How can colleges encourage more women into leadership positions?

Empty-seesaw-012Although the situation is improving, the further education sector still faces a gender imbalance at leadership level. In 2013 41% of college principals were women – a steady rise from the 36% in 2009, according to research by the Women’s Leadership Network. When it comes to governance, however, the gap is much starker. Twice as many men than women are on governing boards and only 17% of boards are chaired by a woman. Before thinking about practical steps to encourage more women into leadership positions, it’s important to reflect on why it matters.

There is obviously an equality argument. Women bring something different to the table and vibrant organisations, whether public or private, need as diverse a senior team as possible. In the education sector, I believe there is also a broader, more important issue. Young people need positive role models in schools and colleges. Popular culture has become overtly sexist and sexual in the way it portrays women and it is up to female leaders in education to challenge stereotypes and raise aspirations. So, how can the sector redress the imbalance? Here are three suggestions: Barriers to recruitment: I approach gender stereotypes with caution. In the spirit of offering practical guidance, however, some generalisations are helpful. When it comes to applying for positions, women will often judge themselves more harshly against the criteria; it’s not uncommon for women to count themselves out of the race because they can’t meet every single requirement perfectly. One way of overcoming this can be to hold recruitment open days for potential applicants before publishing full job descriptions. We did this last summer to attract people to positions in a number of areas, including teaching and business support. It was a good way of giving people an opportunity to see the organisation in action, meet staff and make a judgement about whether the sector is right for them before applying. Advertisement Flexible working: It is still the case that women are usually largely responsible for childcare, potentially coupled with looking after elderly relatives. If we structure our employment in traditional ways, it can deter women from pursuing senior positions. Organisations that focus on outcome and impact, rather than hours worked, are more likely to attract and develop women. This is an approach explored by Dave Coplin in his book Business Reimagined. Under this model, the success of a company becomes less about a culture of long hours, and more about working smartly and effectively. We offer a number of contractual working patterns, including full time, part time and term-time only roles. And we make the most of technology to support flexible working, using Google hangouts and shared drives such as Google docs to help teams to collaborate without needing to be in the same physical space. Complement natural strengths: Again this is a gender generalisation, but women often feel very confident about their academic skills, but less so when it comes to business skills such as finance. We need to be good at supporting people, regardless of their gender, to release self-imposed limitations. Leadership is about recognising and valuing teamwork, which means that a leader doesn’t have to be the expert in everything. Rather, they need to co-ordinate and empower people in their team to achieve. We run coaching and mentoring schemes, and our Pass It On programme offers a platform for people to share their knowledge with colleagues. As well as uploading resources and activities to a Google site, staff hold open classroom weeks where teachers try new approaches and invite colleagues to watch them in action. The scheme has led to around 120 bite-sized training sessions in the past year.

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