Female leadership

Female leadership

By Marsha Elms

Teaching is becoming a female profession. Statistics from the Secondary Headteachers Association show that there are 101,000 women secondary teachers to 88,000 men. Do we need any more proof than this that the public sees the profession as undervalued and underpaid?

Recent research into nursery and primary school teaching, where women have always outnumbered men, has found that here the imbalance has grown. Now just one per cent of Britain‘s 215,000 nursery teachers are men.

It will come as now surprise though to learn that men still dominate headships in secondary education, holding 70 per cent of the total. Women are however snapping up more and more deputy posts.

What female headteachers bring to the profession
Marianne Coleman, director of Distance Learning at the University of Leicester, recently conducted research that has brought up some very interesting facts and figures about the management styles of the female secondary head.

She found that studies of women in leadership and management in education are few and far between. Almost everything we know about leadership and management has been based on research on male subjects.

In the late 90s, a survey of all the female secondary headteachers in England and Wales was conducted, which covered their leadership and management styles and their career progress to headship. The response rate of 70 per cent, well above average, shows how important these headteachers considered such a study to be.

Comments on the returned questionnaires indicated the relative isolation that was felt by many of the respondents. Female headteachers have not previously been surveyed separately as a group, although gender as a variable was included in the research of Weindling and Early (1987) and Jirasinghe and Lyons (1996).

The survey found that:

  • Just less than half of the headteachers were between the ages of 40 and 49
  • Half were between 50 and 59
  • Very few were under 40 or over 60
  • More than two thirds of the headteachers were married, with marriage more popular among the under than the over 50s
  • Just over half of the heads had a child or children, but childlessness was more common amongst those under 50
  • Slightly over two thirds were heads of co-educational schools; the remainder were from single sex schools. Of these only three individuals were heads of boys‘ schools

Overall, the results identified a strong identification with the feminine traits such as “caring” and ”intuitive” on the part of the headteachers, and a weak identification with most of the masculine traits.

Androgynous management style
There were however a number of masculine traits, specifically “evaluative”, “disciplined”, “competitive” and “objective”, which are identified by 50 per cent or more of the respondents. This tempers the picture of a pure feminine paradigm of management style among the female secondary headteachers and indicates a more androgynous style of management.

The heads were asked to describe their management styles and the author‘s survey largely endorses earlier research, but although it is clear that the preferred management style of female headteachers is collaborative, there appeared to be a minority of the heads for whom this is not the case.

Although a majority endorsed the collaborative and people-oriented styles, there were a considerable number of adjectives offered that were grouped as either “autocratic/directive” or “efficient”. This represents a proportion of headteachers who, through their choice of words, identified their style of management as probably more akin to the masculine paradigm than the feminine.

The headteachers were also given an opportunity to indicate a free choice of the key values that they are trying to promote in the school. The respondents tended to indicate phrases, rather than individual words.

The sentiments that are included in the value statements can be divided into four areas:

  • Academic excellence and educational achievement
  • The importance of every individual achieving their potential
  • Respect for self
  • Respect and caring for others.

When asked about management in action most of the headteachers reported that they spent a considerable proportion of their time out of their office. They were not asked how this time was spent, but presumably, some of it would be in teaching, and some would involve “management by walking about”.

Open and involved leadership
A large proportion of the headteachers considered that they operate in an open way and that they are highly involved with their staff and the operation of the school.

Since a minority of headteachers in England and Wales are women, they present important role models for other female teachers. The heads were asked if they particularly encouraged women teachers in their career progress. The largest single group responding to this question, indicated that they did not treat women differently from men. This group would tend to include the headteachers of all girls‘ schools.

More than 20 per cent believed they encourage women through women-only courses and a similar proportion through mentoring. In addition, many of the comments written in as “other”, referred to specific encouragement of women. This encouragement often included the headteacher‘s own importance as a role model and in some cases referred to the doubts and lack of confidence evidenced by their women staff.

Sexism from male staff
Interestingly, more than half of the surveyed heads reported experiencing sexiest attitudes from their male colleagues. This experience was reported more by those under 50 and those who were married and had children than by those who were single and childless.

Similarly, the heads of girls‘ schools were less likely to report sexism from their peers than the heads of co-ed and boys‘ schools. These differences are statistically significant. It would appear that women who are married and who have children, particularly those working in co-educational schools, may be identified more strongly with a domestic stereotype and implicitly considered less able to lead and manage.

The majority (62.7 per cent) stated that as a women they had felt the need to “prove their worth” in a management position. This need is felt more strongly by those with children, and less strongly by the single and heads of girls‘ schools. This difference may well be linked with the tendency to stereotype married mothers with the domestic role.

What can we learn from the results?
The survey of the entire population of female headteachers in England and Wales has contributed in many ways to the understanding of the management and leadership of women headteachers. One of the major findings emerging from the research is the continuing discrimination that has been faced by women who are now senior managers in education.

The experience of isolation and instances of sexism from peers indicate that they are operating in a context that may be inimical to success unless women are prepared to adapt to the prevailing values. These might include not marrying or having children or working harder and longer than any competitors, male or female.

Many of the headteachers said that they had experienced resentment from both males and females at being subject to female leadership. However, the majority also identified ways in which being a woman leader frees them from the stereotypes of male leadership.

Both of these factors exemplify the differences in the context within which male and female headteachers operate, indicating the relevance of gender to the study of leadership and management.

The research strongly endorses the view that most women manage their schools in a way that can clearly be identified as consultative and people-orientated. The majority of the headteachers, particularly those under 50, chose adjectives that identified them as collaborative and caring. But they did not claim to be democratic, acknowledging that the final responsibility for decisions rests with them.

There was a small proportion who did not practise this consultative style. About 15 per cent of the heads may be adopting, consciously or unconsciously, a style of management and leadership that may have more in common with elements of the more stereotypical masculine style, involving a more directive way of operating.

The survey also endorses the tendency for women to be educational leaders, placing stress on the learning of their students rather than on the importance of administrative tasks. The values that the headteachers chose were indicative of the values of educational leaders, “achievement and respect”.

While the quality of leadership is of course best be judged within the context of the individual school, the majority of the surveyed heads operate in a manner that largely coincides with concepts of effective leadership in education.

In the introduction we saw that the under-representation of women in senior management in education represents a very real issue of equality. Since women tend to operate in a collaborative manner that is likely to empower others and endorse values of educational leadership, their under-representation also indicates a loss of potentially effective leadership in schools.

Given the current trend in the profession, however, no doubt this will eventually be put right!


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