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Woman, promote thyself

Two-thirds of teachers are women but only one in five becomes a secondary head. It's time they pushed their case.

Teaching is dominated by women, especially in primary and nursery schools. So why do so few make it to the top? Is it sexism? Exclusive male networking? Or is it because women are holding back? Do they miss out because of maternity breaks? Or are they just not good enough for the top jobs?

Women make up 65 per cent of the full-time teaching workforce, yet men earn more on average and still dominate the headteacher and deputy grades. Since 1991, the percentage of women secondary heads has increased slightly from 21.2 to 23.2 per cent, although the number of female deputy heads has stayed about the same, indicating perhaps that more women are breaking through the final barrier. So things are changing, but not fast enough for many women.

The workplace is still a man's world. Lack of childcare, macho working practices such as long, anti-social hours, and discrimination all act against women. Although promotion panels are fairer, thanks to recruitment policies and training, it is still difficult to apply appropriate selection criteria to candidates who may have different backgrounds and different styles of presentation.

Women who do succeed may face acute personal stress. Top jobs are now more demanding as the combined effects of legislation, new regulations, curriculum directives and inspection clash with the difficulties of balancing budgets and managing demoralised staff. The days when an inexperienced head had time to settle in and be creative under the guiding hand of a patriarchal local education authority are gone.

The head's job is a lonely one. Being the only woman in an all-male management team canpresent extra challenges.

Politics, law, religion and the business world are still controlled by men. Our image of leadership is based on male behaviour in military cultures. But research has revealed that leadership styles can vary considerably. Formal, hierarchical and controlling styles are less relevant in a rapidly changing world requiring flexibility. Leadership that empowers, communicates and listens is more positive.

Professor Judy Rosener, sampling senior managers in the United States, found that more women displayed this style. Their problem is that interviewing panels, generally male, are probably more used to the controlling leadership style and may unconsciously seek to perpetuate it.

Women need to be confident that their skills are relevant and to visualise themselves as members of the top team. Valerie Hammond, director of Roffey Park Management Institute and the only woman to head a UK business school, believes women in the UK have low expectations compared with American women; they veer towards service industries and administrative roles. American women are forging ahead in industrial and high-profile roles. Their culture is to expect to succeed.

Professor Deborah Tannen, author of Talking 9 to 5, feels that women fail to be recognised because simply doing good work isn't enough. First, women need to make sure that "the boss" knows what they have done but, second, they need to avoid conversational rituals that can work against them. For example, a woman deputy head making a presentation to governors on the school budget is more likely to say "Iand we balanced the budget byI" A man is more likely to say "Iand I balanced the budget byI" Fear of sounding bossy or arrogant makes women downgrade their work. Women talk softly and hesitatingly to soften bad news. As a result, they may sound lacking in confidence, whereas a man will be more direct. Women also feel uncomfortable being singled out for attention or praise.

Seeking promotion can be an emotive issue within a school. A potential applicant may not want the world to know that he or she is on a career development course. In general, women will probably feel the need to be both better qualified and better prepared than a man with similar skills.

Mitzi Farrelly, who promotes access to management courses for women in Liverpool, finds most applicants are from primary schools: teachers aspiring to deputy-head posts. One candidate called her after the course. "She rang to say that she'd had instant success in being short-listed for a deputy headship thanks to her new confidence. The only problem was that another woman who'd been on the same course got the job."

Confidence and self-belief is in short supply in education these days. It is important for women to know what they want, plan their careers and ensure that the effects of career breaks are minimised by taking advantage of flexible working, updating skills and keeping in touch with new legislation andcurriculum developments.

As role models for girls in school, women teachers need to be more confident. Too many women think that they got where they are by luck. More need to believe that when preparation meets opportunity then it is their ability that can lead to further success.

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