Five women having afternoon tea on a Sunday – very normal, yes? These particular five women, however, were planning ways to draw on an amazing grassroots response to a series of blog posts on @staffrm about women leaders in education.
It began when @helenamarsh81 asked What Glass Ceiling? and @jillberry102 followed with Lost Leaders, asking how to encourage more women to make the leap to leadership. Over a weekend at the end of April, there was an overwhelming response on Twitter and a suggestion that we should have “a little conference”.
I collated the ideas and offers of support in a third blog, Women Leaders: Making the leap, and asked whether people wanted to join in. Then it exploded. That blog has had more than 1,700 views and its sequel has had nearly 1,200. Why such a response? It suggests that women in education who are or who aspire to be leaders have a real need for our voices to be heard, to connect with each other, and for our aspirations to be achieved.
What’s exciting is how many women want to collaborate and join in and so WomenEd has been born. It has been born out of a recognition that women leaders are not represented sufficiently in education. According to government statistics, if the number of female headteachers reflected the educational workforce, there would be 1,739 more female heads (Jill Berry’s “lost leaders”).
We know the challenges and barriers that stop women finding their way to leadership are complex and interconnected. Women often feel that they can’t achieve such positions until they are perfect leaders and this holds them back from applying – so many women wanted to talk about “how not to be perfect”!
Family commitments and career breaks can be another obstacle. The unconscious bias of men who hold the greatest number of authority roles can mean that some heads and chairs of governors appoint people who look and behave like themselves. And there are still sexist behaviours and attitudes, whether conscious or unconscious, in our everyday experience which hold both women and men back – take a look at the Everyday Sexism Project (@everydaysexism) and #genderedcheese on Twitter if you think sexism has gone. And for women from ethnic minority backgrounds, the barriers become higher. How can these barriers be overcome? Headteachers who want to encourage women and Black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) educators to apply for leadership roles and to overcome perceived or actual discrimination or prejudice could:
Create opportunities for women to gain practical leadership experience in a supportive environment.
Provide mentors or coaches to support their professional learning and confidence.
Ensure governing bodies, recruitment and selection panels are well trained in diversity matters and actively encourage under-represented groups to apply.
Identify female and BAME staff with potential, make sure they know this, and plot with them the leadership steps they need to take.
Look positively at the additional skills that women and BAME staff bring to leadership roles, such as cultural competency and linguistic skills.
Most importantly, make a clear commitment to affecting change for your schools so you can reap the full benefits of having a diverse workforce.
We want to capitalise on the outpouring of interest in WomenEd. So, to kick this off, we are going to have an “unconference” on October 3 in London and we are delighted that Microsoft has kindly donated their offices for this.
We will also connect to groups and networks of women in education around the country and internationally. Our ultimate aim is the kind of education network for women leaders that female business leaders have.
We hope this is the start of more women putting themselves forward for leadership roles at all levels and being supported and enabled to do so by those around them. We want to support the leaky leadership pipeline by stimulating and connecting opportunities for women to develop their leadership skills.
What can you do? Join in by registering your interest and let us know how you are supporting women to become leaders. You can also highlight WomenEd in your communications so that lots of women hear about this. We want aspiring and existing leaders to have the confidence and belief in their ability to lead and to lead as a woman. Do join us.
Further informationYou can register your interest in WomenEd at bit.ly/1c6NzMJ and find out more via social media @WomenEd and #WomenEd on Twitter and on Facebook at facebook.com/WomenEd. You can also read the original blogs at:
Vivienne Porritt, writing on behalf of WomenEd, is director, school partnerships at UCL Institute of Education in London.