The invisible prejudice that’s holding female teachers back

Even when you account for all other factors, female teachers are less likely than their male counterparts to become head of their school. Would all-women shortlists help counterbalance the casual sexism of school recruitment boards?

Decades on from the sex discrimination act, women teachers are struggling to make it to the top positions. Photo: Getty.

As director of headship at the Future Leaders Trust, a charity that coaches and supports teachers so  that they can become more effective leaders and make a difference in challenging schools, I know the challenges our women teachers face when seeking to become school heads, particularly in secondary school. The under-representation of women in leadership generally is sadly a well-known issue. And it is not a new issue in education. But I have been surprised by the too-frequent stories of “casual” sexism among headship recruiters – almost 40 years after the Sex Discrimination Act.

For example, one teacher on our Future Leaders programme recently got down to the last two candidates for a headship in the north-east but was rejected because the governing body wanted a man who could “deal better with the local ex-mining community”. Another participant in London was rejected for being a woman and too young – despite the man who was appointed in her place being a year younger.

The statistics behind the anecdotes suggest the scale of the issue: of our 450-odd Future Leader participants, who are all teachers in senior leadership positions, 54 per cent are female and when it comes to our Headship Now! programme, which is for teachers ready to apply for their first headship position, 48 per cent are female. But fewer than a third of the 69 graduates of our Future Leaders programme who have been appointed heads of school are women, and women are more likely than men to be in interim or acting posts.

This is broadly in line with national figures showing that in 2012 36 per cent of secondary heads were female (compared to 71 per cent of primary heads – which looks encouraging until you realise 88 per cent of primary teachers are female).

We are in the midst of peak headship recruitment season, and all ten of the Future Leaders who have got to the second stage of interview (often more than once) since September without yet securing a post are women.  Some of them lost out to other women, but in many cases a man got the job or no appointment was made.

So, what is to be done?

We know that there are a range of issues that can (but don’t have to) hold women back – including confidence and trying to balance career and family – and we work with our participants to address them. But as the figures show, the problem isn’t simply that women aren’t applying. And, trust me, the female Future Leaders who are applying don’t lack confidence, capability or impressive track-records in senior leadership.

When I tweeted about this, the tentative suggestion came back that the answer could be all-female shortlists. No one argued very strongly for it but the problem is the lack of alternatives. There’s certainly no silver bullet.

Getting governing bodies and other recruiters to “do the right thing” (by which I mean appoint the best person for the job, irrespective of gender, ethnicity, age etc.) would be the optimal solution of course. But how do you influence such a diffuse group of volunteers who will probably need to recruit a head once in their governorship, if at all?

When maintained schools appoint a new head, the local authority has the right to an advisory place on the selection panel. I am unaware of any evidence that this “advisory” role contributes significantly to fairer decision-making, and of course it doesn’t apply to the growing number of academies. (It is interesting, if unsurprising, that of the major academy chains, only one – Ark – is led by a woman.)

Changing the way that recruitment process works could help. Traditional panel interviews tend to reveal little about real leadership skills, which is why we don’t use them to select participant for the Future Leaders programme. This could be one reason why 54 per cent of our participants are female. But again, the problem is how to implement better selection practice when schools’ governing bodies have the freedom to design their own processes. On top of this, no process can be better than the people who run it.

The legal route has its attractions, but none of our participants has so far expressed a willingness to take on the ordeal of trying to legally prove they’ve been discriminated against, especially when the most damning feedback (“it’s your gender, luv”) is always informal. It’s also doubtful that a successful legal case would achieve anything other than more creativity when composing the formal reasons given for not appointing an otherwise suitable woman. (None of which is to say individuals shouldn’t legally challenge something which is, after all, against the law.)

All of this brings us back to all-women shortlists. Perhaps these could be applied to new headship appointments in academy chains or local authorities where a disproportionate number of existing heads are male. (Ark, incidentally, would be exempt as 57% of their current heads are female.)

Now, which of our great education or political leaders should I pitch the idea to? The man at No 10 or the man in charge of education?

Kate Chhatwal is Director of Headship at The Future Leaders Trust. The Future Leaders Trust is an independent education charity with the mission to raise the achievement of children, regardless of background, and to provide them with equal choices and opportunities in life. By developing a network of school leaders, it is transforming challenging schools and working to eradicate educational disadvantage. 

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