Why is it that school leadership positions are still predominantly hogged by men

While signs of gender transformation in education leadership at a ministerial level in Africa are nothing short of remarkable, gender inequality remains the norm at lower levels. Despite the evidence that women-led schools provide students and staff with a safer and more collegial learning environment, leadership positions are still predominantly held by men, often even when women are better qualified. 

Source: Daily Maverick

High-level roundtable panel at the ADEA 2022 Triennale

In October 2022, I participated in an education conference hosted by the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA). The ADEA Triennale is a uniquely African event, where education leaders discuss ways to improve the quality of education on the continent.

I’ve attended my share of education conferences over the years, and I was thrilled by the greater-than-usual presence of women leaders. Eight female government ministers participated. I had never before seen this level of representation among senior policy leaders in education.

But it didn’t stop at the attendance list. From the opening address by Leela Devi Dookun-Luchoomun, Mauritius’ Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Education, Tertiary Education, Science and Technology, and throughout the conference, I observed women ministers from across the continent actively participating in every session that I attended, reflecting on their countries’ successes and failures in education, and outlining strategies to build resilient post-pandemic education systems.

Ministers also met to discuss ways that they could join forces to achieve common goals. These conversations have culminated in the creation of a new ministerial partnership for education at the foundational level. On 16 February 2023, ADEA and Human Capital Africa (HCA) launched a Ministerial Coalition to improve the quality of foundational learning in Africa.

While signs of transformation at the ministerial level are nothing short of remarkable, women continue to be underrepresented at other levels of education leadership. The OECD’s Teaching and Learning Survey (TALIS) reports that 68% of teachers across OECD countries are female, but only 47% of principals are female. 

The gender gap in school leadership is even wider in Africa. In Togo, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso, only 10% of school principals are women. Gender inequality in South African school leadership has persisted, even where female teachers are more qualified than male teachers.

Some might argue that with the education crisis we’re facing in Africa and widespread learning losses during the pandemic, we should focus on the most qualified individuals for the job, regardless of gender. Elsewhere, I’ve written about how women have actually been rated as more effective leaders than men – even more so during crises. Of course, not all female leaders are exceptional, but many possess exceptional leadership qualities that should be taken seriously. And the evidence is mounting. 

Learning outcomes were higher for students in female-led schools in Francophone Africaand in Kenya’s Tusome programme. Female school principals in Africa, including South Africa, are credited with creating safer and more collegial learning environments, with clearly defined roles and responsibilities for staff members.

A host of complex factors stands in the way of increasing female representation at the school leadership level. Cultural beliefs that cast doubt on women’s abilities to lead certainly play a role, as they do in other sectors, especially if local communities believe that female leaders are less effective. Lack of role models and mentorship may leave aspiring female principals feeling isolated. If deployment policies are not gender-sensitive, it could result in women turning down leadership positions that are far from their families and support systems.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day (8 March), we should also remind each other that there are some clues about how to work towards a more equitable future in school leadership in Africa. Creating structures for female teachers to enter leadership positions can effectively address the problem.

In Rwanda, for example, the Ministry of Education and the Education Development Trust focus on recruiting aspiring women leaders into mid-tier positions and providing them with training, mentorship and coaching to prepare them for future school leadership roles.

Programmes where men join discussions about gender roles can lead to a better understanding of the leadership contribution that women can make. A supportive family, including males, is vital for female leadership development in Ethiopia.

We also need reliable data to keep track of women’s participation in educational leadership at national, provincial and school levels. 

Dr Obiageli “Oby” Ezekwesili, CEO of Human Capital Africa, one of the driving forces behind some of Nigeria’s most progressive reforms, and a former minister of education in that country, firmly believes that having the right data is what will empower African governments to be honest about and accountable for gender imbalances.

She recently told me, “We need the best people leading our schools so that our children have every opportunity to learn. Many of them happen to be women. So, let’s understand what’s holding them back.” 

There was something wildly satisfying about seeing women education leaders doing policy together last year that hasn’t worn off. Maybe it’s because although they were aware of the extent of the problem, they were resolute that change was possible and accountability was essential. By working together, they could move forward more quickly. 

These women know what it means to be held to a higher standard and are, therefore, laser-focused on getting the job done. Claudiana Cole, Minister of Education from The Gambia, put it best when she concluded a ministerial roundtable discussion on improving foundational learning outcomes during the ADEA Triennale: “I’m going home to implement. We’ve all learnt something, and it’s good that we all go home and … fill in the gaps.” DM