A case for leadership diversity

A case for leadership diversity
Date1st Nov 2020AuthorGuest AuthorCategoriesLeadership

This blog was initially published on the ASCL blog here. ASCL supports and represents senior leaders across the UK education sector.

We are in a recruitment and retention storm, yet women aged 30-39 are the largest demographic leaving the profession. If we can retain our female middle leaders and teachers, maybe we wouldn’t have to recruit? Equally, if we attract a wider field of candidates from the BAME community, we don’t have to search the world for school leaders.   

It’s prime time for recruitment, so let’s consider whether your middle and senior leadership teams are as diverse as you would like. How many women in your Senior Leadership Team (SLT)? How many people of colour? What’s the balance in terms of age, experience, flexible working, diverse thinkers: would you know about sexual orientation or disability? Does this matter?  

Of course, the only thing that matters is appointing the right person.  That’s crucial when deciding who to appoint from those you interview. But if you don’t attract more women and people of colour to apply, you may not see an application from the person you really need.

WomenEd feel strongly that headteachers and governors/trustees must think carefully about a diverse balance. Evidence from business suggests a strong correlation between a diverse organisation and improved decision making as well as attracting and retaining great leaders. The National Governance Association’s Everyone on Board campaign addresses the fact that only 4% of governors and trustees are from ethnic minorities and only 10% of governors and trustees are aged under 40. In #WomenEd’s 10%braver: Inspiring Women to Lead Education, Sameena Choudry highlights that, in 2016, only 3.1% of heads in schools had British Minority Ethnic backgrounds compared to the pupil population of 31.4% in primary and 27.9% in secondary.  Sameena shared the discrimination women of colour faced in becoming leaders, echoed by Evelyn Forde, in her account of attending ASCL’s 2019 conference.

Unless you want a SLT team who all agree with you, there’s a strong case for creating diverse leadership teams to have a broader repertoire of leadership behaviours and actions.  So, because you want to reduce inequity amongst your teams and treat people fairly, here’s what to consider.  

Leading by example

Your own commitment to increasing diversity is very important. 

  • Talk to all your staff about the importance of increasing diversity.
  • Listen to the increasing number of podcasts for how other leaders have explored these issues
  • Ask your colleagues their views on the benefits of having a diverse SLT.  
  • Check your own gender pay gap which is indicative of the balance between the roles of women and men in your organisation. If you didn’t have to do a report, then do it. Let women know you think it’s important and involve them in how to address any significant gaps.
  • Have a look at the resources and blogs from grassroots groups such as #WomenEd#BAMEed, #LGBTQ and  #DisabilityEd and organise an event or CPD session through them.  
  • Or go as far as The Football Association and implement the ‘Rooney Rule’.  Education needs to catch up with other sectors.  


The advertisement is crucial to attract a wide and diverse field. Unconscious bias in job adverts is significant. In the worst advert I ever saw, governors wanted a head with ‘gravitas’ and ‘sporting values’ – both code for a man! As well as the moral imperative, this is foolish in the grip of a recruitment crisis. Try these ideas:

  • Include a statement saying you welcome diverse teams. An example of this is to welcome applications from those looking to work flexibly. A tes article highlights that schools improve their application conversion rate across the majority of subjects if they show a willingness to be flexible: 13% in sciences!
  • The language in job adverts is important in attracting more women to apply.  Most people respond to words in an unconscious, stereotypical way. This simple gender decoder lets you load your text and it highlights stereotypically feminised and masculinised words.  Sadly, the word ‘leader’ comes up as masculinised. I’m not suggesting you change all your text to feminised words; rather ensure a balance and you will attract more women to apply.  
  • Practise blind recruitment by removing or redacting names, age, personal pronouns and qualifications before the shortlisting panel see the personal statement. Put all such details on a separate sheet to make the job less onerous. The person doing the redacting then tells the panel which applicants have all the essential requirements. Do you think the university they went to is essential?
  • Blind recruitment has limitations: however, it may be the best tool we have so far to stop what one study reported: ‘individuals with “white-sounding” names were 50 per cent more likely to reach interview stage.’ 


I hope you now have a diverse field to interview, so a few more thoughts.

  • Ensure your panel is diverse so you hear divergent views before reaching a consensus. The same goes for the students who talk with candidates or show them around. 
  • Ensure questions are ethical and fair. In #WomenEd we still hear horror stories of women asked whether they want more children or which football team they support!


We believe feedback should be offered to those unsuccessful after interview and it needs to be ethical. You want unsuccessful candidates to sing the praises of your organisation, don’t you?

  • Be constructive, say what strengths they exhibited.
  • Tell them what else you noted, for example, knowledge, experience.
  • Avoid saying they weren’t a good fit, or their personality didn’t come through: these vague phrases don’t help candidates to improve.
  • Don’t be discriminatory. In our book, Claire Cuthbert, CEO of Evolve Trust in Mansfield, was unsuccessful at her first headship interview, and feedback was that the school’s mining community would prefer a man. That wasn’t something Claire wanted to work towards!

To achieve diversity is a tough ask but it needs tackling.  Please use diversity as a lens through which to recruit new people, and this means more than the individual’s category or their name. It’s about creating an environment where leaders can be their authentic self; for this, they will repay you every day.

Vivienne Porritt is a co-founder and strategic leader of #WomenEd, as well as a leadership consultant and Vice President of the Chartered College of Teaching.

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