International Women's Day

Flipping Women! Telling a new story about female FE leaders

Women have taken great strides in FE leadership but perceptions still don't align with reality

Women have taken great strides in FE leadership but perceptions still don't align with reality

8 Mar 2024, 5:00

In the corridors of further education institutions, where enlightenment and progress are revered, a beacon of inclusivity shines brightly. Women have ascended to leadership positions with remarkable stride, comprising a formidable 55.6 per cent.

Yet, amid this promising landscape, a critical gap persists—a gap not of representation but of perception. It’s time to transcend mere statistics and delve into the deeper narrative, to challenge the glass ceiling metaphor that still casts shadows over women in leadership. In an era where progress should be measured not just in numbers but in lived experience and stories told, the need to re-narrativise women in leadership echoes louder than ever.

As a doctoral student, I delved into the literature on senior leadership in further education, and encountered a surprising shortage of research, particularly concerning women leaders. The language used in many journal article titles suggested that women were perceived as the minority or disadvantaged group in FE leadership.

Titles such as ‘Managing Further Education: Is it Still Men’s Work?’, ‘Distorted views through the glass ceiling’ and ‘Educational Leadership: Where Are the Women?’ painted a narrative of struggle and under-representation for women in senior positions within FE institutions. Research even as recently as this decade evidences a social construct of further education senior leaders as “white, middle-class and male”.

However, my own experiences and the life histories of my research participants contradicted this narrative. The women leaders I interviewed didn’t see their gender as a barrier to their career progression. Rather, they perceived themselves as senior leaders, navigating their roles with confidence and efficacy.

The data from the Department for Education’s (DfE) workforce survey published in August 2023 painted a more positive picture, showing a significant shift in the gender composition of college senior leaders. The survey revealed that 55 per cent of leaders are now female—a testament to the progress made in achieving greater gender equality within the sector.

While the glass ceiling may no longer be a tangible barrier, perceptions and biases linger

Despite the positive strides, challenges persist. I noted a reluctance of women leaders in my research to share their “whole selves”. For example, while women leaders refrained from emphasising their roles as mothers or referencing their families in relation to their professional commitments, men embraced transparency about their familial responsibilities and were proud to talk about the impact of fatherhood on their leadership.

Indeed, I have reflected on my own reluctance to openly discuss my family commitments in professional settings in the past for fear of being perceived negatively. This highlights the lingering effects of gender stereotypes and biases in the workplace, which may influence how individuals present themselves professionally.

We should be proud of who we are; both our personal and professional identities inform our leadership. I know that being a mother of four daughters has shaped my leadership and my professional identity quite profoundly.

In light of these findings, I advocate for a re-narrativisation of women’s leadership experiences in further education. Amplifying success stories and sharing lived experiences of women leaders – of which there are plenty – can help align perceptions with reality and empower women to be more open about their identities and experiences.

Additionally, there’s a pressing need for updated research to offer a contemporary understanding of women’s leadership in further education, inspiring aspiring leaders to pursue such roles. This is a challenge I personally commit to undertaking, and I urge others to join in.

While my focus here has been on women in acknowledgement of International Women’s Day, it’s crucial to extend our efforts to promote diversity in leadership, including ethnic diversity, individuals who identify outside the gender binary, and those with disabilities or learning differences.

We need to recognise and celebrate the unique perspectives and contributions that individuals of all backgrounds bring to leadership roles. While the glass ceiling may no longer be a tangible barrier for women in further education leadership, perceptions and biases still linger.

By reshaping the narrative surrounding women leaders and fostering a culture of authenticity and inclusivity, we can continue to break down barriers and pave the way for a more equitable future in further education leadership.

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