Women, beware the enemy within

10th July 2009 at 01:00

Angels, let alone men, would do well to tread carefully in the debate about why there are fewer women than there ought to be in charge of our colleges (pages 4-5). But to dance around the subject is, in its own way, a manifestation of sexism. The problem does not fall into some closed "women's troubles" category. Sexism is no more solely a women's issue than racism is a black-only issue or ageism a problem only for over-45s.

So this is a controversial question: is one of the main reasons too few women reach the top because of the barriers that exist in women's minds? Many senior women in FE seem to think so, and their arguments are based on experience. In interviews, women are more apt to be honest about their strengths and weaknesses than men, which can mean that they come across as less sure of their abilities. And who wants a wobbly leader?

But the underlying reasons for this mindset are complex. Ultimately, as Rachel Curley at the University and College Union points out, mental barriers are often constructed from real-life experience and perception. If, for example, a woman's experience of a college, no matter how rigorously that institution applies equal opportunities policies, is that it is a male-dominated culture (even if it boasts lots of senior female managers), then that will affect the way she thinks and, possibly, the way she pursues her career. And this is before she weighs up her career against possible caring responsibilities.

The point, as all the women interviewed this week identified, is to identify and adapt to the realities on the ground. Ticking all the equality boxes is not enough, and colleges must ensure they continously and thoroughly monitor their application, interview and appointment processes. Further important steps might include training interviewers in how different people express themselves and improving talent-spotting processes.

The intention here is not to beat FE about the head over female equality. Women do far better in colleges than their colleagues in universities, and FE is on a par with secondary schools, where 57 per cent of teachers are women and 36 per cent heads. But FE can and should do more.

In the meantime, let us remember the words of Timothy Leary, 1960s counter-culture guru, who, in what was probably a rare moment of lucidity, said: "Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition."

Alan Thomson, FE Focus Editor

E alan.thomson@tsleducation.com.

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