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A profession with a problem

Updated: Sep 27, 2022

Headteacher at The Telford Park School, Holly Rigby, explains why it's so important for International Womens' Day to continue to be promoted and the #breakthebias campaign.

In trying to inspire the next generation of female leaders I hope that I and other female leaders across our trust have something to offer. Personally, I have been Headteacher of a growing and improving secondary school for over 5 years and have been teaching for over 25 years. I have 2 children (aged 16 and 14). After the birth of my second child, I interviewed for and was successfully appointed as an Assistant Headteacher. I have worked in a variety of leadership roles and have appointed staff at all levels. I am a member of the #womened community and have coached several aspiring female leaders over the last 10 years.

Inspiring the next generation of female leaders matters. There is still a significant gender imbalance between the educational workforce and the leaders of that workforce.

I am proud to work in a trust where many senior leaders are female. Having female role models is significantly important. Our sector must continue to strive to remove systemic barriers to flexible working, including at a senior level. Whilst women make up the majority of the education workforce, they remain underrepresented in senior leadership positions. When women do progress it typically takes them longer than their male counterparts.

In March 2022 International Women’s Day was held. It is a global day which celebrates the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. It also marks a call for action, for gender parity. The campaign this year is to #BreaktheBias. Whether deliberate or unconscious, bias makes it difficult for women to move ahead. Knowing that bias exists is not enough, action is required to level the playing field, we must ensure that discrimination does not exist in our schools and that all bias is challenged. At The Telford Park School, we celebrated #IWD2022 in a number of ways including a display in the library and talks to our group of ‘Stemettes’. However, I know in reality this is barely scraping the surface, what we do systemically can radically change the future of the young people we are trying to educate.

If we therefore accept that something needs to change, we must consider how we do this. Firstly, it is important to recognise the challenges that a female leader might face. Fear inhibits the careers of women. For too long women have been asked to sacrifice what their male counterparts have not. Many times, I have been told to choose between being a ‘career woman’ and ‘Mum’. A choice that my male counterparts I am sure will not have been asked to make.

The #HeforShe campaign continues to be vitally important. When Barrack Obama became the 44th President of the United States in 2009 he embodied #HeforShe leadership. One of his first orders was to create a White House Council on Women and Girls.

Headteacher Chris Hildrew suggests some strategies that can help is his podcast and article in 10% braver based on Sheryl Sandbergs’ TED Talk. They include:

Make sure women’s ideas are heard. I am lucky to have been supported in my career by men who understand the privilege they hold. Research shows that in mixed gender groups women get less ‘airtime’ than men and are more likely to be interrupted. To tackle this issue everyone with a seat at the table must be aware of ‘unconscious bias’ and must work hard to break out of their traditional roles. It is the chairs responsibility to explicitly ensure all ideas are heard.

Challenge the likeability penalty. Challenge perceptions of male and female leadership. So often difficult decisions made by male leaders are accepted or looked upon kindly, whereby when made by female leaders they result in resentment, unpopularity, and ill will. Be upset about the decision but not the person making it.

Coaching and reverse mentoring. Mentoring and coaching aspiring leaders is very positive and can build self-confidence and a can-do approach. Reverse mentoring could be a teacher coaching a senior leader or curriculum leader for example. When doing this try to factor in a gender balance where possible.

Celebrate the achievements of all leaders and particularly women. To encourage more women into leadership the achievements of those that go before them must be celebrated visibly.

Considering how we recruit candidates can help. Often interview panels are not ethically or gender balanced. What does this tell the candidates we are interviewing? Are we managing the process and tasks in order to get the most out of all candidates without being discriminatory?

In my view there is a still a long way to go to establish gender equality in school leadership. Men have a vital role to play in this process, and it is everyone’s responsibility to promote equality and education is the best place to start!

It would be great to hear from other writers on how they tackle equality in their schools.

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