Where are all the women headteachers?

Jenny Moore

Despite making up the majority of the school’s workforce, women are underrepresented at headteacher level. Future Leaders suggested that 1,700 female headteachers are ‘missing’ from England’s schools.

And now it seems to be the case with executive headteachers too – a role that’s been growing over the last few years. A recent report suggests that, even compared with the headteacher population, women are underrepresented again. So an underrepresented group is being even further unrepresented, essentially. This got me thinking again about the question ‘where are the women headteachers?’.


The role of biases and gender stereotypes

To find out why, I had a look at research based on other sectors, which I think can be equally applicable to schools. And with the multi-academy trust (MAT) model that we seem to be moving towards being more corporate anyway, there’s no harm in trying to learn from findings in other professions. I think (often subconscious) biases are a large part of the problem here, and research from other sectors suggests that people tend to picture men as leaders more than they do for women.

Of course, you have to apply for a role to get it, and maybe women are less likely to apply for promotions (research also suggests that women are more likely to take the ‘essential’ requirements of a person specification seriously than men). This, maybe, is where women have to put themselves out there a bit more and go for it. On the flip side though, is this sort of ambition more likely to be seen as a negative trait in women? For example, it seems that high-achieving women are more likely to be described as “strident” or “abrasive” than high-achieving men.

If we look again at MATs, when a group of schools get together, somebody needs to be the executive headteacher or CEO. Are women less likely to put themselves forward, or is there a bias towards men as leaders, or is it a bit of both? I’d love to see some figures or hear some experiences of this. Given that women are less likely to claim credit for success, my hunch is that they’re less likely to put themselves forward in this situation. Might everyone be buying in to the same gender bias?

Making the profession more family-friendly

Getting back to the school sector, I’ve previously written on this blog about returning to teaching from maternity leave, and how women who return part-time can be seen as not fully committed to the job. It seems safe to say that teaching is not exactly the most family-friendly profession; in The Key’s 2016 State of Education survey, more than three quarters of respondents said their family life had been negatively affected by their role.

For those women (and men) who choose to have children, the profession needs to be more family-friendly. I can’t pretend to have all the solutions, but getting rid of these conceptions around part-time working would be a sure step in the right direction.

Having more part-time staff might involve some extra co-ordination, but surely it’s better to have staff who can balance their responsibilities better and are then in turn hopefully more engaged in their job. It also needs to be OK to leave school on time, rather than staying on for hours – sometimes just to be seen to be staying late: more than seven in ten school leaders told us that they feel guilty if they leave work on time.

Towards a solution

While much of the solution is about the culture of individual schools and addressing (sometimes subconscious) biases, I think there also needs to be a drive from the government to push schools to address these issues more.

There are signs of this already. The DfE has invited schools to bid for government grants to support school-led initiatives that will help boost the diversity of their SLT. For example, I visited one teaching school that’s developing a programme to coach prospective women headteachers, and would be interested to hear more about what other schools are doing. However, I don’t think that just pushing the onus onto schools to develop a programme is necessarily going to cut it, especially if there’s no concurrent drive to address gender biases.

I hope that as we move, seemingly, towards a more ‘corporate’ education system, the education sector will think about what it can learn from research on women in leadership roles and gender biases from the corporate world, rather than replicating the male-dominated trends of that sector. We can consider also what we can learn from those women who are on senior leadership teams – and the men who work alongside or under them.

Comments 3

  1. Martin 23rd September 2016

    The allegation of systemic bias has some currency but no evidence; I dispute it. To start to address this allegation I have researched into primary school head teacher gender, chair of governors gender and Ofsted grade. The research is in final draft phase but preliminary analysis appears to indicate the same lack of bias across school type, region and Ofsted grade. Perhaps secondary schools are different?
    My opinion is that people choose to apply for roles. You cannot compel people to apply if they don’t want to. I believe many excellent people who would make great head teachers are deterred by knowing what the role entails. They see the effect on colleagues and don’t want that for themselves.
    It is the role and the demands it places on an individual and their family which needs scrutiny.
    Perhaps within MATs as functions are removed from the principal role to the CEO and the school level focus turns to children and staff it may encourage previously reluctant candidates? Every governing board wants the very best person for every role
    There is no evidence that governance is becoming more “corporate” in the business sense. A maintained school governing body is a corporate entity in the same way as a MAT board. The main difference being how the people are selected.
    To criticise the move towards a more professional and volunteer governance cadre does a disservice to the hundreds of thousands of people who give their skills, experience and time to the education system.

    • Carolyn Unsted 9th October 2016

      Thank you. Interesting research. Perhaps if you took more account of the disadvantage to women of men not taking their full 50% share of child care. Plenty of research on this in the Fatherhood institute’s research base. And of course the reasons for the pernicious and persistent gender pay gap.
      Also within a society where women and their achievers are viewed negatively by the major institutions – one only has to think of the ‘What’s for tea’ comments about Olympian Laura Trott to understand it’s not just about choosing to apply for a job. It’s about a societal view that women are of less value than men. If you included some of this in your research perhaps it would show a more balanced view. Good luck with completing it. I will be interested to see it when it’s completed.

  2. Kay Fuller 30th September 2016

    Secondary schools are different. I would be interested to hear more about your study.

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