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Why close the book on half of our potential?

Women have been in the news a lot recently. Helen Alexander has been appointed president of the Confederation of British Industry. Clara Furse has retired after eight years as chief executive of the London Stock Exchange. MPs Julie Kirkbride and Margaret Moran have been found guilty in the court of public opinion over their expenses claims and will stand down at the next general election.

The careers of the first two illustrate the contention of the Women's Leadership Network that women should aspire to the highest positions and can do as good a job as anyone. As for the MPs, perhaps it debunks the myth that women are saints who operate at a higher ethical level.

In February, we found that 130 of the 361 principals of England's further education and sixth form colleges were women. Common sense dictates that this figure ought to represent at least 50 per cent; if you take into account the fact that 63 per cent of the FE workforce are women, then even at 50 per cent women would be under-represented. It was alarming to see that in the east Midlands only 21 per cent of colleges have women principals, and the North East does not fare much better at 24 per cent. Only 26 per cent of all sixth form colleges are led by female principals.

Would the Women's Leadership Network be satisfied if there were 50 more women principals? Yes, provided this came about in a sustainable manner through genuine change, but we do not advocate all-female shortlists. So, what will bring this about?

Research carried out by the Learning and Skills Network clarified some of the issues and made recommendations that our network is following. Women are less likely to apply for top jobs for a range of reasons, including family concerns and what they see as a lack of skills. Confidence-building and reducing the impact of career breaks emerged as key factors, with mentoring, networking opportunities and equality training for governors recommended to support women's career progress.

The Women's Leadership Network is building up a mentoring programme for women who aspire to be principals, and setting up informal networks nationwide to raise confidence and share experiences. We are also working with partners in the sector to do further research and to encourage discussion with governors about the issues that influence women's career aspirations.

We are not claiming that women make the best leaders, but governing bodies need to open their eyes to the full pool of talent that is available. Across the country, female principals are doing a brilliant job: 50 per cent of colleges judged outstanding by Ofsted are led by women and 46 per cent of the 157 Group of principals are women.

Who cares? Quite a few people, it seems. More than 100 people representing 45 colleges, two universities, three quangos and four professional associations have signed up to attend our second annual conference on June 10, to be opened by Maria Eagle, the minister for equality.

Thalia Marriott, Women's Leadership Network

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