A woman can lead our nation, but not a school?

Education is the key to tackling the gender imbalance in school leadership – we have to change people’s attitudes, writes an executive director of Teach First

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For only the second time in UK history, our prime minister is a woman. And with a female candidate being included in the US presidential race, one could argue that the glass ceiling has finally been smashed, with widespread acknowledgement that women are capable of taking on top jobs. However, while the world of politics may have taken this significant (albeit small) step forward, the statistics for women in educational leadership remain woeful.

Despite making up the majority of the teaching workforce, women are still significantly under-represented in senior leadership roles. In terms of both career progression and pay, talented women are advancing at a much slower rate than their male counterparts. So what exactly are the barriers in education? And why does this continue to feel like an uphill struggle?

Inspiring girls and women to aim high and aspire to leadership positions is vital, but it is also key to inspire boys and men to see that women can be the most senior of leaders. Progress here must be seen as something we collectively own across society.

We should avoid falling into the habit of positioning this debate so it feels like these statistics are somehow a failing of women themselves. We must get away from the idea that if we just focus on fixing women, then problem solved. Mentoring and coaching have their very vital place but let’s also acknowledge that there are many factors at play preventing a woman from reaching the top positions and the vast majority of them, I would argue, are not of her making.

We seem to scrutinise women more readily than men and, as they progress professionally, it can feel like a woman’s character, personality, choices and weaknesses are laid out and dissected in ways that I’m not convinced many men experience. When that happens, it can be all too easy to get lost in the whirlwind of critique and lose sight of the strengths and attributes an individual could bring to any leadership table.

There is a long way to go before we can proudly say we have equity of access, opportunity and input across all spheres of leadership in the UK. To address this situation, we have to change attitudes and be bold enough to talk openly about the root causes of gender inequality in our workforce. And the need to establish it as a norm that women can be assertive and progression-minded when it comes to career opportunities or asking for promotion goes far beyond education.

As a society, we must have a more complete conversation pertaining to gender equality in leadership. For instance, can we talk about race? So often in these “women in leadership” discussions, race doesn’t feature. I have been to numerous women-in-leadership events where there have been powerful calls to action on gender equality, yet race has been eerily absent from the core discussion, and all too often I have been the only person of black and minority ethnic (BME) origin present.

‘Uncomfortable realities’

These issues will not be overcome until we confront the uncomfortable realities that our expectations of people can be different based on their gender and/or ethnicity.

“Once a teacher, always a leader”: at Teach First, we are clear that our mission is to build a movement of leaders who change lives across classrooms, schools and society.

A deep commitment to supporting schools, wherever you work, is one of the key levers that will help to close attainment gaps for children from low-income families. We believe that we need leaders who understand the classroom in every sector across the UK. Our leadership development programme was created to foster leadership skills and insights that will last a lifetime. Regardless of the sectors our alumni (known as ambassadors) work in, we want them to be focused on leading efforts to tackle inequality for children .

The majority of our (currently) 23 ambassador headteachers left the classroom at some point in their careers. They report that this gave them added conviction that school leadership was where they wanted to serve to tackle educational inequality long-term.

Within such a competitive professional landscape, we have to let people see that they can step out of the classroom in their careers while making it easier for them to return with new skills and insights to support our children. With women making up 40 per cent of Teach First’s current headteachers, and nearly 5,000 dedicated female participants and ambassadors, we are fuelling a significant movement of female leaders who have the opportunities to influence the attitudes of future generations whilst supporting schools in low-income communities.

But we need to provide support as well as sentiment. We recently launched career development pathways for our ambassadors. The largest is focused on school leadership and is designed to support progression into middle- and senior-leadership posts.

From discussions with teachers, it’s clear that there are some specific things that our sector should be doing to enable more women and people from BME backgrounds to progress to leadership roles.

At a weekend development conference we held for around 160 high-potential school leaders, the issue of how to balance progressing to headship with also wanting a family was raised. It unearthed a real need to showcase women with children who are in senior leadership. There was also a stated need for the lack of BME leadership representation to be given an equal platform in this debate. Some 62 per cent of attendees at this conference were women and 12 per cent were from a BME background. As a sector we should be creating more job shares and part-time opportunities at senior levels for outstanding women. Businesses are moving to such a model.

Joining forces

We work proudly alongside the business sector to address inequality in education and are pleased to have entered into a partnership with the energy company SSE to support initiatives encouraging girls and young women to consider a career in science, technology, engineering and maths, and to attract more people with Stem backgrounds into schools serving low-income communities.

We want the leadership space to look different in the future and, therefore, we should recognise that the mission to ensure greater equality for women in leadership roles will be influenced by what we expose our children to. Education is the key.

We all have a role to play in securing this change and I invite us all to discuss what our role could be. Women in leadership is one of the hot topics for discussion at our upcoming Impact Conference, which I hope you will join us for. Perhaps you can bring an answer to this potentially controversial question: “When the issue of women in leadership comes up, it often ends up being only women talking to women about this issue. Why is that?”

This is an article in the 15 July edition of TESThis week's TES magazine is available at all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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