What matters for women and gender in school leadership?

by Kay Fuller.

A resurgence of interest in women and gender in education and wider society shows up a range of issues that should matter to everyone involved in the education of children and young people, the employment and development of teachers and non-teaching staff, and the work and development of school leaders at every level.

On my way to the #WomenEd Unconference II  in Reading last month, I counted several stories on Radio 4’s Today programme (8/10/16):

  • Donald Trump’s confession of sexual assault on women “you can do anything” to women “when you’re a star” (subsequently downplayed as men’s locker room banter)
  • A ‘fight’ between two members of UKIP described repeatedly as ‘handbags at dawn’ thus using women as a frame of reference to belittle the incident and them
  • Menopausal women being prescribed testosterone to improve their libidos
  • Sexism in British Cycling (in passing)
  • Emily Thornberry’s defence of Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet with herself as Shadow Foreign Secretary and Diane Abbott at the first Black Shadow Home Secretary
  • The Guardian’s report of sexual harassment and gender violence experienced by women academics – unreported because women feared for their careers
  • Responses to the armed robbery of Kim Kardashian ranging from scepticism of it as a publicity stunt to sympathy for personal violation and concern about society’s failure to take gender violence seriously.

These stories framed my session on Feminist Leadership II.

Opening with introductions to establish who we were and why we were there, women talked about their commitment to being feminists and teaching about feminism. Some were marginalised by colleagues as ‘the feminist’ teacher in the department or school.

At Unconference II, I was heartened by the contribution of the one man present in my session who talked about why he was a feminist. I had just heard the male panel talking about why #heforshe matters to them. They acknowledged feeling vulnerable in this women’s space of #WomenEd. They were worried about causing offence by sounding patronising, by ‘mansplaining’ things, in other words by using the wrong language. The women agreed this conversation in person was important. That something positive can come out of making mistakes and disagreeing. White men were in the minority in the room and they felt what it was like to be marginalised, possibly for the first time.

So the feminist man’s contributions were welcome in my session. They contrasted starkly with the everyday sexism of the one man who attended my session at Unconference I in 2015.

The focus for our discussion was Grogan and Shakeshaft’s (2011) five ways women lead . It is a framework I have used in Gender, Identity and Educational leadership.

  • Relational leadership – emphasises relationships in horizontal arrangements rather than hierarchical structures that demarcate power relations over one another.
  • Leadership for social justice – refers to a desire to change the status quo. Motivation might be about serving the interests of those who have been and continue to be least well served by current social and education policies and practices.
  • Spiritual leadership – whether or not we are of faith or no faith this is about a sense of who we are in the world and of getting to know the worlds of others. It is also about using the language of passion and hope.
  • Leadership for learning – learning and teaching is central whether it be related to the education of children, young people and adult learners or the development of staff as teachers, non-teaching staff and leaders.
  • Balanced leadership – achieving a balance between home lives and work lives implies these are separate. They need not be – in that families and friendships inform leadership.

Women disagreed about some aspects of these ideas.

They expressed different views about spiritual leadership, the role of faith, religion and/or spirituality in educational leadership and the potential abuse of teachers’ ‘passion’ to manipulate their goodwill; and about whether leadership for learning was necessarily a good example of a women’s way of leading in the UK.

What mattered in the room that day was that we thought women and men could do more to:

  • create and sustain an inclusive environment that nurtures equality between the sexes and a whole range of potentially marginalised children, young people and colleagues
  • promote feminism amongst students by showing, not telling them how to behave respectfully with a focus on equality and diversity
  • use the word ‘feminist’
  • hold up a feminist lens to our own leadership behaviours to think about modelling different ways of leading in our interactions with colleagues
  • think about how language is used to gender leadership qualities as male or female and as positive or negative
  • challenge patriarchy by calling out the gendered use of language to describe attributes of leadership
  • empower other leaders to challenge stereotypes in the use of language, in school culture, in educational resources, in organisational structures and in promotion processes
  • embrace and value authentic voices, perceptions and ways of being women.

These things mattered to the women (and the one man) in the room.

What matters to you about women and gender in schools? 

Kay Fuller is Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at Nottingham University 

The School of Education takes no institutional position and all authors’ views are their own.



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