Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

A Woman Can Lead Our Nation, but Not a School?

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

A Woman Can Lead Our Nation, but Not a School?

Article excerpt

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

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. …

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