfortable. One rung further up the leadership ladder takes us to the board of governors, the people who have the final say over what happens in FE organisations. Here's where (with some notably progressive exceptions) we revert to the days of the impenetrable boys' club. Research from the Women's Leadership Network shows that FE boards have almost twice as many male governors as female ones, and that only about 17 per cent of FE chairs are women.
Our young female students live in a cultural landscape where overt sexism is the norm and positive female role models are scarce. How can we tell them that their gender doesn't limit their futures when we know that those who sit around the sector's boardroom tables are primarily old white blokes?
The problem lies in the recruitment of governors. Most are senior local business or community leaders approached by existing board members. One option would be to make the process of hiring more competitive, but it seems untenable to expect potential governors to go through an interview process when the role is unpaid, relying on them giving their time and skills for free. Likewise, the notion of positive discrimination is often viewed as a patronising method of recruitment that takes attention away from the actual skills of the individual.
But perhaps FE colleges should become more proactive and seek out prominent senior female leaders. Colleges could learn from their own successful drives for volunteerism at student level, focusing on the wider promotion of local people with expertise at a non-executive level.
Most important, though, is to remember that the first step to solving any problem is acknowledging that it exists - and the lack of gender equality at the top of the FE college system is certainly a problem. Without at least exploring how a more varied make-up of boards of governors can be introduced, their ongoing existence is a clear demonstration of "do as I say, not as I do" leadership.
Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands. @MrsSarahSimons