The glass ceiling is ‘firmly intact’ in school leadership

19th January 2018 at 00:00
Shortage of women in headteacher roles sparks calls for government action

Organisations fighting for equal rights and equal pay for women say that the glass ceiling remains “firmly intact” in Scottish schools as new figures show – in secondaries, at least – that while the profession is populated by many more women, men are far more likely to become headteachers.

Scotland’s largest teaching union believes headteachers’ “crippling workload” is putting women off applying for the posts – and that the situation could get worse as the Scottish government moves forward with its plans to place more responsibility and power into the hands of headteachers.

One women’s rights organisation claims that a lack of women in the top jobs in the country’s secondary schools has helped to create a “toxic environment” for girls where there are “epidemic levels of sexual harassment and sexualised bullying”.

The claim follows reports and research from organisations such as Girlguiding UK revealing that girls are being subjected to shocking levels of abuse in school, including groping and verbal harassment.

One Scottish high school pupil – Katie Horsburgh – made a short film about the problem, in which girls talk about being groped under desks, having their skirts lifted and boys thrusting their crotches in their faces – all during the course of the school day.

‘Toxic’ environment

According to Emma Ritch, executive director of feminist organisation Engender, “having a balance of women and men in leadership changes cultures and practice” and could improve the experience of female pupils.

However, new Scottish government figures show that the proportion of teachers who are female falls at each level of seniority in schools. In secondary, 65 per cent of teachers are female, compared with only 41 per cent of headteachers.


In primary, the divide is less stark: some 90 per cent of all teachers are female, compared with 86 per cent of headteachers.

Ritch says: “Despite teaching being a female-dominated profession, men are overrepresented in vital headteaching roles…Schools have a critical role to play in tackling gender inequality – this employment data is both an indicator that they are not living up to this ambition and part of the explanation for why girls continue to learn in a toxic environment.”

Anna Ritchie Allan, executive director of Close the Gap, which campaigns for equality for women in work, calls on education authorities to “develop targeted interventions that will enable women to reach their full potential”, adding that it is clear existing progression pathways are “not working for women”.

She adds: “These figures are concerning and, in spite of its female-dominated workforce, it shows that the education sector is no different to rest of the labour market, with the glass ceiling firmly intact.

“We know that a lack of part-time and flexible working in senior positions, and a long-hours culture, means that management roles are often incompatible with women’s caring roles.

“This is compounded by assumptions about women’s capabilities and interests, where it’s perceived that men are better suited to leadership roles. Quite simply, it’s a waste of female teachers’ skills and experience.”

Avril McNeill, head of Glenrothes High in Fife, says it is largely thanks to her husband, who takes on more of the caring responsibility at home, that she has been able to advance. She has children but says her impression is that often women who become secondary heads do not, suggesting that the role is not compatible with family life.

‘Distributive leadership’

According to the EIS teaching union “the systems which should enable career progression for women in teaching are faulty”.

It is calling for recruitment processes to be thoroughly “equality-checked” and for equality training to be provided for all involved in recruitment. It also wants “distributive leadership” to become a reality in schools, as opposed to having “the full weight of running a school on one pair of shoulders”. However, the union suggests that Scottish government plans to increase the power of headteachers could make things worse, not better.

Assistant secretary Andrea Bradley says: “Many women in teaching, already struggling with workload and with keeping on top of the demands of home and school, with only limited access to genuinely flexible working, observe their headteacher colleagues bearing ever-more responsibility and performing a proliferation of tasks with less support than in years past because of austerity budgeting – and they judge that the job’s not for them.”

Responding to the figures showing the proportion of women in headteacher posts in secondary, Stephen McCabe, children and young people spokesman for councils’ umbrella body Cosla and leader of Inverclyde Council, says he is confident local authorities will reflect on the figures and “take appropriate action to support and encourage more women to apply for promoted posts”.

He continues: “At a time when we are struggling to attract applicants for headteacher posts across the country, we need to ensure we are making the most of the pool of talent we have in our schools.”

Cosla adds that more than half of directors of education are women and, within schools’ family-friendly policies, regular equal pay audits and gender pay gap analyses “continue to help councils address any barriers to women progressing to promoted posts”.

The Scottish government says that the gap between the proportion of female teachers in promoted posts and the proportion in the workforce as a whole is “longstanding”, but adds that this does not make it acceptable.

The gap has been narrowing for more than a decade, it adds. Across all sectors, females made up 77 per cent of all teachers but 79 per cent of headteachers.


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