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Deliberate disruption: Issues of gender and diversity

10 min read
Vivienne Porritt, Strategic Leader, WomenEd; Vice-President, Chartered College of Teaching; Leadership Consultant, UK
Lisa Hannay, Strategic Leader, WomenEd; Senior Leader, Centennial High School, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Parm Plummer, Strategic Leader, WomenEd; Senior Leader, Victoria College, St Helier, Jersey  

England has a severe teacher retention crisis, with 32.3 per cent of newly qualified entrants to the teaching profession in 2016 not working in the state sector five years later (DfE, 2019). According to Foster, ‘This is the highest five-year wastage rate on the current series, which dates back to 1997.’ (2019, p. 3) Simons (2016) also noted that ‘27% of all leavers in total – are women aged 30–39’ (p. 16).

Whilst pupils of minority ethnic backgrounds make up a third of the student population, 85.9 per cent of all state schoolteachers are white British and 92.9 per cent of headteachers are white (DfE, 2020). Ninety-eight per cent of CEOs, the most senior role in multi-academy trusts, are white (Carr, 2020).

The data suggests that diversity and equity are equally as significant as the retention crisis. We argue that greater attention to the needs of women who want to become leaders and greater support for ‘Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) educators [who] still report racism and are being passed over for promotion’ (Gay, 2018) would improve the retention crisis; we see these as interrelated issues. Yet the only reference to either of these groups in the House of Commons Briefing Paper on ‘Teacher recruitment and retention in England’ (Foster, 2019) is a short paragraph about flexible working. From our perspective, school leaders need to contribute towards addressing gender inequity.

Gender challenges

The global data on the under-representation of women leaders in education is stark. For example:

  • Sixty-eight per cent of teachers in Korea are female but only 13 per cent are principals
  • Sixty-two per cent of teachers in Australia are women but only 40 per cent are principals
  • Seventy-five per cent of teachers in England are women but just 66 per cent are principals and only 38 per cent of secondary heads are women
  • Eleven per cent of all headteachers in Ethiopia are women.

This global ‘gender disparity from women in teaching to women in education leadership’ has been well documented by Free (2019, p. 41).

When engaging with women in education, their personal stories foreground the significant impact of gender. Some stories demonstrate the harshness of discrimination. Choudry highlights one woman of ethnic heritage who was told by a senior male leader that ‘there was little point in promoting her, and indeed other women…as they would just leave to go and have babies’ (2019, p. 59). The motherhood penalty is well documented (Gough and Noonan, 2013) and parents who are teachers feel that it is ‘impossible to balance professional lives with family responsibility’ (Mroz, 2018). Education as a sector has one of the largest gender pay gaps in the UK at nearly 20 per cent (Wisniewska et al., 2019), with calls for the UK government to address CEO salaries or ‘pay issues and inequalities will continue to loom over the sector’ (Hulson, 2020).

The size of the gender pay gap, inadequate representation in leadership and the lack of flexible working all suggest that teaching is not an equitable profession for female employees.

Challenging the status quo

WomenEd is a global, not-for-profit grassroots movement supporting aspiring and existing women leaders in education. We have focused on the underrepresentation of women leaders in education for over five years and focus on four campaigns to:

  • increase representation of women in leadership roles
  • increase diversity and representation of women in leadership roles
  • advocate for flexible working practices
  • reduce gender pay gaps.

To address these issues, WomenEd present women leaders with role models that bring an ‘amplified benefit’ (Warrell, 2020). Women are spurred on by seeing others gain flexible leadership positions. In terms of imposter syndrome, ‘Women, women of colour, especially black women, as well as the LGBTQ community are most at risk.’ (Nance-Nash, 2020) Once women grasp that ‘failing forward’ (Calzada-Mayronne and Egri-McCauley, 2020, p. 115) is part of learning, they respond to the invitation to be 10 per cent braver. This was expressed powerfully at our recent global unconference. Dawn Stow (Dawn jones FCCT) tweeted, ‘in this brave share you have shown me that my concerns around weaknesses and threats are not alone… I don’t need to be the finished article to begin the next step.’ Mairéad Mhig Uaid shared that ‘My biggest takeaway today is the utter bravery of women. Their honesty in calling out current practice and challenges. So many women are “going beyond 10% braver” every day.’

At the unconference, a challenge to the status quo was evidenced through the power of connection and networking between women. One session showcased the WomenEd network in Canada, resulting in women from Saskatchewan, Ontario and British Columbia pledging to act on WomenEd campaigns. These women are doing what Maya Angelou advocated: ‘Each time a woman stands up for herself,… she stands up for all women.’ (cited in Jones, 2007) These women look to create access and opportunity for ‘Black leaders, Indigenous leaders, Asian leaders, and all women leaders who have fought to have their voices included’ (Lisa Hannay, personal communication, 15 October 2020).

Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said, ‘Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.’ (Cited in Carmon and Knizhnik, 2015, p. 60) These women are taking one step to change their corner of the world.

The unconference panel on increasing diversity in leadership highlighted systemic issues that prevent black and Asian teachers and those of an ethnic heritage from becoming leaders, and called for more radical steps to address the problem.

WomenEd networks exemplify how ‘the amplification of diverse voices drives recognition of these colleagues… ably demonstrated at the unconference by the WomenEd England network where new voices were heard’ (Parm Plummer, personal communication, 20 October 2020).

We can encourage debate through the work of organisations who can affect and lobby for change, such as the Chartered College of Teaching, and also via male leaders. One criticism of WomenEd is that the community is exclusive. We welcome male allies, as only clear action and shared allyship with underrepresented groups will usher change (Ottley-O’Connor, 2020). A more equitable and flexible approach is needed to both diversify leadership teams and retain excellent teachers and leaders.

Disrupting the landscape

To challenge organisational and systemic issues that hold women back, school leaders need to be more deliberate in disrupting key processes to change the look and behaviour of leaders.

One example is the recruitment process. The current outcome in education is an over-preponderance of men at the top of education, too few black, brown and Asian women (and men) in senior leadership, and a significant gender pay gap. More equitable and ethical approaches are available, and we highlight two evidence-based examples.

The advertisement

We all agree that a post must go to the best candidate. However, ‘if you lose people from the very beginning of the process, you may not see an application from the person you really need’ (Porritt, 2020).

It is well documented that women and men use and respond to language differently due to gender stereotypes (Glick and Fiske, 1996). Heilman (2001) reiterated that stereotypes posit men as agentic and women as communal. Gaucher et al. demonstrated that words suggesting agentic appeal in job advertisements lead to ‘less anticipated belongingness and job interest among women, which… likely perpetuates gender inequality in male-dominated fields’ (2011, p. 119). In leadership job advertisements, the ‘types of words and phrases that lead to inequality’ (Tickle, 2018) need to be understood, as such language can ‘exert important effects on individual level judgments that facilitate the maintenance of inequality’ (Gaucher et al., p. 111).

Every school leader wants to attract a wide field for a post, and one advantage is to use an online gender decoder that highlights stereotypically feminised and masculinised words. Using a balance of such words can attract more women to apply. Stating that you want a diverse team widens the range of people who read your advertisement, and saying that applications are welcome from people looking to work flexibly increases the number of applications (TESGlobal, 2017).

The application form

Unconscious bias, which we all experience, affects the language used in advertisements and the application form. Two disruptions can reduce the inequity of the process.

Firstly, school leaders can practise blind recruitment by redacting names, ages, personal pronouns, universities and qualifications before the shortlisting panel sees the personal statement. The person doing the redacting informs the shortlisting panel which applicants have all the essential requirements. Blind recruitment has limitations, but it might stop what one study reported: ‘White names receive 50 percent more callbacks for interviews.’ (Bertrand and Mullainathan, 2003, p. 2)

Secondly, in WomenEd’s unconference panel about the gender pay gap, we highlighted the requirement to disclose current salary in an application. This exacerbates the gender pay gap and is irrelevant to the person specification. As a result of the discussion, one trust removed this question from its form, as shown by this tweet by Sue Prickett (Suffolk Sue, 2020), a multi-academy trust leader:

‘Delighted to confirm that we have taken away the “Previous Salary” box on our job application forms as a positive step to reducing the #GenderPayGap in our organisation.’

This is a simple and powerful disruption that your school or trust can do. Please join us in this ‘one step’ to develop equitable recruitment.

Flexible working practices

The largest demographic of teachers leaving schools is mostly female teachers with between eight and 17 years of experience (Turner, 2020). If schools offer only one structural working pattern for teaching and leadership, retention rates for female teachers will continue to drop. WomenEd, with partners, has curated case studies showing the benefits of flexible working practices for individuals, organisations and pupils. Hosted by the Chartered College of Teaching, the authors welcome contact from teachers wanting support for a business case and from school leaders who want to develop a culture of flexible working (

The teaching profession has a significant majority of women, and it is in our children’s best interests to inspire and support women to lead and to shape education. WomenEd want ours to be an equitable profession in which every woman can be brave and succeed and where school leaders and CEOs are brave by deliberately developing a more equitable, fair profession.

At a system level, ‘The need to consider gender matters as part of the everyday discourse has become essential, not an add-on.’ (Featherstone, 2019, p. 145)


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      Author(s): Bill Lucas