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Through a glass ceiling

Women are gradually joining the ranks of the sector's principal movers and shakers. Simon Midgley reports

Over the past 20 years a revolution has taken place. Silently but surely, women have been moving into high places in further education.

Even so, there is a way to go before they are as numerous as men. Today 97 of about 370 principals are women, according to the Association of Colleges.

This compares very favourably with university vice-chancellors of whom only 11 out of 90 are female (12 per cent). And if the 12 female heads of other higher education institutions, such as degree-awarding colleges, are included, 23 out of 171 (13 per cent) are women.

Janice Shiner, director-general for Lifelong Learning at the Department for Education and Skills, thinks FE is doing "pretty well" in this regard.

"Ninety-seven out of around 400 is not bad," she says. "But we want it to be more like 200 out of 400 - it should be 50 per cent."

Helen Gilchrist, principal of Bury college, agrees that much remains to be done.

"Many years ago the FE curriculum was dominated by higher-level courses in traditionally male areas such as technology," she says. "That meant senior managers would come through those routes. Now, with a wider curriculum, there is more chance for managers of both genders to come through."

Ann Limb, chief executive of the University for Industry's Learndirect and former principal of Milton Keynes college, says: "In the past 10 to 15 years there have been many more women whose skills and qualities have been recognised as essential for senior management. Because of that, they have been promoted and they have transformed organisations."

Nadine Cartner, head of policy at the Association for College Management, agrees:

"Ten to 12 years ago there was only a tiny number of women principals and vice-principals," she says. Then there was a surge and women broke through in a way that black colleagues did not.

"There has been an astonishing shift but there is a long way to go."

Ruth Silver, principal of Lewisham college, south London, says there were plenty of women, but few in senior positions when she was appointed.

"Lewisham is now almost the other way round," she says. "Not only do we have lots of senior women, but we have 12 black managers as well.

"Since the creation of the Learning and Skills Council there has been an explosion of jobs in areas that women are attracted to - basic skills, caring, and supporting areas of the curriculum.

"I'm proud of this progress. There are more women as principals, deputy-principals, vice-principals, directors of faculty and cross-college workers. They are in the LSC and the sector skills councils. We are now deeper and broader in our connection with this professional world."

Among those who have risen through the leadership ranks are some who supported each other by joining the National Network For Women Managers.

These include Ms Limb, Janice Shiner, former principal of Leicester college, Jane Williams, formerly principal of Wolverhampton College and now head of the DfES's standards unit and Susan Pember, once principal of Canterbury college and now head of the adult basic skills unit at the DfES.

The remaining two are Caroline Neville, former principal of Norwich college and now the LSC's director of learning, and Lynne Sedgmore, the ex-principal of Guildford college who has just started as director of the Centre for Excellence in Leadership.

Ms Sedgmore wants the new leadership centre to boost the number of female leaders and those from ethnic minorities and those with disabilities. The centre will analyse the "glass ceiling" which, it is claimed, tend to prevent women from rising through the system. It will also look at fast-tracking people and offer masterclasses on improving diversity and a careers service to advise and encourage progress.

Annette Zera, former principal of Tower Hamlets college, east London, believes many women bring an understanding of relationship culture to the top jobs and that they know the value of teamwork.

"I think women are very skilled at that," she says. "Often things go wrong because not enough attention is being paid to people working well together."

Ruth Silver concludes: "I think we in further education colleges are in very good order with the inclusion of women.

"I hope that seven years from now it will be the same for black colleagues - with black principals and senior staff everywhere."

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