Poor example for girls

11th June 2004 at 01:00
We are all impoverished by the attitudes that still prevent far fewer women than men from achieving headships, writes Kate Bennett

Children learn as much about the world from who their teachers are as from what their teachers tell them. And the disproportionate lack of women in the headteacher's chair may be telling them more about their future than any textbook can.

Last week (June 4), TES Cymru reported that women are still seriously under-represented at the top of the education ladder. While women make up 73 per cent of teachers registered with the General Teaching Council for Wales, far fewer make it to the top jobs.

In primary schools, 81 per cent of teachers are women, yet only 54 per cent of heads are female, while in secondary schools, women account for 57 per cent of all teachers but only 17 per cent of heads.

Women in England are also lagging behind men in the headship stakes, but they are doing better than their Welsh sisters: they hold 61.8 and 31.2 per cent of primary and secondary headships respectively.

How does this compare with other public-sector professions in Wales? Despite making up 79 per cent of NHS staff, under a third of GPs in Wales are women, and only 38 per cent of NHS Trust chief executives are women.

While 18 per cent of all police officers are women, there are no female chairs of police authorities and only one chief constable. And even though 71 per cent of all local government staff are women, only four of our 22 local authority chief executives are women.

In fact, looking at jobs across Wales, women are failing to reach the top despite often making up majorities of the workforce. Almost 30 years since the Sex Discrimination Act outlawed unfairness against women at work, there are still far fewer women than men in positions of power and influence.

So why does this matter? Inequality costs us. If we select our headteachers from only half of the population, how can we expect to get the best person every time? Schools are missing out on some of the best people - a huge waste of talent year after year.

It is not only a question of gender. Lack of ethnic-minority and disabled role models at senior level - or indeed, any level at all - sadly reinforces children''s views of the world.

Inequality matters, especially in our schools, because of the important role teachers play in shaping children's attitudes, opinions and aspirations.

Many attitudes are shaped from an early age, including career choices and the types of jobs men and women are expected to do. Without changes in senior management teams, girls and boys will continue to gain the impression that the top jobs are for men. Also, schools will miss out on the enormous benefits that mixed management teams bring.

According to Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) research, around a quarter of boys agree with the statement that "A man's job is to earn money, a woman's job is to look after the home and family".

Similarly, some jobs are seen in fairly stereotypical ways by schoolchildren: 95 per cent of primary school age boys thought that car repairs should be done only by men, and 85 per cent of girls thought that washing clothes should be done only by women.

Without changing these attitudes towards work and careers, we won't be able to increase the number of women in top jobs and make Wales a fairer society. And one of the best ways to do this is by providing schoolchildren with positive role models showing that positions of power don't come with a "men-only" sign.

It's no longer good enough to simply wait and hope that, next year, things will be different. Plenty of talented women have been coming up in education for years but are still less likely to reach the top than their male counterparts. Schools need to make changes now to ensure both men and women get a fair chance at achieving their potential.

A survey by the National Union of Teachers found that, for a third of those teachers surveyed, the struggle to juggle work commitments and family responsibilities was too great. Given that most women teachers combine work with caring responsibilities at home, the thought of working longer hours to gain promotion - or the increased responsibility that comes with headships - is a real deterrent.

The importance of having a colleague in the senior management team supportive of any application is stressed by many teachers, as is continuing professional development for women teachers. The new National Professional Qualification for Headship may be helping this situation: 300 of the 500 candidates in Wales who have already gained the qualification are women.

But ultimately, the major deterrent for women may be current recruitment and appointment procedures. According to EOC research and feedback, discrimination and prejudice may all play a part in having a negative impact on women being appointed.

Schools in Wales can make the most of the skills and talent available and build more representative senior management teams by taking a couple of essential steps:

* improving the appointment processes;

* decisively tackling the long hours culture.

Unless schools commit to this, the next generation of women will be unable to break through the glass ceiling in Wales. And that is not good for teachers, parents or children.

Kate Bennett is director of the Equal Opportunities Commission Wales

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