Staffroom sexism

2008-07-16 00:00

A recent study conducted on the experiences of women principals in KwaZulu-Natal secondary schools showed that pro-gress is being made in terms of transforming the gender picture in the management of schools. The number of women in the management of schools is increasing. According to the Provincial Department of Education (2005), women are more visible at lower levels of management as they comprise 66% of heads of department. But the picture is different higher up the promotion ladder as women deputy principals and principals only make up 41% and the majority of these are in the primary schools. The position of being a school principal is dominated by men (59%) yet they comprise only 31% of the provincial teaching population.

Of course, the picture may be slightly different now as this report was released three years ago. And perhaps the numerical improvement is a small win that calls for celebration.

But it would appear that gender issues related to the position of principal are still as problematic as earlier research had indicated. A closer qualitative analysis of what happens on the ground shows that nothing much has changed with regard to attitudes and mind-sets, and so, even though women are entering management positions in larger numbers, most of them cannot wait to leave. But just how complex is the situation for women who are school principals and what makes it so unbearable for them?

The study revealed that firstly, most women who participated in the study became principals by default rather than by design. These women did not set out to become principals, and without any training, the only preparation they had was through experience. Most of them were persuaded to apply for the position of principal because when the posts became vacant they were either the most experienced teacher in the school or the next in authority and would have to acquire more experience when in the post.

Obviously their lack of aspiration for the position is a personal factor suggesting a possibility of missed opportunities for preparation if candidates do not have the ambition to become principals. However, this lack of ambition is not without a base. These women have no role models and are therefore not exposed to being a principal as a possible dream career. With the changing statistical picture, more girls and young women see women principals as role models.

Secondly, while there appears to be a high level of policy awareness that affirms women becoming principals, there are still many disabling factors around. The study reveals that those who are tasked with the job of appointing candidates for the most important office in the school still pursue their own agendas, which include having a preference for male principals and preference for the so-called “son of the soil” who is familiar with the community.

Women candidates are still subjected to discrimination reflected in statements like: “Sorry, you are good but unfortunately we are looking for a male.” While one would assume that these views would be prevalent in the rural areas where there is strong traditional leadership, some women in the urban areas experience this type of discrimination where junior male candidates are promoted instead.

Thirdly, it is often taken for granted that once women have become a principal they have chiselled through the glass ceiling and their troubles are over. Evidence from this study suggests that women principals continue to experience subtle and sinister pre-judicial treatment even after their appointment.

The lack of professional support from the education department topped the agenda of the study and some circuit managers attested to not providing support for women to cope in these “hostile environments”.

Some women principals had to work extra hard to earn the respect and support while others were forced to deal with insubordinate male staff who disrespectfully passed remarks such as: “I cannot be headed by a woman.” These are serious cultural issues and social practices that prevent policy and legal reforms from reaching the desired goals. They are deeply- rooted conceptions about who can and cannot become a school principal. They are therefore not easily eradicated through policy and constitute some of the reasons why some women principals feel “being a principal is hell”.

Preparing a pool of women aspirants for the position of principal through training is one possible key intervention. Engaging with traditional chauvinist beliefs about the “ideal” principal is another. The question facing us now is how do we educate the community so as to avoid dealing with cases where women principals feel so threatened that they want to leave because the community needs a “strong man” in the school. How do we ensure that support for women is created so that we attract women into becoming school principals and retain them? Policy is there, but clearly we need more.

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