Is promoting women really the issue? (From @LabourTeachers)February 27, 2016
As is often the case in the first week back after the holidays, I ran out of posts on Labour Teachers this week and had to write one myself in a bit of a hurry. (If you are a Labour supporting teacher and would like to write for Labour Teachers, details are here.)
As it’s about education, I’ll represent the post below, and as it was short and written in a hurry, I’ll add a few additional points at the end.
Earlier this week, Jules Darby wrote a post about #WomenED. The agenda of #WomenED is to suggest that women working in education are losing out and need more support. I’ve expressed my own doubt about this narrative on my own blog, partly because the statistics show women are very well represented in the sector, partly because claims made by those supporting #WomenED are often contradicted by the statistics, and partly because the statistics are open to more plausible interpretations.
At the heart of the issue is that, while women make up the overwhelming majority of heads and an even bigger majority among senior leaders, they are even better represented among unpromoted classroom teachers. It might be that this is seen as a problem because it is believed leaders are meant to represent the profession, although this would be hard to square with their responsibilities to all the other stakeholders. But it is more likely that the difference in proportions is seen as a problem, because it is believed that it represents a difference in opportunity. If it were as easy for women to be promoted as men, then the proportions would be identical in promoted and unpromoted posts.
It is this second explanation I want to consider here. I think that this assumes that promotion is something teachers generally want. Even though women are far more likely to enter the classroom than men, it is assumed that they will seek to leave the classroom, or seek to spend less time in the classroom, in order to take on management responsibilities at the same rate as men. It is not considered plausible that anyone would become a teacher and want to stay teaching, not managing. It is not considered plausible that wanting to become a teacher is different to wanting to become a headteacher. It is not considered plausible that staying in the classroom could be anything other than the result of discrimination, or a lack of ambition that needs correcting.
It is hardly rare to find people in schools who think that promotion will prove their worth. It is also common to find arrangements for performance management, or observations that assume that managers are the experts about teaching. Worst of all, it is sometimes all too easy to find people in teaching focused on the next rung of the ladder rather than their classes. We have something of a promotion fetish in our schools. There are too many managers, moving from post to post too quickly without proving themselves, and too often engaging in initiatives that obstruct rather than support what happens in the classroom. Too often, teachers are encouraged to become bureaucrats.
We should be thinking about what would be best for the profession and for our students, not whether we can make a failing system even more female. Instead of trying to push more women up the promotion ladder – whether they want to climb it or not – let us flatten the hierarchy in schools. Let us not assume that those who avoid promotion are losing out. Let us make sure that time spent in a classroom is not seen as the least prestigious part of the job. Let us reward people for making a difference where it counts. Let’s not complain that there are too many women in schools spending time in the classroom that could be spent in an office. Let us just make sure that they (and men in the same position) are not losing out for making teaching their priority.
My past experience is that to doubt the narrative that women are missing out on promotion in schools is to invite offence. The fact that there are almost twice as many female heads as male is seen as deeply inconvenient by some. Pointing out that people are being misinformed by those who either contradict that fact, or ignore it in favour of cherry-picked alternatives, is seen as either a personal insult or an accusation of lying. Or it seen as some mere irrelevance compared with the fact that the proportion of female classroom teachers is greater than the proportion of female heads.
But it does matter. If this statistic is a “discrepancy” to be explained, rather than what might be expected when the population of teachers is so skewed, then we do end up with a couple of theories which would, if correct, suggest that others (often women) are blameworthy.
The first theory is that those appointing to promoted posts are biased against women. In some versions of the argument it is simply assumed that those appointing are males, and they appoint people who are like them. However, as a large majority of heads and SLT are women, and a smaller majority of governors are, this seems unlikely. But, of course, women can also be biased against women. And are they? Unfortunately, the data on applications, which would be necessary to investigate this, is limited. If there is bias against women applicants, we would expect them to have to apply more times, and go to more interviews, before being appointed. This was not the case NASUWT did a survey a few years back.
The second theory, is that women are not applying enough for promotion. Any claim that more women should apply for promotion assumes that seeking promotion is a good thing to do. It assumes that a teacher who decides to put their effort into teaching instead of managing is missing out. Women who do not want to be promoted are seen as either deficient (perhaps they lack confidence, or they are failing to advance the interests of their gender) or as victims of a system that has deterred them. It is then the job of those campaigning for more women heads to either”correct” or “rescue” these poor women.
This second theory has the advantage that it cannot be contradicted by the facts. It is a value judgement that people like me, who are not seeking promotion, are inferior and that if women are overrepresented among us then this shows they are either colluding in, or forced into, inferiority. But to me, this judgement is the manifestation of one of the worst aspects of our education system: the greater respect given to managing rather than teaching. Instead of setting up campaigns and organisations to advance the careers of ambitious women, how about we start looking to advance the interests and status of unpromoted classroom teachers, most of whom happen to be women? This should help narrow some of the gender gaps that do exist, but it might also help rebalance our schools, by encouraging less micromanagement, less bureaucracy and better teamwork.