WomenEd Blogs

Musings from the Interview Arena

By Briony Bowers @BrionyBowers

Briony went to #WomenEd sessions at #rEDBerks2023 recently which led to her retweeting her 2021 blog. Sadly, progress since then has been minimal.

In 2015 the New York Times published an analysis of the CEOs of S&P 1500 firms revealing the remarkable statistic that there were more men called John leading these big companies than women. I recently recalled this statistic - I've no idea whether it's still true - as I sat introducing myself to my fellow candidates at my latest interview for headship. There were five candidates, four of whom were men, and two of whom had the same surname as me. There was also more men called John* than women at the interview.

An amusing dinner party anecdote, yes, were it not for the fact that this is the second time that this has happened to me in a leadership interview. The first was a deputy interview some years ago which was also memorable for the fact that it turned out that I'd taught one of the other candidates, very early in my career… when he was in year 7.

Anyway, my current score, from 8 applications is not shortlisted 3, shortlisted 5; final interviews 3, job offers 0; men appointed 6, women 2. Both times that a woman got the job there was more than one woman on the shortlist and also in the final 3. One of those was from an all-female shortlist for an all-girls' school. 

And herein lies the issue: I am sure that at every process the governors chose the person that they considered to be the best candidate on the day, and I can live with that not being me, but where are the other women and what is stopping them getting into the room?

This is important because without the other women in the room it's harder for any woman to get the job. A Harvard business review article from 2016 highlights this issue. The study found that when there were two minorities or women in the pool of finalists, the status quo changed, resulting in a woman or minority becoming the favoured candidate. They suggest the reasons for this are:

'being the only woman in a pool highlights how different she is from the norm. And deviating from the norm can be risky for decision makers, as people tend to ostracize people who are different from the group. For women and minorities, having your differences made salient can also lead to inferences of incompetence.'

This is of particular importance for headship appointments being made by governing bodies who may not have had training in recruitment or challenge around unconscious bias. Of the most recent 15 headship appointments in our county - this is over approximately the last two years - 12 appointments have been men.

The bias towards the norm can also be seen in the fact that six of these processes appointed internal candidates and three were headteachers moving schools within the same county. Additionally, governing bodies interviewing to replace a female headteacher seemed to favour men in the majority of cases. Of the last six female headteachers to move on from their posts in the county, five were replaced by men. The one woman was an internal candidate who had been acting up for a period prior to the appointment. 

It is as if the one woman has ticked that particular diversity box for a while so it is time to have a man again. 

It is also worth noting that three of these women moved into executive leadership roles in their same trusts - excellent news - but now all their schools have male headteachers or heads of school, again suggesting that, as far as the governors are concerned, one woman is plenty. 

Whilst each governing body makes their decision in isolation, the implications for the system are huge and the result is that nationally we have 36% of female headteachers in a system where 62% of secondary teachers are women. (40% now in 2022)

So, whilst the governors carry the can for the headship statistics, headteachers and school leaders have a lot to do to support the pipeline to the top jobs. 

Take a long hard look at your leadership team. 

The trust I most recently applied to has three secondary schools. Of six deputy roles across the schools only one is a woman and all the headteachers are now male. 

Tap your female Assistant Heads on the shoulder when the deputy roles come up, support them to step forward. When you are shortlisting for leadership roles yourself, remember that two women in the pool gives them both a better chance of being appointed, and goes some way to mitigating the inevitable unconscious bias of the panel.

A change in circumstance means I'm currently off the market for transfer: let's hope things have begun to shift on my return to the arena.

We certainly hope so, Briony.

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Thursday, 08 June 2023

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