What’s holding women back from applying to be heads?

29th July 2016 at 00:00
Women lack confidence in stepping up into what they perceive as ‘male’ leadership roles, say experts

The first time Stephanie Neill considered applying for a deputy headship, she lost courage after reading the job specification.

“I thought, ‘I don’t have the experience for all of that,’ ” the head of Clacton Coastal Academy in Essex says. “So I decided not to apply at that stage.”

Most female teachers have had similar misgivings, according to new research by Vivienne Porritt, of the UCL Institute of Education. The academic has been running workshops for female teachers looking to move into school leadership. She has found that, while male teachers tend to recognise their own lack of experience and ask for promotion anyway, women often allow a lack of relevant skills to deter them from applying for new jobs.

“There’s a real lack of confidence among female teachers,” Ms Porritt says. “It’s about whether they’re capable of being leaders, whether they have the right experience and skills, what sort of school would suit them as leaders. Many of them don’t have that confidence in their vision or skills.”

‘It’s now a high-risk job’

Often, she claims, women simply do not put themselves forward to lead, in the way that men would. “Women will wait for a job to be advertised, before applying,” Ms Porritt says. “And, even then, they might wait until someone says, ‘You should consider applying for this.’

“Men will tell someone that they’re interested in leading. They’d say, ‘These are the kinds of roles I’d be interested in exploring.’ They ask for small-scale opportunities before the roles come up.”

Carol Jones, the Association of School and College Leaders’ specialist for leadership development, recognises the problem. She believes that it is exacerbated by the current school accountability climate.

“Headship is now a high-risk job,” she says. “There are more people who lose their jobs when the results go down. So it takes more confidence to apply.”

But Nichola Smith, head of Meadstead Primary Academy in Barnsley, argues that the ability to ask for additional responsibility is not an exclusively male trait: it is a personality trait. “I suppose it just depends who it is,” she says. “I know some men who are quite happy just to learn the trade and take opportunities when they arise.

“If you’ve got that drive and commitment, then you’ll get where you want to be. I know just as many pushy women as I know pushy men. So it’s 50-50.”

Ms Jones disagrees. Male confidence, she says, tends to emerge not only in men’s willingness to apply for jobs, but in also their reactions when they are unsuccessful. “Men who haven’t been appointed will often challenge the decision of a woman head,” she says. “They’ll say, ‘I think you’ve made a mistake’ or ‘I’m really angry about this’.

“If men aren’t appointed, they will often think it’s the school’s fault. They keep going with their applications. Women often feel crushed by a refusal to give them an appointment. They give up more readily.”

At her Clacton academy, Stephanie Neill has just finished a round of appointments. She has witnessed this kind of difference between the sexes. “When you give feedback to a woman, she’ll go, ‘Well, I didn’t think that I’d get it anyway,’ or, ‘I’m not surprised – I just thought I’d give it a try.’ ”

In part, she believes, the difference in attitudes between men and women towards applying for leadership roles is down to a default idea of what a school leader should look like. “There’s an idea that, when you become a head, you become a certain person,” she says. “That person is more of a male stereotype: a strict autocrat, who shouts at people, a strong man at the helm.”

And, adds Ms Jones, this stereotype is often reinforced during group interviews. “Women often find that men speak more readily in groups,” she says. “They’re often louder. They’re more pushy.”

Female lack of confidence not only affects women’s chances of promotion, Ms Porritt says, it also helps to perpetuate the pay gap between the sexes. “Women are surprised to hear that they can negotiate performancerelated pay,” she says.

“Most women don’t realise you can ask, and so don’t ask. Whereas men, of course, do.”

During a presentation at the British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society conference this month, Ms Porritt outlined the work she has done with female headteachers, to encourage them to think like men. “They need to learn to question and challenge more,” she says. “On a very simple level, we told them: ‘I can ask this; I can say this’.

“We taught them to ask for things, to challenge. To be brave enough to arrange visits to women leaders and to talk to them about what they want to learn. We want to ensure that women leaders have a voice, and can hear the voice of other women leaders.”


How to get ahead(ship)

Recognise that few people meet all the criteria for a leadership position.

Learn to identify and value those skills that you do have.

Also identify the areas where you lack experience, and make sure you are able to talk about how you would learn the necessary skills.

Don’t wait for a job vacancy before putting yourself forward for promotion. Instead, tell the head that you are interested in leadership, mentioning the kinds of roles you might be interested in exploring.

Contact female leaders, either in your own school or at another school, and ask them any questions you may have about school leadership.

Ask to shadow a deputy or a headteacher for a day.

If women need encouragement to apply for new posts, they can find their own: form a small support group with other women who are interested in leadership.

Be aware that society is constantly conditioning women to believe that “nice girls don’t ask”. But if you don’t ask, you won’t get.

Tell yourself constantly that you must be 10 per cent braver.

Source: Vivienne Porritt, UCL Institute of Education

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