Ninety-one of the current 426 principals of English FE colleges are women, a seven-fold increase on a decade ago.
This is also an improvement on the 1996 figures reported by the Further Education Development Agency of 63 principals, making 17 per cent of the total.
But in a sector where over half the staff are women, there is still a long way to go.
Women are breaking through the glass ceiling and taking on some of the most challenging jobs.The agency's research had showed that women managed proportionately fewer of the big colleges, but now 24 per cent of colleges with annual budgets topping pound;16 million are headed by women, and they are taking home one quarter of the salaries above pound;100,000. Nearly half of women principals are on or above the median salary of pound;66,000.
"If the research shows that women are taking on the top jobs, this is to be applauded," said Jocelyn Prudence, employment directo at the Association of Colleges, "but comparisons are difficult and there is still a long way to go."
Although women are in top jobs, they are not spread evenly across the country. Sixty-two per cent of women principals are concentrated in just four of the nine Further Education Funding Council regions: Greater London, the North-west, the South-east and the West Midlands.
Women principals are more likely in urban areas and about one third of colleges run by women draw on the inner cities.
A note of caution was sounded by Joanna Tait, principal of Durham's Bishop Auckland College and committee member of the National Network of Women Managers. "It's good that it's moving in the right direction but our target should be to get beyond 25 per cent. This is the critical mass at which more women start to get involved."
She also felt that the movement was small compared with the "colossal" amount of change which FE has recently gone through. This opened up opportunities for women but the degree of rationalisation has now restricted the number of senior posts.