Improving leadership diversity: Five lessons from two women’s leadership programmes, Dr Kate Chhatwal

Improving leadership diversity: Five lessons from two women’s leadership programmes, shared by Dr Kate Chhatwal, Director of Southwark Teaching School Alliance

In 2016 Southwark Teaching School Alliance won an award from the NCTL Leadership Equality and Diversity Fund for two programmes exclusively for female leaders, which we ran in collaboration with United Learning and the Gipsy Hill Federation. The programmes are a response to the historic underrepresentation of women in headship and executive leadership[1], seeking to unlock talent that could help meet the demand for more great leaders and ensure every child goes to a school led by a great headteacher. We will run them again in 2017/18.

The programmes

Our two programmes – Headship Beyond One School, for serving heads and executive heads, and Senior Leadership Development for Women, for those on their journey to headship – tackled some of the barriers that can hold women back. A central theme was how it is possible for women to lead in a way that is both consistent with their values, and compatible with the other demands they might face, like raising a young family. Participants were given the opportunity not only to hear from successful female leaders and experts, but also to observe for themselves by shadowing female heads and executive heads. Together with their peers and coaches, they also reflected on how to apply their learning to their own leadership practice.

The impact

Almost one-third of the heads and executive heads on Headship Beyond One School have secured promotions or taken on system-leadership roles since joining the programme 6 months ago. Among Senior Leadership Development for Women participants, almost one-quarter have been appointed to their first substantive headships, with many more securing promotions or taking on additional responsibilities that move them closer to headship.

While evaluation was positive about all aspects of the programmes, it is clear their real power was in the impact they had on the mindsets of the women who participated. As one participant commented:

This has been the best programme I have been on throughout my career and I am so grateful to you. It has been wonderful to be with so many inspiring female leaders and the words of advice and modelling from others has had a profound effect on me. I have always been affected by imposter syndrome and even when I got my new post all I thought was, ‘why me?’ Thanks to your programme, there has been a tangible shift of my mindset to ‘why not me?‘

The lessons

So what have we learned that we would share with others looking to develop similar programmes? There are five.

  1. The power of women only

While the content of our programmes wasn’t significantly different from that you would find on any leadership course, the fact that it took place in a “safe” female-only space changed considerably the way participants experienced it. Compared to working in a mixed group, they felt more able to share and address the vulnerabilities that might otherwise have held them back, leading to deeper and more transformative learning. Being surrounded by women as both fellow participants, programme leads and speakers enabled those on the course to identify role models and peers who they felt were like them. They were inspired and empowered by the fact that the women they met had successfully overcome doubts and challenges that they were now facing and left feeling it was possible to do this for themselves.


  1. Word of mouth and the “tap on the shoulder” are your most powerful recruitment tools

There is plenty of evidence to back the stereotype that men are more likely to put themselves forward than women, so – taking the lead from research by Dr Karen Edge – we adopted a “tap on the shoulder” tactic. This meant directly approaching women we thought would benefit – while taking care to mitigate the unconscious bias in all of us that generally leads to recruiters selecting people who are most like them. At the end of the first cohort we have a diverse set of ambassadors for the programmes, who are in turn tapping their own colleagues and staff on the shoulder for cohort two.


  1. Great inputs are valuable; but time to reflect and share is really precious

Most of our face-to-face sessions were two hours (and more like 90 minutes by the time everyone arrived, engaged and grabbed a coffee). The temptation always is to fill every moment with input, to cram in as much as possible. What we learned was that, especially for our Headship Beyond One School group, having a shorter input to provide stimulus before allowing the group to explore the topic in depth, drawing on their own experiences and working together to problem-solve, was valued most of all. It was vital in enabling participants to get to the “so what?” that would enable them to decipher what an issue meant for them and what they would do as a result.


  1. Set the tone from the start and find ways to accelerate trust- and relationship-building

We decided at the outset that we wanted participants to feel safe but not comfortable, and willing to be open and honest with each other. This tone was set from the outset with an initial activity designed to take the women straight out of their comfort zone by talking in real depth about who they were. This both accelerated trusts and relationship-building, while laying useful foundations for subsequent work exploring the values that made participants tick as a leader. Having heard from other similar programmes, next year we will be introducing an early residential to further accelerate this process.


  1. Be open and responsive to the needs of the group

It can be a scary thing as an organiser to go into a programme without every aspect of the curriculum and every speaker pinned down. Certainly that was the approach we took, which made a bit of a nonsense of the self-evaluations participants did against the headteacher standards – because we hadn’t allowed ourselves enough flexibility to fully respond to the specific needs that emerged. This is definitely something we’ll change next year, using those self-evaluations and the residential to really get to know our participants and what specifically they need to develop and succeed.

Not rocket science

If none of this sounds like rocket science, that’s because it’s not! Many of the lessons could be applied to any development programme, regardless of the audience.

My hope is that the simplicity of women’s leadership development programmes will lead to more being offered across the country, so that latent female leadership talent is once and for all unlocked, and every child and young person can go to a school steered by a great head/executive head/CEO, regardless of gender.

Dr Kate Chhatwal is Director of Southwark Teaching School Alliance and Co-Founder of the Leading Women’s Alliance. More information and contact details can be found on the Southwark Teaching School Alliance website.


[1] School Workforce Census data reveals that in 2015 only 72% of primary and 39% of secondary headteachers were women. This compares to 86% and 64% of teachers respectively. Moreover, those figures have barely changed in the five years that data has been collected. Worse still, research by Dr Kay Fuller (2016) found that between 2001 and 2015 the proportion of female secondary heads in Southwark fell by 14 percentage points, even as it increased slightly elsewhere in London and nationally. Similarly, while 66% of all headteachers in England in 2014 were women, only 56% of executive headteachers were female, according to research by NFER, The Future Leaders Trust and the National Governors’ Association. The Southwark picture is consistent with this finding.