Women Are Slowly Starting to Crack the Top Ranks of Indian School Administration
Women are slowly cracking the glass ceiling of school administration across the country, reports the Times of India. While still far from parity, 13 states and/or union territories have “higher or equal representation of women as designated or acting heads, vice-principals and principals.” The vice-principal position appears to be the foot in the door; across 20 states, women are in the majority in holding these positions.
The data comes from a 2017 report by N Mythili, an assistant professor at the National Institute of Education Planning and Administration, which tracks data from public and private schools across the country via its database, the Unified District Information System for Education, or U-DISE. But the problem is not unique to the Indian school system, public or private.
Globally, the teaching profession, once dominated by men, has segued over the past century into women’s work.
“Women are considered as aptly suited to teaching profession that provides an additional source of income for the family without disturbing patriarchy,” notes Mythili in the introduction to her report.
That’s because the patriarchy remained in control of the upper echelons of school leadership. Mythili notes the vast under-representation of women in school leadership positions in Tanzania, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands. The gender gap in school administration has also been documented in Jordan, in Greece, in Japan, the US and many more.
Even in countries where female representation among school management is better, the gap widens markedly the higher the education level. From a recent report by UNESCO: “In Austria, 79% of primary school heads were female, compared with only 32% of lower secondary school heads. In Sweden, the shares were 73% in primary and 45% in upper secondary (European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, 2013). In Rwanda, 30% of primary and 19% of secondary principals were women (USAID, 2014).”
And for women who do make it to the top of school leadership, the pay gap from their male peers is evidence the problem runs deeper than mere presence, as the UK’s recent national drive to provide details on gender and pay disparity has made clear.
India’s record of female leadership in higher education is dismal, even if it is growing within the ranks of earlier education. A 2006 report found only 9% of 107 higher education institutions were led by female executives; across these institutions, only 20% of deans and 23% of department heads were women.
India is not averse to mandating gender parity when it wants to; government schools are required to have equal numbers of men and women in their school management committees. The effects of similar reservations aimed at promoting equality highlight why women’s representation within the ranks of school leadership matter: Having a female leader as a role model correlated directly with gains in girls’ education that other influences couldn’t account for. Studies elsewhere suggest the same is true specifically within schools: According to a study in Uganda, the presence of women in positions of school leadership encourages the retention of female students.
But equity at the top is not only about setting a good, inspiring example. It is about rethinking the norms with which we live, the assumptions we make about and the expectations we have of genders. And this pervades all aspects of the workforce — in which only 26% of Indian women participate. The explanations of the school administrator gender gap sound much like the explanations of the broader dearth of women in Indian boardrooms.
“Many schools prefer to appoint men, available day in and day out, as a principal’s office is a powerful position requiring a lot of co-ordination with, say, bus contractors, unions, class four staffers,” Swati Popat Vats, president of the Podar Education Network, told Times of India.
The assumption that women can’t put in the effort to meet the requirements of leadership is present in every industry. Businesses plan to lose women once they become mothers; women who return to work are “mommy tracked” away from big or demanding opportunities. The fact that these practices clearly pervade as feminized a profession as education is evidence of how unequal the workforce is truly structured.
Popat Vats is one of many saying things are changing, at least within the field of school management. She notes that some schools are rethinking the entire role of a principal to make it lest conflicting with perceived obligations outside of work.
“A lot of schools now have dual positions: academics are handled by women principals and for handling other issues like bus drivers, et cetera, they appoint general managers,” she told Times of India.
Whether general managers fall above or below or are equal to academic principals in decision-making remains to be seen. While rethinking work positions, long shaped to suit a concept of masculinity whose self-worth was found in the office, is an important start, there’s the possibility that efforts to make school leadership positions more accessible to women are only creating one more level of advancement — and one more barrier.