The female leadership gap

Written by: Dr Laura Guihen | Published:
Dr Laura Guihen, lecturer in education, University of Leicester
Thank you, John. I couldn't agree more - WomenEd is a wonderful organisation

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The female leadership gap: are you stepping up or staying put? New research has focused on why women only account for 38 per cent of all secondary headteachers. Dr Laura Guihen explains

Women account for only 38 per cent of secondary headteachers. And while the proportion of women in secondary headship has increased over time, progress has been slow.

Research points to a number of different reasons why this may be the case. These include family and caring responsibilities, as well as stereotypical assumptions that align “leader” with “male”.

A lot of the research on the under-representation of female headteachers focuses on the views of those who have already made the leap to headship.

The voices of women deputies, as potential aspirants to headship, rarely feature. In light of this, I conducted some research focusing exclusively on the career ambitions of female deputy headteachers; I was interested in the extent to which they saw headship as a possible career move. So, what did I find?

All of the women I talked to saw taking on a headteacher post as both a risk and an opportunity. When deciding whether or not to apply for headship, the pressures of the role and the difference you can make as a headteacher were not considered separately. They were seen as two sides of the same coin.

Side 1: A Risk

Those who took part in this study described spending a lot of time assessing the risks involved in stepping up to headship. Many spoke about the troubling impact that Ofsted inspections, ever-moving goal-posts and tough accountability measures could have on a new headteacher: “I’ve got a mortgage to pay; I don’t want to walk into school one day and not have a job anymore,” one explained.

The consequences of additional workload and responsibility was also thought about when deciding whether or not to move on to headship. Many of those interviewed expressed concerns about the all-consuming nature of the headteacher role. They feared that juggling multiple responsibilities may pose a risk to their health, wellbeing and relationships.

Research tells us that these doubts and concerns are not confined to women deputies – they are shared by both male and female deputy headteachers. In 2016, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) reported that the majority of their deputy headteacher, vice-principal and assistant headteacher respondents did not see the headteacher role as an attractive career prospect.

They concluded: “The punitive accountability framework may be the key factor deterring deputies from headship.

“This needs to be addressed by Ofsted and employers if we are to encourage high performing professionals into headship.” (NAHT, 2016)

Side 2: An Opportunity

Despite the risks of headship being at the forefront of their minds when making a decision about their professional futures, two-thirds of the women who took part in my study actively aspired to headship.

One was applying for headteacher posts when I interviewed her. Their ambition to be a headteacher, then, was not formed without consideration of the risks, but rather in spite of them. They saw headship as an opportunity not to be missed.

Those women who aspired to headship spoke about the role as a chance to exert a positive influence on students’ learning and life chances. They saw headship as being a means of bringing about positive change.

Another attractive feature of the headteacher role was the increased decision-making power it would bring. As one participant explained:

“Being a deputy is a very interesting role because you have a lot of power, but you have your hands tied quite often.” The women saw headship as an opportunity to exert a larger sphere of influence.

Those I interviewed were explicit about the values that had shaped their careers. They described their beliefs about the purpose and power of education as a beacon guiding their career decision-making.

When asked whether they aspired towards headship, the women reflected on the role’s compatibility with their values. They asked themselves: will I be able to exert a more positive influence on students’ learning and life chances as a headteacher? Will I have the freedom to shape the ethos and culture of the school I lead, and realise my vision for an inclusive and high-achieving school? If the answer was yes, they chose to pursue headship.


At the end of each interview, I asked the following question: “What advice would you give to a female teacher who aspired towards senior leadership?” Here is what they said:

  • Carve out the time and space to plan your career development.
  • Think about each career move carefully.
  • Seize opportunities to shadow and be mentored by more experienced colleagues.
  • Focus on your values, and why you chose to teach. It is our values that help us to prioritise and move forward.

Final thoughts

When we consider women’s under-representation in secondary headship alongside the gender pay gap in education, there is a picture of inequality.

This is troubling not only for the school workforce, but also for young people. They are being sent stereotypical messages about our society and the opportunities it affords women to lead.

There is a real need, then, to actively seek out the perspectives of women deputies and support them in their career progression, whether they choose to step up to headship or stay put.

  • Dr Laura Guihen is a lecturer in education at the University of Leicester’s School of Education.

This is helpful, but I also think there are considerations missing. Having been in this position myself, with my carefully-won NPQH that supported reflection on the range of issues involved in Headship, I decided I wanted to maintain my opportunities to light touch-papers in my subject, about which I'm passionate - but also to maintain the opportunities to nurture and support development of young people on a deeper individual and group level than is usually possible with secondary headship, which often necessarily majors on strategic level functioning. I have no idea how typical those aspirations are of women, or men, at a senior level, but I see no hierarchy here - just a question of choosing different paths. If 40% of secondary heads are women (and I've worked with some inspirational ones), that suggests to me that the opportunities are there to be seized by those who want them. Provided there's not a gross imbalance, young people have a variety of role models and I see no priori need or benefit to equal numbers of men and women in any given role.
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Thank you, John. I couldn't agree more - WomenEd is a wonderful organisation
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Useful insights which should be shared. Good advice too! To which I'd add the cream on your advice cake - Join WomenEd - a great organisation that REALLY helps women....
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