Leading women and women as leaders

Over the past few days, several events have come together that have caused me to focus on the school that we are: our school librarian’s recommendation of ‘Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men’, by Caroline Criado Perez, discussions around our response to Black Lives Matter and my virtual attendance at the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA) Conference, 2020.

Criado Perez’s book covers a wide variety of issues relating to the theme of gender bias or, perhaps – more accurately – data bias, and it is a fascinating read. In it, she addresses issues from government policy and medical research, to technology, workplaces, urban planning and the media, but a theme she refers to again and again is the influence of lack of role models on girls’ self-perception and learning. This includes ‘brilliance bias’ through which she explains that by the age of six girls have often started to doubt their gender and quoting a 2017 paper on the subject:

‘A recent US study found that when girls start primary school at the age of five, they are as likely as five-year-old boys to think women could be ‘really, really smart’. But by the time they turn six, something changes. They start doubting their gender.’

Much of this she links to leadership, stating that many girls go on to view female lecturers as less qualified than their male counterparts, despite the reality, and the huge sexist bias that remains. She also states that ‘job vacancies are still often announced with masculine forms – particularly if they are for leadership roles’ and that (only) ‘27% of CEOs in the US are female, but women made up only 11% of the Google Image search results’. Relevant to our children’s ‘education’, too, she states that ‘only 13% of non-human children’s TV characters are female and of children’s films released between 1990 and 2005, 72% of speaking roles went to male characters’. And, more importantly, of failures in the curriculum: the first being the 2015 campaign by an A Level student who noticed that, ‘of the sixty-three set works included in her music syllabus, not a single one was by a woman’ and the other Michael Gove’s 2013 national History curriculum that saw an ‘almost wholesale absence of women’.

Given the above – the ‘brilliance bias’, ill-designed curricula and a disproportionately low number of female role models, particularly in leadership positions, it is not surprising that Criado Perez writes that ‘a powerful woman is seen as a norm violation’.

Inspired by her book and associated research, I took some time to explore the facts about female leadership in schools and, although the figures are now several months old, this research is still representative today.

These figures tell us that, of 221,000 teachers employed in state-funded primary schools 34,100 are men and 187,000 are women, a ratio of 1:5.5, yet there are 4,500 male heads and 12,300 female heads, a ratio of 1:2.7 – almost half the proportion. Put another way, if you are a man working in a state-funded primary school, you are twice as likely to be a head as your female counterpart; in a secondary school, you are almost three times as likely to be so. Of the (relatively few) female heads that are in post, a shocking 96.6% in state schools are of white ethnicity. This reflects, in part, recruitment to the profession, but it is also a misrepresentative statistic in its own right. And let’s not forget the zeitgeist that is the gender pay gap…

My research went well beyond these headlines, but the outcome was still the same, and that is that women leaders are still well behind men, even in the 21st century, both within my own profession and beyond.

As she opened the GSA conference this week, Jane Prescott – Head of Portsmouth High School, Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) and Chair of GSA – spoke of strong female role models who have demonstrated tremendous leadership over recent months, including Angela Merkel, Erna Solberg and Jacinda Arden. When asked “Do you think girls in schools have been inspired by female leaders around the world, whether this has given them confidence and whether empathy has been seen to be a strength?”, Jane concurred.

Speaking later in the conference, Cheryl Giovannoni, CEO of the GDST, quoted Hillary Clinton’s concession speech of 2008 in which she acknowledged that Barack Obama was the clear nominee for the Democratic Party, stating that “although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it and the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.” This is a woman whom Criado-Perez reminds us was seen, in the 2016 US presidential election, as ‘too ambitious’ to many, yet Cheryl reminded us of the fact that she displays many of the characteristics that we teach our girls every day: to be fearless, to get up, dust themselves off and carry on, and to believe in themselves and never give up on their dreams.

As members of the GDST family of schools and the GSA network we have no shortage of inspirational role models: in the GDST alone we have over 70,000 alumnae, many of whom are willing to give their time and knowledge to current students through initiatives such as the Rungway mentoring app and GDST Life.

Criado Perez’s quotes on the failures in the curriculum with regard to the absence of women are now a few years’ old and, although some progress has been made, more can be, too. Now, though, we are all rightly focusing on Diversity and Inclusion, Black Lives Matter and the associated curricula. As an independent school we have the gift to change the curriculum for all our students and we are working to do so through conversation with pupils, parents and staff. As members of the GDST and its ‘UNDIVIDED’ commitment to diversity, inclusion and real change, we can do even more.

I could not be more proud than to be leading one of the GDST family’s schools and to be a part of the wider GSA network, and particularly at this difficult time. I fully believe that our students have all of the inspiration, collaboration and support that they need to excel in life, and to eventually allow that light to beam through the place where that ‘glass ceiling’ once stood…