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OPINION | Why the education sector is in dire need of more women leaders

todayMarch 8, 2024 22

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As the world marks the International Day of Women, we zoom into gender parity in society and the workplace, which the Deputy Principal of Centennial Schools, Joseina Ramgareeb, believes South Africa still has a long way to go before achieving it.

Gender inequality is still rampant and can take on many forms — disparity in promotions, unequal pay and less leadership roles. While this is often the case in big corporations and civil society, we should also be turning a lens towards the education sector, where gender inequality is even more pronounced.

Across the world, and in South Africa, women make up more than 70% of teaching staff, yet less than 40% of education management.

A 2021 study by the University of Stellenbosch paints a bleak picture of female management representation in the South Africa education sector, where 70% of all publicly paid educators were women; 48% of deputy principals were women and only 39% of principals were women.

In addition, in many organisations the demands placed on female colleagues far outweighs those placed on male counterparts who have the same job description. This inequity is compounded by the gender pay gap.

According to the latest World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, South African women are paid between 23% and 35% less than men for the same work. Stats SA has similar figures, noting recently that the gender wage gap was about 30% across the board.

The education sector has always attracted large numbers of women, but women remain severely underrepresented in school leadership despite evidence increasingly suggesting a link between strong and accomplished female school leaders and positive learning outcomes.

Most female educators have mastered the art of multi-tasking, balancing the demands of motherhood, domestic life and excelling in the workplace. Regrettably, these attributes are often seen as ‘soft skills’ and are therefore not valued. In fact, essential attributes like empathy and emotional intelligence, generally attributed to women and so critical to educating our children, is often dismissed by some senior male managers.

What we need to help bring about change to an antiquated and stereo-typical management approach is to educate the incumbent male leadership on the role that women play, and will continue to play, in the world. There needs to be a recognition of the value of ‘soft’ (read essential) skills, and acceptance of a different perspective that women bring to an organisation.

Research across the world shows that female leaders bring a unique set of skills to leadership positions, which foster increased diversity, a change of mindset, and increased success to organisations.

Of course, increasing the number of women in leadership positions will significantly change the organisational ethos in this regard.

In fact, a Harvard Business Review found that women outscore men on 17 of the 19 competencies deemed essential for managers. Women are highly competent managers, but what’s holding them back is not lack of capability, rather it is a lack of opportunity.

Some of the ways to retain valuable female human capital is to allow for flexible working hours to accommodate the many roles these women fulfil in society, update recruitment and promotion policies to ensure fair representation of females in all positions throughout the organisation, and organisations must update salary scales to reduce and then eliminate the gender pay gap.

Companies need to invest in women supply chains and support SMMEs run and set up by women to allow female talent to develop at a faster rate. It is also crucial to invest in learnerships in the workplace that allow female employees the opportunity to acquire new skill sets.

Looking specifically at our schools, the way we educate a girl child versus a boy child at all levels can change the narrative. Curriculums need to be free from bias and gender parallels. This can be approached by, for example, driving STEM subjects in all schools to all students. Too often, STEM fields are viewed as masculine and parents and teachers underestimate the abilities of girls to cope with these subjects.

While the numbers speak for themselves, to truly transform the quality of the education sector in an industry dominated by women, change must happen. The quality, growth and future of the next generation of leaders, and teachers in South Africa could be dependent on it. Written by the Deputy Principal of Centennial Schools, Joseina Ramgareeb. 

Written by: Lindiwe Mabena

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