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International Women’s Day 2024: What it means for our trust, and for the education sector

International Women’s Day is a global, annual event which celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. It is also a day which enables us to honour women of past, present and future generations, as we forge out a greater path for equality for everyone.

This year’s theme is Inspire Inclusion, with the aim of inspiring others to understand and value women’s inclusion, as well as ensuring that women themselves are encouraged to be included through a sense of belonging, relevance, and empowerment. These are all themes which are extremely pertinent for those working in the education sector and are values that Ormiston holds centrally.

To mark International Women’s Day this year, I was fortunate enough to represent Ormiston at the Women in Leadership Conference, held by the Queen Street Group (QSG). The themes of the day focused specifically on investing in women and accelerating progress by highlighting and tackling economic disempowerment.

Underpinning discussions throughout the day was the main headline that women are still unrepresented in senior leadership positions within education, despite making up a large proportion of the workforce. Whilst great strides have been taken in recent years to change this across our sector, and within our Trust in particular we are fortunate to benefit from many outstanding female school leaders, directors and members of our executive team, there is of course a great deal more to be done.

The statistics here are stark, with women holding 70% of the jobs available overall within the education sector, yet only making up 40% of secondary school principals and 43% of the chief executives of academy trusts in England currently. When looking at academy trusts with more than 15 schools, this percentage reduces to only 31% of female leaders at the helm. In primary leadership, the area I am proud to lead as Director of Primary for Ormiston, the picture is far more encouraging. 74% of principals in the sector are female, but this does come with the caveat that 85% of the primary school workforce is female overall.

Interestingly, the largest group currently leaving teaching are females aged between 30 – 39 years old. With three out of four mothers saying it no-longer makes financial sense to work, this provides a clear focus area for schools and Trusts to invest their retention and recruitment efforts towards. At Ormiston, we are constantly looking at ways to provide more flexible working options for those with families, as well as creating more inclusive workspaces. It’s essential that the sectors adapt and evolves with the workforce in order to not only retain the brilliant female talent we currently have, but so that we are also realising the potential talent that unfortunately is so often still waiting to be unlocked.

The education sector is certainly not alone with female underrepresentation, with females making up 9 in every 25 MPs, and only 9% of chief executives of FTSE 350 companies as just two examples. However, as education practitioners we owe it to our work force, and the future generations of pupils we are teaching now, to create a step-change.

The first step in the journey is awareness, and this is especially the case for women. Throughout the discussions at the conference, it was clear that a first step in the equality journey is acknowledgement at a personal, professional and organisational level. Women being championed, supported and mentored really matters, and within Ormiston this is an approach we are investing a lot of time in, particularly as part of our Trust mantra that we can achieve more, when working together.

The event provided a brilliant opportunity to hear first-hand stories of inspirational leaders within our sector, as they shared their career journeys, and gave reflections on their setbacks, and how these had shaped their careers. Awareness and open dialogue matters, and women need to be more open with each other about their experiences so that we can support each other and acknowledge the importance of being overt in our leadership journey and capacity.

The second reflection I took from the day was the importance of storytelling in a professional persona, which was a session I participated in with some excellent learnings to be shared. The session prompted us to think deeply about our professional persona, how we projected this to others and the impact this can have on our careers. We were tasked with planning and delivering a short introduction about ourselves. These were then evaluated, with feedback on improvements and key information which had been left out.

The conclusion was that often, women do not proactively sell their skills and expertise as openly as others do. Of course, this is a generalisation, but it certainly played out in my group that we undersold ourselves in the information we shared, and also at times in the way we presented ourselves.

This provided a clear tool that we can all reflect on, and I challenge each and every one of you, and all of my colleagues, to really consider – are we championing ourselves? We can certainly all do more of this, but to supercharge these efforts it is important that schools, academy trusts and education organisations provide all colleagues with clear opportunities, platforms and structures for colleagues to be championed as daily routine.

My experiences at the conferences I have attended have certainly helped me on a personal and professional level, and I’ve already really valued the opportunity to share with colleagues within my Trust, including members of our executive leadership team, these learnings. Feeling not just included, but empowered, really matters for our profession, within our organisations, and most importantly for the children we serve.

If we want to effect change for the children and communities we support, we need to be the change makers ourselves. The first step being to take some time this International Women’s Day to reflect on how we are empowering and championing our personal achievements and potential, as well as making a greater effort to lift up those around us too.

By Rebecca Bierton

Rebecca Bierton is Primary Director for Ormiston Academies Trust.