Women who surf the gender network
Joanna Tait, principal of Bishop Auckland College, rang the Further Education Funding Council this month with what she thought was a simple request. She wanted a list of all the women principals in England.
The council, however, did not find the task straightforward. No such list existed, administrators explained. Instead they offered to provide the names of every college chief executive so Ms Tait could do the gender sorting herself.
The experience, she believes, speaks volumes about the level of awareness of women's progress in management in further education. She believes that only when armed with hard data can the sector take stock of the situation, and bring about change (the answer, it transpired, is 63 - around one seventh of English principals).
A national professional organisation chaired by Ms Tait, the Network for Women Managers in Further and Continuing Education, considers raising the profile of women's achievement in the sector one of its key aims. Since many senior female staff find themselves in a minority of two or even one at top college management level, the network offers support and a means of lobbying for greater representation.
"Even where women are not in a minority in the college as a whole, they usually are in the smaller decision-making groups they must work in," Ms Tait points out. "There can be a feeling of isolation. I don't believe the majority of colleges take any formal stock of their balance of men and women."
The network, which was set up two years ago, sprang from an idea at an international further education conference in 1990.
For a Pounds 30 annual individual membership fee (Pounds 250 for colleges or associations), the network's 150 members receive a twice-weekly newsletter and the chance to meet and exchange advice at national and regional events and conferences. They will shortly have access to a developing database of information and research on women in management.
While many professional organisations are open only to those at the top of the managerial ladder, the network has a wider policy - women who "define themselves as having a management role or who are aspiring to management responsibility" are all eligible.
"We felt it very important not to be exclusive," says Ms Tait. "Women on their way up are precisely those who need encouragement and particularly role models, which they may not see ahead of them in their own college. You could say female principals are those who have already broken through the glass ceiling. "
The network believes the best way to get rid of this ceiling is not by smashing it but rather dismantling it piece by piece. Change is already happening - the numbers of women principals are increasing, and the whole nature of the sector has altered.
"Colleges were set up as male institutions, training engineers and miners with maybe a few typing classes," says Ms Tait. "That has now changed dramatically and female students have overtaken men. That is bound to be reflected in staff too."
She believes women have certain management skills that men may lack - primarily greater practicality and flexibility - but her organisation is not aiming for revolutionary change. "We want to give women the confidence to take on the roles they are capable of," she says.