The Research Hub

An Interview with Dr Kay Fuller

University of Nottingham


Can you please outline your research interests?

Most of my research is connected to women and gender in educational leadership. Increasingly that has shifted from secondary to include primary school leadership. It also incorporates an interest in race and religion and their intersections with sex and gender. I have included men in my research as I do not see gendered behaviours as fixed to biological sex.

I also research education policy enactment. That means I have interviewed long serving headteachers about their implementation of various education policies over the years.

Why did you make the decision to leave teaching for a career in academia?

I reached a point in my deputy headship and doctoral studies where I thought something had to give… I decided researching gender and leadership was more important to me than doing senior leadership and going on to be a headteacher. I found it difficult to manage the demands of deputy headship in a school in challenging circumstances with the demands of doctoral study. However, since moving to higher education I have discovered that people manage those competing demands all the time to complete their PhDs and EdDs. I admire their dedication.


Are women equally represented in educational leadership?

This looks like a yes/no answer but actually it is much more complicated than that. Women dominate in primary school leadership and it appears that men are underrepresented. However, men are disproportionately represented in headship in the primary phase if you look at the proportions of women and men in the primary school teaching workforce.

In secondary schools women are definitely underrepresented in headship.

In higher education women are underrepresented in the professoriate and academic leadership. Very few Vice Chancellors are women.

However, I would also argue we should look at the other protected characteristics identified in the Equality Act (2010). Black and Global Majority women (and men) are massively underrepresented in educational leadership.


What are the barriers to women when they consider entering educational leadership?

In brief, there are barriers at multiple levels.

Firstly, there are societal barriers that encourage women to fulfil particular socio-cultural roles in terms of care for families i.e. childcare, domestic arrangements, care of sick and disabled family members and care of elders. These stereotypes are perpetuated in our society. We need to ensure men take paternity leave; that they are encouraged to put the family first too when thinking about the timing of meetings and needing flexible working hours and/or spaces.

The workforce is segregated by sex in women taking jobs in caring, cashiering, catering, cleaning and clerical work. I suspect women dominate in these areas of work in schools, colleges and universities. They certainly dominate in non-teaching and support roles in schools.

Secondly, there are organisational barriers that might consist of rigid hierarchical management structures traditionally associated with men’s ways of working. Senior posts are largely filled by white heterosexual men. Ways of working might include a highly masculinist approach using power to control and direct others rather than a feminist approach that uses power to empower. Of course, women are equally capable of working in authoritarian ways, and there might be times when that is appropriate (in a crisis for example). Men are equally capable of working in feminist ways that demonstrate they value relationships and collaborative and consultative ways of working. Most people probably use a mixture of both. The important thing is to think about it; to reflect on what is an appropriate way of working with learners and colleagues that ensures they can thrive not just survive in the education system.

The recruitment, selection and promotion processes can create barriers. Selection panels might not be particularly well-educated in matters of equality and diversity. As an initial teacher educator selecting beginning teachers I assumed each candidate could gain a place on our course. I looked for the reasons why they were not suitable not for reasons why they were. I believe this helped me to overcome my own unconscious biases.

Thirdly, there are individual barriers that include women not wanting to take on leadership roles. Much research shows women did not plan to become headteachers; but they took opportunities that came their way. We need excellent teachers in classrooms so need to find ways to value professional knowledge and experience that does not require everyone to take on formal leadership roles. Teachers are able to contribute to decision-making and leadership in multiple ways.

Other individual barriers include women’s roles in the family, community and wider society. So we have come full circle to see that individual barriers might be internalised societal barriers. Individual barriers can be mitigated or exacerbated by organisational barriers. Often school leaders are good at recognising the importance of attending a family event (for women and men) but they might also arrange for additional staff training activities as twilight sessions that precludes some from attending.


How have you and your colleagues decided to deal with the barriers to educational leadership?

It depends on the organisation. In my current workplace I find it is possible to discuss gender issues openly. In previous workplaces it has been more difficult. I have experienced sex discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace. I have not always handled such things particularly well. That is why legislation and policies are so important.

How do you think that schools can support women in their career progression?

Dialogue is vital. What one woman finds supportive another will find patronising! So asking what individuals need and value is vital. That means women and men of course.

Should this issue be addressed in teacher training? How would you do so?

All matters of equality and diversity should be addressed in teacher education. An understanding of how gender, sexual, racial, religious and other diversity impacts on learning for children, young people and adult learners underpinned my work as teacher, Head of English, deputy headteacher, initial teacher educator and currently as an associate professor of educational leadership. So I would and do teach about it.

As an English teacher I am accustomed to teaching the deconstruction of literary and media texts. I am accustomed to thinking about how we use language. I am particularly irritated by the overuse and misuse of ‘guys’ as a collective noun to address groups of girls and women. But that’s just my bugbear! It seems plenty of girls and women do not mind…

What advice would you give to our teachers reading this article, who are considering taking the next step into leadership, but are unsure where to start?

Identify who does leadership in school and beyond. Talk to people who enjoy doing leadership at multiple levels in formal and informal roles. The regional networks of women leading in education funded by the DfE and the social media based #WomenEd networks are good places to start!

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