Room at the top?

Gender and school leadership

For Katie Tomlinson, addressing the gender disparity in school leadership is a matter of urgency. Seven steps should be taken now.

The scale of the problem

It is no secret that the teaching profession is overwhelmingly female yet, in the UK, male teachers are almost twice as likely to hold leadership positions as their female colleagues. Within international settings, statistics demonstrate even less equity.

According to data from the Academy of International School Heads (AISH), over the past decade, the percentage of female heads at international schools has only increased from 27% to 33%.   There are other statistics which are even less positive.  In the academic year 2021 / 2022, 18.5% of FOBISIA member school Principals (Heads of School) are female.  This statistic remains unchanged from the previous year.

Diverse experiences and perspectives contribute significantly to fostering innovation, developing communication and better decision making. Organisations where the leadership team equitably represents the workforce perform more effectively than those which are less diverse. With this in mind, a commitment to ensuring diversity within the leadership demographic should be a high priority for schools and yet the gender representation statistics for women in these positions in schools do not evidence this.

Who are the Leaders?

In leadership positions globally, white males are the only group of people to find themselves growing in number as they rise – all other groups decrease in representation as roles become more senior. This is not to bemoan the performance of existing school leaders. There are some excellent Principals, CEOs and Heads of School across the world who are doing incredible work with their schools and students. Yet, I would argue that there are many excellent potential leaders amongst the workforce who may not have equitable access to leadership opportunities due to their gender or race.  Schools, particularly those in international settings, promote themselves as diverse and inclusive to attract a broad and varied student roll. This should also be reflected in the leadership demographic.

How do we improve the balance?

The issue of female under-representation in school leadership is complex, particularly in some international contexts where cultural beliefs dominate and gender traditions are part of the fabric of the country. However, existing leaders can do more to welcome, invite and encourage high performing women into leadership positions.

7 steps for recruting more female leaders

A logical place to start is the recruitment process itself: specifically the core actions which CEOs, Boards and Heads of Schools can take to create a more equitable interview and appointment process to level the gender playing field.

1. Actively and consciously avoid ‘gender coded’ language

Certain words are more associated with masculine traits and may deter female applicants from applying. Such language can also reinforce wider social beliefs about who ‘belongs’ in those jobs and who does not (Gaucher et al., 2011). If job descriptions are only written by males, this may occur organically and go undetected. When posting adverts and listing the skills and qualities of the ideal candidate, consider whether the choice of language is contributing to a heavily masculine coded advert. This Gender Decoder tool  is effective in identifying such text.

2. Carefully consider job criteria and reframe experience

Anecdotally, women want to be able to confidently state they can meet (and evidence) every aspect of a job description and will not often apply for positions and promotions until they are 100% confident they can ‘do the job.’ Male applicants are more comfortable with taking this risk, being more willing to push forward and ‘give it a go.’

Therefore, listing too many elements as ‘essential’ in a job description could narrow the (female) applicant field. Essential criteria should be clearly stated, and only feature those skills without which a candidate would not be able to successfully perform. For example, requiring a Master’s Degree or NPQH as an essential qualification is not realistically attainable for all applicants. Appointing committees should recognise the value of skills gained from being a working parent, completing a qualification whilst working full time and supporting a family. It is important to weigh the balance between sustained periods of time in settings and breadth of experience in multiple roles.  The reasons for such choices should be explored within the interview process.

3. Create an appointing committee which demonstrates balance

Create the appointing committee with gender parity in mind. This sounds much easier than the reality.  If the majority, or all, of board members or the SLT are male, then achieving balance might not be possible but in trying to establish a cross-representation in the appointing body, a realisation about imbalance might come to fruition! There is also a significant need to change the perception of candidates that it is ‘who you know’ rather than ‘what you have done’ that makes you a valid candidate. Cronyism is alive and well.

4. Consider the use of anonymised applications at the point of long listing

Multiple studies have demonstrated that when women apply for jobs, they receive fewer interview invitations than equally qualified men – an effect that is compounded for older women, women with children and women from certain ethnic or racial groups. As a bias-reduction strategy, anonymous recruitment is grounded in the assumption that managers cannot rely on gender-based stereotypes in their assessment of candidates’ employability.

However, this is a strategy to use with caution. One recent Australian study found that hiring managers may deduce information about candidates’ genders from implicit cues embedded in CVs (Foley and Williamson, 2018). For example, extended periods of mid-career leave in anonymised applications were assumed to belong to female candidates, thereby reintroducing the potential for bias.  Anonymised letters of application might be more appropriate for education applications, if looked at prior to CVs and application forms as part of the long listing process.

5. Action unconscious bias training for all those involved in appointments

Training which highlights actionable steps to prevent bias from impacting decision-making processes as well as uncovering unconscious bias would enable organisations to address structural and systemic issues within their policy and practice. When combined with Step 7 (below) this can be a powerful tool to shift perspectives, beliefs, and ultimately, behaviour.

6. Review the interview process

In a logical world, we would promote people into leadership roles when they are competent rather than confident, vetting them for their expertise and proven track record.  However, traditional Q & A interviews do not allow or enable full exploration of relevant leadership competencies within the context of ‘past’ achievement.  Women often choose to share evidence about what they have done rather than speak with bold statements of intent. Indeed, women who do speak boldly are often cited as bossy or outspoken.  To fully explore potential and suitability for a role, presentations and questions which explore past legacy and project successes, rather than only focusing on what they plan to achieve are more revealing about the competency and experience of a candidate.

7. Commitment to balance by the school

Organisations should keep robust data about workforce demographics and in particular the pathways and appointments into school leadership.  They should be willing to share findings with the school community and appointing committees.  Regular workforce audits which enable tracking of trends and analysis will reveal hidden facts and pinpoint areas for improvement and focus.

Make a start!

In summary, the issue of diversity within leadership teams will not be resolved by solely focusing on the recruitment process, but it’s a start. It could perhaps be the opening of conversations about wider strategies e.g. unconscious bias training for all staff, teaching about ‘allyship’, resources to support learning about gender and minority representation and review of marketing materials.

Female CEO, female athlete, female pilot, female surgeon.  Inserting the word ‘female’ implies surprise and uniqueness.  I hope, one day, there will not be female leaders – there will just be leaders.


Katie Tomlinson is Head of Primary at Sri KDU International School, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia






Feature Image by: Mediamodifier from Pixbay

Support Images by: geralt & mohamed_hassan  from Pixbay

You may also like