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Insight 15/08/2022

Women in education leadership

Evidence increasingly suggests a link between good female school leaders and positive learning outcomes, yet women remain severely underrepresented in school leadership. To date, this has not been an easy challenge for education policymakers to address. EDT’s transformational model of girls’ education recognises the need for a combination of approaches to increase the quality of teaching and learning for all children. This includes directing attention to gender within school leadership.

Part of EDT’s core purpose is to improve learning outcomes for all,  by improving the quality of   teaching  and the quality of education leadership to provide equitable professional development opportunities for educators This includes creating pathways for women teachers into leadership positions. In all our school leadership programmes, we work to support women into school leadership. Our work in Ethiopia, Rwanda , Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone   supports school system leaders  to increase the number of women who are competent and confident leaders of learning  In order to chieve this it is necessary to  tackle the multifaceted barriers that women face  and providing the support female leaders need to thrive.

Women are severely underrepresented in school leadership

The underrepresentation of women in school leadership is a challenge in many contexts. Globally nearly seven in ten primary and five in ten secondary school teachers are female – but women remain underrepresented in school leadership (Bergmann et al. 2022). 

In Ethiopia education statistics for 2020/2021 showed that 12% of school leaders in primary and middle schools were female, falling to just 7% at secondary level. Representation is even lower in some regions for example, there were just two female principals in the entire Somali region in 2019 (EDT 2020). 

Within the 48 countries participating in the 2018 Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), only 48% of lower secondary school leaders are female versus 68% of teachers (OECD 2000 in Bergmann et al, 2022).

What do we know about the impact of women in school leadership? 

There is little available research that focuses on the ability of women to lead in the context of education, and existing studies tend to focus on high income countries. In low- and middle-income contexts, more research is needed around gender and school leadership to identify the multiple and intersecting barriers to women’s entry into leadership positions and to inform policy in this area. But emerging research suggests a correlation between female school leaders and high performing schools:

  • Emerging insights from UNICEF’s Data Must Speak research in Laos shows that the most effective schools are twice as likely to have a female school leader than lower performing schools (UNICEF Innocenti & Ministry of Education, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, 2020).
  • Data collected as part of the PASEC-CONFEMEN standardised learning assessment in 14 Francophone African countries showed that only 22% of students attended a female-led school. Students in the sample of students in female-led primary schools had higher learning outcomes in both mathematics and reading than those in male-led schools (PASEC-CONFEMEN, 2020).
  • The midline evaluation of the Tusome programme which aimed to Improve Early Grade Learning in Kenya found that students in female-led schools have higher scores in oral reading fluency in both English and Kiswahili than students in male led schools (Freudenberger & Davis, 2017).
  • In Togo, where only around 1 in 10 primary school leaders are women, primary school exam results and promotion rates are higher for both girls and boys attending schools led by women, even when controlling for a set of contextual and geographical variables (UNICEF Innocenti, forthcoming in Bergman et al, 2022).

Research also suggests that female school leaders can create a safer, more positive learning environment for adolescent girls. Focus groups with girls in female led schools found that girls felt that female school leaders empower girls’, support their self-confidence and build aspiration. Girls also said that they felt more able to openly discuss their problems with female school leaders and that female school leaders tended to be more likely to advise girls to continue their schooling whilst addressing challenges of early marriage and gender based violence (EDT, 2020). In the 2018 TALIS female school leaders were more likely than males to report higher levels of instructional leadership, such as supporting teachers to collaborate, motivating teachers to improve their skills and making teachers feel responsible for student’s learning (OECD 2020 in Bergmann, 2022).

Gender bias in the workplace

  • 50% of women and men interviewed across 75 countries say that men make better political leaders than women
  • 40% feel that men make better business executives
  • 50% of men agree that men have more right to a job than women

Source: UNDP analysis of World Values Survey Data Wave 5 – 7 in a gender social norms index. In UNDP (2020) Tackling Social Norms. A game changer for gender inequalities

Barriers and challenges faced by women entering leadership roles

In order to address the underlying barriers to women entering school leadership we need to understand the wider barriers to female leadership that are embedded within layers of social influence and norms. These can be characterised as:

  • Individual
  • Interpersonal
  • Community
  • Structural.

In many contexts entrenched gender stereotypes and normative beliefs undervalue women’s capacities and potential contributions and continue to pose significant barriers to women’s aspirations and achievements. Some of these beliefs are captured in data from the Global World Values Survey which shows the bias that exist in views on women’s work and leadership. 

At the institutional or structural level, the career path from teacher to school leaders can disproportionately disadvantage women. While policy may exist, the commitment of officials to implementing pro-women policies is often low, particularly in recruitment and promotion. 

Women are often disadvantaged in systems where promotion to leadership positions is based on years of service or patronage rather than performance, and where there is a lack of transparency in the promotion process. Women are also likely to have access to residential training and higher education courses than men (Naylor et al, 2019). In Ethiopia. Wakshum (2014) found that the selection criteria for leadership positions (including education qualifications, work experience and political participation) tended to be misapplied or off putting. In Ethiopia, for example, a school leader is required to hold a degree – but only 32% of teachers who held a degree in 2018/2019 are female.  

Research with women leaders in Ethiopia found that women experienced a range of barriers to entering leadership positions. These include the challenge of the double burden where women are expected to carry the bulk of the responsibility within the home and childcare. Women also described a lack of confidence compared to male colleagues in their suitability for senior positions (EMAH, 2022).

Taking action: an evidence-based approach to enabling women in leadership

Multifaceted action is needed to tackle these barriers, develop women leaders and tackle adverse norms. Wakshum (2014) highlights the need for both policy and organisational strategy that promotes female participation and action and commitment from stakeholders and officials to implementing them in their schools and communities.

Supportive institutions: A first step in creating supportive workplace structures is formal institutional change. Governments need to develop recruitment, selection and promotion processes that are based on transparent competencies required for the effective performance of the role – including things like leading change, collaborative leadership and data analysis (Naylor et al, 2019). The introduction of quotas can enable women to access leadership positions, too (O’Neil et al, 2015). Recruitment in EDT programmes for school leaders in Rwanda and Kenya is based both on the performance of their school as well as school leaders coaching skills, approach to inclusive education and drive for school improvement (Naylor et al, 2019).  

Our Building Learning Foundations (BLF) programme is working closely with the Ministry of Education and Rwanda Education Board (REB) to develop a pathway into leadership for female teachers in lower-primary schools. While the majority of lower-primary classroom teachers in Rwanda are female, school leadership is predominantly male and BLF is committed to understanding and addressing the systemic and societal norms causing this imbalance. 

Together they have developed the new position of School Subject Leaders (SSLs) and a clear merit-based recruitment system for the role. The team was successful in ensuring that of the initial cohort to complete the training, 72% of teachers selected as SSLs are female. 

Accessible professional development: Opportunities to gain technical expertise and experience is also important. School leadership training must be accessible for women. Residential training course can be harder for women to access and so training delivered in other ways, such as during the school day or virtually, is vital.  

BLF has developed a range of professional development activities for new and aspiring SSLs. This support includes face-to-face training, mentoring, study materials and a SIM card with data connection to facilitate participation in online communities of practice. Skills that SSLs develop through this support include working with other teachers to improve teaching and learning, coaching colleagues, and assessing learning and teaching to improve classroom practice. 

Women in middle tier leadership positions like the SSL are an important steppingstone for female teacher career pathways. Women at this level gain valuable leadership experience acting as a mentor or coach, have the support they need to improve confidence, communication and self-advocacy and achieve a new professional qualification.  

Incentives for women: There is limited evidence on how school leadership roles can be made more attractive to women, especially in cases where taking up a leadership role involves relocation. However, there is evidence of some promising strategies used to incentivise female teachers to relocate that might also be applied to incentivising female school leaders. These include career guarantees for accompanying spouses, housing and other incentives, and provision of in-situ training (Naylor et al. 2019). 

The TARGET programme in Ethiopia aims to reform school leadership trainings and strengthen instructional leadership through continuous professional development.  

TARGET is also working with the Ethiopian Ministry of Education to develop a national strategy document informed by a national consultation process and collaboration with key stakeholders, including female leaders and those aspiring to become school leaders. The development of the strategy will consider the barriers and constraints to women moving into leadership roles and how more women can be supported into education leadership roles. Examples include recruitment regulations, new career pathways, mentoring and incentives. There is a commitment to increasing the number of women in school leadership. Over the next 12 months TARGET plans to train 500 aspiring female school leaders who will placed in model schools.   

Competency based progression and promotion: Competency frameworks create a coherent set of expectations and a transparent way to measure needs and progress in leadership skills. In Ethiopia our TARGET programme has co-created a new school leadership training programme underpinned by competency frameworks that are aligned with the Ethiopian Leadership Standards, Supervisor Standards and Inspection Guidelines. The competency framework guides progress and assessment through the training and can structure development throughout a school leadership career. 

Networks and mentoring: Women’s collective leadership and women leaders who act as role models can normalise the idea and practice of women holding power (O’Neil et al, 2015). Women can provide vital support to each other through mentoring. In Ethiopia TARGET has set up National and Regional WomenEd networks as a supportive network for women leaders.  

Men and communities engaged in transformation: Research with women in Ethiopia highlights that support from their family, and particularly support from husbands is vital (EMAH, 2022, Wakshum, 2014). Men and boys are important partners in gender equality and the development of positive norms around women working which enable more equitable divisions of care and domestic work are important as is the need to provide good quality and affordable care services.  In Zimbabwe schools leaders who participate in our instructional leadership programme as part of TEACH will identify female teachers interested in leadership. Through the development of learning teams within their schools, leaders will look for women with the potential for leadership and support them to access a training programme for middle leaders.

Evidence based programme design in Sierra Leone

In Sierra Leone EDT is working as part of a national steering committee with representatives from across the Ministry of Education, leaders of universities, teacher training colleges and teacher unions as well as UNICEF, FCDO, World Bank and Education Commission to co-design a school leadership programme.

The training programme being developed draws on Sierra Leone policy of radical inclusion to demonstrate a commitment to addressing negative attitudes and removing barriers at different stages. Accessible professional development activities will be designed to be accessible to women and the education system will support women to take on and thrive in leadership roles. This will include the development of a transparent competency-based recruitment model, deploying women leaders into suitable schools, accessible professional development activities, and the development of supportive networks that include mentoring.

Women in education leadership is one element of our holistic approach to empowering girls through quality teaching and learning – but it is not the only one. For more information on the other elements of our solution, please contact us and/or click here to visit our Girls' Education page on our website.


Bergmann, J., Alban Conto, C. and Brossard, M., (2022) Increasing Women’s Representation in School Leadership: A promising path towards improving learning. UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti, Florence, 2022

Education Development Trust (2020) Women’s Barriers to Educational Leadership in Ethiopia: Background Report and Recommendations for Target

EMAH Social Development Consulting (2022) Understanding Support and Barriers for Women Leaders in Ethiopia. U

Freudenberger, E. & Davis, J. (2017). Tusome external evaluation: Midline report. Washington, DC: Management Systems International. https://ierc-publicfiles.s3.amazonaws. com/public/resources/Tusome%20Midline%20evaluation%20 2017%20final%20report%20from%20DEC.pdf

Naylor, R, Jones, C. and Boateng, P. (2019). Strengthening the Education Workforce. Background Paper for Transforming the Education Workforce: Learning Teams for a Learning Generation. New York: Education Commission

O’Neil, T.; Plank, G.; Domingo, P. 2015. Support to women and girls’ leadership: a rapid review of the evidence. Overseas Development Institute. London

OECD. (2020). TALIS 2018 results (Volume II): Teachers and school leaders as valued professionals. https://www. content/publication/19cf08df-e

PASEC-CONFEMEN. (2020). PASEC 2019 Qualité des systèmes éducatifs en Afrique Subsaharienne Francophone: Performances et environnement de l’enseignement-apprentissage au primaire. https://www.

UNICEF Innocenti & Ministry of Education, Lao People’s Democratic Republic. (2020). School principals in highly effective schools: Who are they and which good practices do they adopt? Florence: UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti. School-principals-in-highly-effective-schools-who-are-theyand-which-good-practices-do-they-adopt.pdf

Wakshum, L. 2014. Females Participation in Educational Leadership in Secondary Schools of Ilu Aba Bora Zone. Institute of Education and Professional Studies, Jimma University

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