Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen Op-Ed

Education sector should take the lead in advocating for female leadership

Education sector should take the lead in advocating for female leadership
Over an eight year period, there has been only a two percentage point change in female leadership in South African schools, says the writer. (Photo by Gallo Images / OJ Koloti)

The stereotyping of women’s inability to lead, combined with an entrenched patriarchy, has to be broken down if there is any chance of more women taking up leadership roles across all sectors of society.

Two events caught my attention in the last few days. The first was a Bloomberg interview with Alan Jope, CEO of global consumer goods conglomerate, Unilever. In the interview, Jope mentioned that it was his “dream to see a woman or someone from a minority group take over from him as CEO” when he steps down. 

The second was the announcement of senator Kamala Harris as Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s running mate for the upcoming US presidential election. Harris makes history as the first black and female candidate to be running for the office of vice president. 

Senator Kamala Harris, US Democratic Party vice presidential nominee. (Photo: Stefani Reynolds / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

You’ve probably already made the link: two men in positions of power have affirmed female leadership. Both men have been in the game long enough to recognise women are underrepresented in influential positions in business, politics and many other sectors. They have both essentially set up building blocks for what we in South Africa refer to as the process of transformation, in terms of race, gender and disability (among other measures) across various sectors of our society. 

But what does transformation in general look like in South Africa?

In its annual publication, the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) highlights the blatant disregard for transformation as it pertains to women occupying positions of leadership across society. In its 2018/19 report, CGE highlights that women still make up less than a third of senior management positions, with the private sector accounting for only 22% of females in senior management, compared to 36% in the public sectors. 

Interestingly, the proportion of female representation grows to around 48% when one looks at middle to junior management positions. 

In education, the numbers mirror those of the corporate and public sectors. A study of PERSAL data (the human resource management system in the public sector) from 2012 shows that women accounted for about 71% of the teaching workforce (teachers, heads of departments (HODs), deputy principals and principals), but only accounted for 36% of principals nationally. The percentage of female principals has been stagnant, with a meagre increase of two percentage points from 34% in 2004 to 36% in 2012. 

Let that sink in – over an eight-year period, there has been only a two percentage point change in female leadership in South African schools. 

This suggests that the proverbial glass ceiling for female leadership in schools is very much intact, with women only being good enough to be teachers or heads of department, but not principals.  

Furthermore, while no recent data on female principals in South Africa has been published, 2018 figures from the Teaching and Learning Internationally Survey (TALIS) shows that females accounted for only 18% of principals in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, despite making up the majority of the teaching workforce. 

Yes, South Africa is doing better than OECD countries in terms of representation at principal level (thanks in part to the government’s employment equity policies), but this does not mean that females have reached the promised land in terms of representation at senior levels of the broader education system. In fact, once we consider other levels of the system (national and provincial education departments) and stakeholders (trade unions and SGB associations), the picture becomes worrisome. 

At an administrative level, only two provinces have female heads of department (North West and Limpopo). Furthermore, there hasn’t been a female director-general at the Department of Basic Education (DBE) since 1994. 

The number of female education MECs is also very low (Western Cape, North West and Limpopo), but what is commendable is that the current minister and deputy minister of basic education are women.   

In terms of the labour movement, none of the five major unions in the country have female leaders. The largest education trade union in the country has never had a female general secretary (the most influential position in the organisation) in its entire history – with only two provinces – KwaZulu-Natal and Free State having women in top positions. When looking at the two majority school governing body (SGB) associations, both are headed by men.

The emerging pattern is that those who were negotiating whether schools should reopen or stay closed, and making decisions in general about schooling in South Africa, are predominantly men. 

The conclusion one can draw here is that women are overrepresented at teacher level (and possibly at union/SGB association membership level), but under-represented at principal (school), director-general (government) and general secretary (trade union/SGB associations) levels. 

So what are the barriers to women assuming leadership positions in education? 

The key barrier to women taking over and retaining leadership in education remains the entrenched system of patriarchy. Women often have to take up leadership roles in male-dominated settings and, like all of us who enter into unfamiliar and uncomfortable environments, females have to conform to the prevailing cultures in order to succeed. Patriarchy, by its very nature, undermines women and their methods of leadership, which are characteristically service-oriented, nurturing, caring, supportive and inclusive by nature. 

However, to this day, gender stereotypes about female leaders remain very pervasive. The stereotype is that females are seen as weak and not up to the task of managing complex issues involving conflict, or relationships with key schooling stakeholders such as local communities. Male principals, on the other hand, are seen as strong and assertive. These gender stereotypes also manifest in male colleagues undermining or resisting female leadership. 

Research has shown that women in educational leadership face disturbing resistance in the form of insubordination and sabotage, particularly from their male colleagues. 

Furthermore, in some cases, female principals have indicated that they wouldn’t have made it to their positions if their male predecessors had not endorsed them. Although male affirmation is important (as Biden and Jope have done), this shouldn’t be a necessary requirement for females to make it to leadership positions. 

Conducive environments are required that take into consideration the need for cultural changes, including tackling gender stereotypes that women are not capable of leading. These conducive environments would also take into consideration that females are the lifeblood of any society, and therefore suitable working conditions and family/community support are important for females to retain their leadership positions. 

With this being said, simply pushing women into leadership positions while the environment remains stacked against them will set them up for failure and further entrench existing stereotypes. Research has shown that a lack of professional development in the form of management and on-the-job training plays a key role in whether women succeed or not in leadership. 

Education plays a vital role in changing, or at least influencing, our preconceived subjective views and stereotypes about gender, race, ethnicity and so on. As such, the education sector has a role to play in debunking the long-held stereotypes about female leadership – and should be taking the lead in advocating the importance of diversity in leadership in South Africa. 

However, it will take more than simply male education leaders providing space for females to lead across all levels of the education system. It will take a fundamental culture shift and the creation of conducive environments for females to succeed. DM/MC

Khaya Tyatya is an education practitioner and a PhD candidate in the education faculty of the University of Johannesburg. Views expressed are his own.

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