Women in education: risks and opportunities post pandemic | Education Support
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Sarah Mullin - International Womens Day

Women in education: risks and opportunities post pandemic

6th March 2021

To celebrate International Women's Day, Deputy headteacher Sarah Mullin examines the impact of the Covid-19 on female teachers and leaders and if there are opportunities for positive change post pandemic.

It is hard to believe that this time last year I was travelling across the country supporting aspiring school leaders. I encouraged women to become the change we want to see because even though gender representation, like other forms of diversity, is essential for society to thrive, women are still vastly under-represented in leadership positions. 

Despite the education workforce consisting of 68% women, just 38% of England’s secondary school headteachers are women. Whilst women bring a plethora of positive qualities to leadership positions, many organisations have reported difficulties in recruiting and retaining women leaders, and this may be further exacerbated by the global pandemic.

Covid-19 has impacted the lives of millions across the world. While we are all navigating challenging times, society’s biases, inequalities and injustices mean that we are each experiencing these times differently, and there is growing evidence which suggests that women have been disproportionately negatively affected by the pandemic. 

Increased demands on women

A study by the Women’s Higher Education Network (WHEN), found that women had taken on increasing amounts of childcare, household and other caring responsibilities in addition to their paid work. This has significantly affected their ability to do their jobs in the ways they had prior to the pandemic. 

As a deputy headteacher and mother of three young children, I can appreciate the demands on the time of women juggling competing roles in their personal and professional lives. We live in a time when society expects women to raise a family as if they do not work and work as if they do not have a family to raise, leaving many women with a perpetual feeling of guilt.  This has never been more apparent than during this crisis. 

Teachers and school leaders have had to adopt innovative ways to educating the nation’s children and young people; streaming live lessons whilst caring for the children of key workers and vulnerable children before going home to support our own children with their remote learning. We have watched the news in anticipation, learning our fate from leaked documents before official guidance came flooding into our email inboxes at unsociable hours when we should have been spending time with our loved ones. As we supported students with growing stress, anxiety and mental-health related issues, we have struggled to prioritise our own wellbeing, working relentlessly in response to the ever-changing guidance and government U-turns.

It is hardly surprising therefore, that Education Support’s research  with YouGov, found that 89% of school leaders have reported feeling stressed or very stressed, with 59% school leaders considering leaving the profession this academic year. These are of course unprecedented times, but the impact of Covid-19 may further perpetuate gender inequality in school leadership as the role of the headteacher may be perceived less favourably by the teaching workforce.

Opportunities for change

Just as the government roadmap for easing lockdown restrictions has offered a glimmer of hope that better times are coming, there is also an opportunity for us to try to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on women and their aspirations for school leadership. 

If we are to recruit and retain loyal, dedicated people who might otherwise be lost to the profession, we must make the wellbeing of our workforce central to our strategic decision making. The flexibility and creativity of education staff has been commendable: we have delivered high quality teaching remotely; shown compassion and empathy to individual staff members and enjoyed contributing to the field of education by delivering CPD from the comfort of our homes, without having to worry about childcare or travel. 

In many ways, Covid-19 has helped us to critically reflect on our practice and create positive change by adapting swiftly to the times we are living in. We must continue to look forward with hope, considering flexible working opportunities which are conducive to fostering a healthy work/life balance so that we can promote diversity in educational leadership.

When times change, so must we. So let’s embrace the possibilities. After all, staying positive in a negative situation is far from naïve, it’s leadership.

Sarah Mullin is a Deputy Headteacher at an all-through school in the West Midlands. She was named a Rising Star in Education and Academia in 2020 and she is the recipient of the ‘Contribution to Education of the Year’ award. Sarah is the curator of ‘What They Didn’t Teach Me on My PGCE’ and the founder of #EduTeacherTips, a YouTube channel for teachers by teachers.

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