FE can show the private sector a thing or two when it comes to the representation of women in top jobs, says Sally Dicketts

The media has been paying a lot of attention to the representation of women — or lack of it — in top roles in FTSE 100 and 250 companies. It’s not particularly good news.

Dame Marjorie Scardino, the former chief executive of Pearson, lamented the dearth of female chief executives in the FTSE 100, and when she and Kate Swann (WH Smith), resigned in 2012, it halved the number of women running such companies. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) is taking the issue seriously, with Business Secretary Vince Cable recently acknowledging the “chronic shortage of women in top jobs”.

Not so in the FE and skills sector. At the Women’s Leadership Network’s (WLN) conference on May 22, Skills Minister Matthew Hancock paid tribute to the sector’s success in raising the number of female college principals and chief executives. Each year WLN collects data on all colleges — general FE, sixth-form colleges and specialist institutions — and with five years’ data, has enough evidence to talk about trends.

Since 2009, the proportion of women in the lead role has risen from 36 to 41 per cent, up from 130 to 139, despite a decline in the number of colleges.

It is hard to say exactly what is making a difference, but a possible factor is the small but important number of role models emerging of women working at senior levels in science and technology, for example, stimulates and inspires talent.

The government’s focus on women as leaders highlights the issue. While policy changes and targets are not necessarily the best ways to help crack the glass ceiling, demonstrating good practice and promoting women to influential roles in the corporate sector, on boards and in the government itself, would be inspiring and a powerful indicator of change.

Barriers are slowly disappearing and support for female leaders developing. We’re aware of more male principals — and females —  taking seriously the development of their talented female staff. Some, including Mike Hopkins at Middlesbrough College, Richard Atkins at Exeter College, Jat Sharma at Walsall College and Phil Davies at City College Plymouth, have pinned their colours firmly to the mast, and many others are overtly supporting women’s career development.

Sector institutions such as the Network for Black Professionals and the Learning and Skills Improvement Service have also had a significant influence on equality, clearing pathways for personal and career advancement.

I haven’t mentioned specific influential women, though they are legion, working in the background, spotting talent, finding development opportunities and encouraging women to take their futures into their own hands. WLN membership is up by a third since October 2011 and increasingly high attendances at network events, especially the annual conference, suggest that colleges are willing to invest in staff keen to benefit from these opportunities. There is a continuing demand for WLN’s  career and leadership development services, and the speed-coaching sessions at this year’s conference were, once again, oversubscribed.

There’s still a way to go to engage all elements of the sector and some work to do on the gender balance in governance. The BIS advisory group on governance has this issue in its sights and it would be good to see specific recommendations to improve the recruitment of female board members and chairs. There have always been huge numbers of talented women and at last they are pulling themselves through to the top jobs. FE can show the private sector a thing or two.

Sally Dicketts, chair of WLN and principal of Oxford and Cherwell Valley College