GPE / Kelley Lynch

It’s not you, it’s me: The great breakup for leadership, diversity and representation in education

By Dr Nicola Sum, Faculty of Education at Monash University, an invited expert to the UNESCO Teacher Task Force School Leadership Network, and an interdisciplinary researcher of leadership and context

Women represent the unchallenged majority of the workforce driving education, and yet representation of women across leadership roles remains inadequate. Faced with persistent fragile metaphors such as glass ceilings, glass cliffs and glass walls, data suggests that women have had enough. Increasingly women are driving the great breakup amongst the noise of potentially grand scale resignations across sectors.

Women making transnational choices

Education is no exception. The Global Education Monitoring Report has identified the “continued imbalance in men’s favour in education management and related leadership positions” as a ‘hard ceiling. Though education is generally viewed through a largely nationalistic lens, educators have been moving away and across education systems for many years. In my study of women, as transnational educators and leaders, they leverage such mobility, inspired by communities and opportunities which are not accessible in their original context. I interviewed six women leaders – principals, coordinators and middle managers, who worked across borders, regularly returning home for visits before moving on. Transnational educators choose to move to other countries either to work in international schools, or other privately-owned educational providers. Often one contract can lead to further roles in other locations, and educators may choose to continue to relocate for work assignments.

Systems losing transformative capacity

We may minimise such mobility amongst women leaders as inconsequential. Choosing instead to sit firm in our views of schooling and systems as sufficiently resilient to their departure. That would be in spite of the data indicating that teacher attrition is a problem. Even prior to the pandemic, and possibly exacerbated by the disruption, research has shown that 30-50% of teachers leave within their first five years threatening the stability of education systems. Losing women leaders from across systems compounds the nature of the challenge. Recent work has shown that women in leadership roles are catalysts for organisational improvement and transformative for performance. Moreover, it is difficult to overlook the irony of women leaders leaving behind the void of representation, mentoring and support networks for future teachers in a profession that is more than two-thirds women.

Women’s participation strengthens systems

Women lead with a higher propensity for participative, inspiring, affirming and people centred approaches, which should be particularly valued at this time of great disruption. This is not a matter of better or worse, but rather different, pointing to the diversity that is necessary at all levels of education, and spanning learning communities. Across a global perspective, UN Women recognised that the equal participation of women is critical to securing ambitious targets such as the Sustainable Development Goals, because women are able to “work across party lines”. As school communities continue to address both the economic and social costs of teacher attrition, one way forward may be to consider how we retain current leaders, especially women, who are otherwise choosing to move onto opportunities which are more closely aligned to their values and vision. Therefore, there is something to be said about the nature of values and vision being broadcast across schools and education systems.

Recovering and rebuilding systems need to retain women in leadership

Covid-19 demonstrated a shift in the nature of relationships between and across hierarchies of school, department, policy makers and school leaders in complex and volatile times. Wellbeing, welfare and community care became key drivers of school leadership. More significantly, these values, and the vision to enact the practices, were set at a local level by school leaders. Such recent events point to a need to recognise the expertise and capacity of school leaders generally, and women specifically, as skilled professionals to be valued. Attention to new teacher recruitment is important, but must also be matched by attention to retaining, supporting and securing talent and capacity across career stages, with diversity and representation in sharp focus.

Visit the 2024/5 GEM Report webpage on leadership

See the online consultation


1 comment

  1. Dear Colleague,

    This article discusses the need for the transformation of the education system, and in order to attain this, the so-called outsiders may be useful. It may also encourage other less developed countries, or experts leading the diversity paradigm in the West to be mindful of such problems. Accordingly, working on innovation, decent work and operationalization of organisation change is crucial.

    Fundamentally, the blog coincides with the ruling at the Supreme Court of the US so that $2 million is to be used by the Office of Inspection, since the Department of Education is on a spending spree of bureaucracy. This argument and the premise thereto, as highlighted by Lauren Boebert was passed by the court as lawful on November 16, 2023 (See Forbes News Whereas the point made thereby was about the need to make funding for education solely for such a purpose, the specific area to be tackled remains unclear. Yet, funding schools and failing in controlling gun violence epidemic and responsible gun laws is a void, so is being not well equipped for related mental illness is a huge problem. The Children’s Fund in the UK was well evaluated around the mid 2020s including by me. Funded by the Department of Education, what we consider as extended schools, ranging from heritage upholding schemes, to bereavement and disability faced funding cut as Children’s Fund ceased to exist. Instead, joined up and multi agency work by the state actors of education was the motto. It is equally important to evaluate the other government bodies, some used to lead education remotely in the US, instead of being worried about “Government Shutdown Deadlines” in the US at all times. Globalisation affects many and I know employees funding or supporting others offshore. If their income is obtained unethically, it should be inspected and then defunded.

    Over at the UNESCO-UNEVOC forum, initiatives to create a new network at LinkedIn were not well received. Instead, leadership of the team within the forum, by focusing on various concepts, knowledge management and valuing occupational classification according to universities is put on the table. The debate is open, but operationalization is the main issue still being looked into. At times, the need for leadership can be questioned. Operation can lead to storming or indifference. Organisational Behaviour as a discipline can be slow to change due to the interest of different actors. I think a leadership team for the forum which inculcates diversity can set the president.


    Lul Admasachew

Leave a Reply