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Female principals in South Africa: the dynamics that get in the way of success

Women who lead schools must deal with internal and external stresses. Burlingham/Shutterstock

There are two dominant narratives in research about female principals and educational leadership. The first centres on women’s struggles in accessing leadership positions – internal and external. The second relates to what women must deal with in retaining those positions.

Both narratives are underscored by a common theme: that leadership positions in schools are male dominated. What’s missing is women principals’ identities as leaders in relation to race, culture, ethnicity, religion, class, and sexuality.

Women are under-represented in school leadership positions. This is despite significant shifts towards gender equity over the past two decades. Female teachers make up about 68% of the country’s teaching force. But only 36% of principals are women.

In my study I set out to understand and explore the lived experiences and stories of female principals, rather than simply looking at their perceived barriers and challenges.

My findings suggest that female principals in South Africa follow very different routes in pursuit of leadership positions. Their own identities as leaders are both informed and inhibited by a range of complex interrelated factors. To tackle the issues they deal with, changes are necessary at the policy level – and women educational leaders also need to shift parameters and perceptions, both in relation to pre-existing traditional, patriarchal norms as well as their own autonomy and agency.

A leadership identity

The study focused on six female principals. All had been teachers for at least 20 years. They taught at the same schools where they were appointed as principals. None had ever worked for a woman principal before.

The women told me they’d all fulfilled leadership responsibilities before being appointed to the top job. And all maintained that they would not have been considered for their positions without their male predecessors’ endorsement.

The most significant finding was that all the principals I interviewed expressed high levels of self doubt. They all considered themselves more than qualified and deserving of their positions. And they reported feeling comfortable in attending to academic and administrative matters.

But they retreated from certain parts of their jobs once appointed. For instance, they avoided managing conflict among staff. They delegated disciplinary responsibilities to male teachers. They chose not to take the lead in financial management of the school. It is unclear whether this practice is common in other professions. What we do know is that schools are deeply embedded in the communities in which they are located, and often adopt and emulate the same normative practices of that particular communities.

There are many complex reasons for this. One is that it is not possible to disconnect leadership practices from context, social structures and power relations including embedded norms and functions associated with gender.

Most of the principals reported tensions and feelings of displacement – a sense of non-belonging and uncertainty – in their positions, and in their relationships with both male and female colleagues. Two reported very poor relationships with female colleagues, in particular and three told me that they were considering resigning. This echoes existing research about how many women leave educational leadership positions prematurely.

Internal factors

Research typically identifies a number of external factors that preclude women from occupying leadership positions. These include family and home responsibilities, working conditions and sex discrimination, as well as a lack of support from both family and colleagues.

But, as my study shows, the influence of internal factors, such as poor self-confidence, can’t be discounted.

None of the six women reported a lack of support or pride from family members. But all of them reported feelings of guilt in not “making enough time for family”.

These findings correlate with other international studies on educational leadership which maintain that the reason female principals are under-represented has less to do with external barriers and discrimination than it does with women’s understanding of themselves.

So it might be a lack of leadership identity which inhibits women, rather than specific barriers which hold them back. This means that while they might be seen as “disrupting” traditional male spaces, they do not (yet) have a leadership identity which allows them to believe in and assert their own capacity as leaders.

To change this, policies will need to change. No policy about principals in South Africa gives attention to the complexity of the challenges they face. Rather, leadership is approached as a set of pre-determined key performance indicators. Policies need to be designed in a way that allows women to recognise their experiences.

Women have a role to play here, too. They are the only ones who can shift parameters and perceptions. This is true in relation to pre-existing traditional, patriarchal norms as well as their own autonomy and agency. While external barriers do exist and must be tackled, women principals should also begin to presume that they are equal to men. They deserve to be in leadership positions. There’s no need to wait for permission.

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