Women in school leadership

Written by: Caroline Sherwood | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The gender gap in school leadership persists. Drawing on research into why gender gaps exist and the self-perceptions of both men and women, school leader Caroline Sherwood offers her own poignant and honest reflections

In 2015, women constituted 64 per cent of classroom teachers but only 40 per cent of headteachers (Department for Education, 2016). At its current rate, women’s representation in headship will not match their representation in the teaching workforce before 2040 (Fuller, 2017). Why? What barriers are women facing? And what do these look like in an everyday school setting?

Admitting I am plagued with self-doubt makes me feel vulnerable. I often feel out of my league. I often feel out-classed, but I very rarely talk about it.

In Age and Gender Differences in Self-Esteem: A cross-cultural window, Bleidorn et al, having completed an eight-year study analysing data from over 985,000 men and women across 48 countries, concluded that men consistently report higher levels of self-esteem than women.

“This gender gap emerges in adolescence and persists throughout early and middle adulthood before it narrows and perhaps even disappears in old age.”

This gap widens and becomes more prominent in developed, egalitarian countries – perhaps where you’d expect it to narrow. But what does this gap look like? What does it feel like? Why is it there? And why don’t we talk about it?

The belief that female leaders lack confidence places the problem firmly at women’s feet – but I’d question whether climate and environment carry more influence than perhaps originally considered.

The Glass Lift, an organisation which works with both the private and public sector aiming to change the face of leadership, believes that it is a myth that women lack confidence. Anyone can feel confident when supported and challenged.

Tarnishing all women with the same brush-stroke is wrong and provides a convenient excuse for the current social injustice.

If a woman – or a man – lacks confidence it perhaps says more about the environment they are in rather than their personal confidence levels.

Day 1: Praise

As educators we know and understand the value of praise. It is particularly beneficial to motivation, promotes autonomy, enhances achievement, and conveys high standards and expectations. Hearing praise when you’ve worked hard makes you feel great, right? No. Not always. The praise must be perceived as sincere.

Today, I was told, by someone who I really respect, that I was “brilliant” – but I doubted their sincerity and felt the praise was unwarranted. This says nothing about the person delivering the praise and everything about me.

My immediate, involuntary reaction is to believe the praise is disingenuous rather than accept it. This seems to happen on a subconscious level; I have to work hard to recognise that I (might) deserve it. The alternative is the belief that they are telling me I’m “brilliant” because they think that is what I want to hear.

Endeavouring to stop rejecting praise is challenging and it makes me feel uncomfortable – especially when those around me seem to welcome it. It makes me feel like I’m doing something wrong.

Day 2: Owning my success

It is commonly believed that some women are more likely to attribute their success to luck – or another outside factor – rather than their ability.

Today, I gave my year 11s their mock papers back. Some of my students aren’t where I want them to be yet. I regard this as a failing on my part. Some of my students are excelling and should exceed their targets. I attributed their success to their own hard work and ability. I’m aware that this model is flawed.

The imposter phenomenon is a term used by Chance and Ines (1987) to describe a feeling of being a counterfeit – of not being able to own your success.

Feeling like an imposter, like a fake, when things go well, means you never really feel like you’ve been successful. In the recent study Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests, Cimpian suggests that girls as young as six can be led to believe that men are inherently smarter and more talented than women. The result is girls, as young as six, doubting women’s ability to be brilliant. The subsequent result is women struggling to recognise when they’ve been brilliant.

And we are just that: brilliant.

Day 3: Quietly triumphant

I received an email today from a respected colleague in another school: he thanked me for leading a training session with his staff and gave me some positive feedback. I was quietly pleased with his comments once I’d dealt with my innate belief it was unwarranted (see day one!) and stopped feeling like an imposter (see day two!), but I wasn’t prepared to share it with anyone.

I, quite naturally, shy away from self-promotion. Catalyst’s study, The Myth of the Ideal Worker, suggested that “when women were most proactive in making their achievements visible they advanced further ... were more satisfied with their careers, and had greater compensation growth than women who were less focused on calling attention to their successes”.

So we must be able and willing to talk about our accomplishments – be 10 per cent braver. Widely used across the #WomenEd movement (www.womened.org), this concept, which I first heard from Jill Berry, can prevent self-sabotage and can stop you from hindering your own progression...

...but we must be working in an environment where we feel supported to be able to self-promote.

Day 4: Contagious emotions

Studies looking into emotional differences between men and women are plentiful and suggest that women are more emotionally expressive then men. This may well be because women are perceived to be more emotional; it is what is expected of them and quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It would stand to reason that emotional contagion, the process in which a person influences the emotions and behaviour of someone else through the conscious or unconscious induction of emotions, will have a great impact on women.

Today, I “caught” some negative emotions, which left me feeling angry. The negative emotion didn’t belong to me – I had no authentic reason to feel cross, but I could not discard it. In Emotional Contagion, Hatfield et al theorise that women are more sensitive to and susceptible to emotional contagion and are more likely to catch positive and negative emotions than men.

Day 5: A broken heart

Every day there are stories happening inside my school which make me smile, break my heart and inspire me. Today, I had my heart broken. Today, I wasn’t “too sensitive” or “too emotional”. Seeing a student cry in anguish is something which deserves to be felt. It isn’t something I can shake off, it will affect me and I can’t leave it at the door.

Empathy makes men and women great leaders. Emotional literacy can feel punishing at times – it did today – but it is also is a strength and should absolutely be regarded as such. There are days, like today, when I don’t feel brave or particularly significant, when a story of suffering breaks me. But this is the right thing to feel at the right time; it’s a valid response.

Internationally recognised leader in human potential, Margie Warrell says in Brave that “too often women overestimate the risks and underestimate themselves”.

She continues: “Only by doing the very things we’re afraid of can we come to realise how little reason we ever had to fear. The only way to build confidence and courage is by acting with it.”

We must step into the arena – fully and completely – abandoning the feeling of being outclassed, knowing that we are not out of our league. And if you’re scared? “If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.” (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf).

Be 10 per cent braver. Challenge the environment around you, talk about gender balance and get it firmly on the agenda.

  • Caroline Sherwood teaches English at South Molton Community College in Devon, is Pupil Premium champion and teaching and learning lead. Caroline is also a Specialist Leader in Education with the Dartmoor Teaching School Alliance and is project director for Women Leaders in Education in the South West.


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