International Women’s Day - Leading as a female teacher

March 5, 2018
Louisa Farrow

Louisa Farrow

Teaching and Learning Support Lead (Assistant Head) at St Matthew’s CE Primary

International Women’s Day on March 8 challenges us all to “unite and motivate friends, colleagues and whole communities to think, act and be more gender inclusive”. So here are my thoughts on women in education as leaders.

The conventional wisdom runs like this: men are better leaders because of their greater drive, confidence, resilience and general hunger for success. Women, on the other hand, are better at nurturing but lack the ruthlessness and vision to make the best leaders.

Female teachers and leaders – why don’t the numbers add up?

The convention is seductive because it explains the lack of women in senior leadership positions, despite education being a predominantly a female profession.

According to the latest statistics, 74 per cent of the workforce are female teachers but only 65 per cent of headteachers are women - and only 36 per cent of secondary headteachers.

And yet, if you have read the books by Cordelia Fine which examine the ‘men are from Mars, women are from Venus’ theory with more scientific credibility and detail than I could possibly command, you will know that gender is probably as reliable an indicator of natural leadership qualities as your star sign.

While I wouldn’t waste a second’s thought on challenging the view that being a Scorpio I must be intense, difficult or ruthless, I have wasted many hours on worrying that perhaps women, including me, aren’t really cut out for leadership and that sooner or later I will be found out.

Why couldn’t I just ignore the myth of testosterone? And why haven’t teachers, an enlightened group of professionals of which I am generally proud to count myself a part, managed to ignore it?

The answer must surely lie, in our unconscious biases. I'm learning to challenge my own biases and those of the many senior leaders I have come across in my business and teaching careers. Readers, I'm issuing a disclaimer: this blog is based on observation rather than research. But, being a little older than the average Future Leader, I have had plenty of opportunity to observe.

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Great female and male leaders - First observation

I have worked for equal numbers of male and female leaders and my first observation is this: inspiring leadership is not gender dependent. The most inspirational leaders I have worked for have been great female leaders, both of them humble and remarkable. Yet I don’t think it had anything to do with them being female.

It was to do with moral courage in the face of difficulties and the clarity of purpose and sense of fairness which that brought. I have also worked for some excellent male leaders, though none of them quite so remarkable.

They shared the same ability to offer thanks for successful hard work and to respond to misjudgements with advice rather than aggression. All of them were able to be decisive but delegate judiciously, take responsibility but share vulnerabilities.

The other leaders I have come across have spanned the range from very good, through competent, mediocre and ineffectual, all the way to downright toxic. These were both male and female.

Great female and male leaders - Second observation

Mention of toxic leadership brings me to my second observation on the gender agenda in leadership. The most toxic leaders I have encountered are often the ones who might call themselves ‘ballsy’, with all that that implies - although they may be male or female. They talk aggressively about expectations (often used in the same sentence as the word Ofsted or inspection) and little about welfare.

These leaders pride themselves on their decisiveness and therefore keep the decision-making to themselves. Consultations take place, but the outcomes seem to have been decided in advance. Mistakes are met with reprimands or - worse - public shaming.

With both genders in these instances, it seems that there is a misconception of the meaning of strong leadership. I would go so far as to say that they have embraced the conventional wisdom of leadership with which I began this blog.

International Women’s Day – beating the Gender Agenda

So, this International Women’s Day, let’s face down the unconscious bias in ourselves and admit that in 2018 discussions of leadership need to move beyond the gender agenda. Let’s ditch once and for all the Testosterone Rex theory that great leaders need ‘balls’. There are some great male leaders and some great female leaders.

What makes them great leaders isn’t their gender, it’s their vision and their humanity.


This article originally appeared on the website of Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019, the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.


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