Women in leadership: Smashing the glass ceiling

Written by: Erika Eisele | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Despite teaching being female dominated, men remain twice as likely to hold leadership positions. Headteacher Erika Eisele considers why this is and reflects on her own experiences as a school leader

While the teaching profession is overwhelmingly female, male teachers are almost twice as likely to hold leadership positions compared to female colleagues across the sector – and at primary schools specifically.

While there may be several explanations for this, we run the risk of creating unconscious bias from an early age that positions of authority should be male, and that the potential progression for females is limited.

There seem to be a range of factors at play. According to Thornton and Bricheno (2000), who investigated gender differences in primary schools including when it comes to career perceptions, some feel that parents, pupils, other teachers, governors and headteachers tend to greet male teachers with excitement, awe, or even fear precisely because they are a relatively rare commodity in primary education – hence why they then tend to aspire to leadership roles.

Their evidence also suggests that headteachers’ workload makes promotion accessible only to those who do not have family commitments, limiting the job to mainly men and excluding working mothers.

In a 2021 report by TeacherTapp, male teachers are more than twice as likely as their female counterparts to aspire to be headteachers; 21% of male primary school teachers want to be heads compared to just 9% of female teachers.

It is important to quash these traditional stereotypes of gender roles, address the lack of female teachers with leadership aspirations, and encourage more women to consider senior roles, especially headships.

It is thought that Albert Einstein was the first to say that “success is 80% attitude and 20% skill”. This mantra has been used over the years by many personal development coaches and I believe it certainly applies to school leadership.

I was 35 when I was appointed to my first headship at Dalmain Primary School in London, and I believe much of my background and experience has been integral to my role.

At the age of three, I started playing the violin and progressed to the Royal Academy of Music. With years of early morning violin sessions, daily practice, rehearsals and an attitude of seeing failure as a platform for improvement, I developed the necessary skills that have helped me throughout my career.

Being a successful school leader should have nothing to do with being male or female, but instead it should be about your attitude and how you establish a positive working environment for staff and students.

In a busy school, knowing your skills, quietening your mind, and focusing on the end goal will help dispel any criticisms and alleviate long-standing stereotypes about what leadership “should look like”.

In my view there are several attributes of a successful primary school headteacher. As a teacher we all have a passion to inspire young minds and a commitment to ensuring every child achieves their potential. However, as you move into a leadership role this inspiration also needs to apply to school staff.

Creating a positive learning environment by fostering the appropriate skills and social abilities to enable the optimum development of everyone in the school is the key to a headteacher’s success.

Communicate a clear vision

A recognised trait of a successful school leader is clear communication of a collaborative vision. Gathering thoughts and ideas from all staff before planning your improvement strategy means everyone will understand, value and work towards shared goals.

Each day I encourage my staff to see beyond their own role. Enabling them to work outside their remit creates a greater sense of team-work and helps everyone in the school reach their vision. We must take risks but supporting each other through challenging times and establishing regular communication among colleagues makes us stronger than ever.

Be inspiring

A great headteacher will inspire their colleagues and students to take risks, take on new challenges and progress. This encouragement allows people to reach their full potential. Headteachers need to nurture a realisation in both students and teachers that potential is unlimited.

It is not enough to have an assembly to mark awareness days such as International Women’s Day or share examples of inspirational female role models in a lesson here or there. We must weave this into everyday learning and experiences, encouraging a shift in mindset.

Celebrating success

Leadership is a form of influencing. Sharing wisdom and building confidence among colleagues, particularly women, will inevitably result in more meaningful change for the next generation. A key part of this is acknowledging staff success at all levels. Pushing others forward to ensure they get recognition for their achievements while you work in the background, offering support, is an important part of the development of a successful school.

Building these foundations are key in instilling a culture of respect, admiration, and the determination to succeed, and I feel this is particularly important for my female colleagues.

I have been inspired by female leaders before – and certainly hope I can inspire others in turn – but part of the process is living your values and celebrating the success of others. At Dalmain Primary School, 75% of my senior leadership is made up of women, and I feel this is important in championing their leadership journeys to encourage others to strive for the same.

Addressing the challenges

Throughout my career, and particularly within senior leadership, I have faced challenges. The perception of my capability has been questioned and while I hadn’t experienced sexism before becoming a headteacher, my capabilities have certainly been challenged.

It was only after a very successful Ofsted inspection that Dalmain Primary School’s progress was recognised and celebrated, but of course this measure of your hard work isn’t always so quickly received.

It is important to remind yourself that whenever you are faced with criticism or doubt you should look at the bigger picture.

Trust yourself, know what is best for your community and have the courage to follow that instinct. By having a strong sense of moral purpose, courage and conviction, you can overcome anything.

The journey won’t come without resistance. Holding people to account and insisting on higher standards has been the greatest issue I’ve encountered as a female head, and I do sometimes wonder if I would get the same reaction if I was an “aspirational” male.

People also tell me that you can’t have a career and a young family, but I disagree. My maternity leave starts this summer, and I know that while I’m away my colleagues will be hungry for an opportunity to continue the positive growth of the school.

Once I’m back, I will be very mindful of balancing home life and school. It’s important to be kind to yourself. Whether it is maternity leave, a new role or transitioning into headship, you may not know everything, or indeed be perfect at all times, but it is how you deal with those feelings that matters. And it is that duty as a female leader which is key to becoming a role model for other women interested in climbing the ladder.


Building confidence and resilience helps us adapt and respond to whatever this amazing job throws at us! The last two years has certainly proved that. Only by celebrating one another’s achievements, continuing conversations throughout the months and years to come, and encouraging women to aim high, will we start to address this gender disparity, both inside and outside schools.

  • Erika Eisele is headteacher of Dalmain Primary School in south London.

Further information & resources

  • Thornton & Bricheno: Primary school teachers' careers in England and Wales: The relationship between gender, role, position and promotion aspirations, Pedagogy, Culture & Society (8:2), 2000.
  • TeacherTapp: Has behaviour changed since you started teaching? (This, and more findings…), October 2021: https://teachertapp.co.uk/whats-the-worst-weather-for-behaviour/

This material is protected by MA Education Limited copyright.
See Terms and Conditions.


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up Headteacher update Bulletin
About Us

Headteacher Update is a magazine, website, podcast and regular ebulletin dedicated to the primary school leadership team. We tackle a wide range of leadership issues, offering best practice, case studies and in-depth information, advice and guidance. Headteacher Update magazine is distributed free to approximately 20,000 primary school headteachers.

Learn more about Headteacher update


Register to receive regular updates on primary education news delivered free to your inbox.