Managing to Lead: Women Managers in the Further Education Sector

Managing to Lead: Women Managers in the Further Education Sector

Managing to Lead: Women Managers in the Further Education sector.

Farzana Shain

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Sussex at Brighton, September 2 - 5 1999


This paper explores the relationship between gender and management in the recently incorporated Further Education (FE) sector with specific reference to the experiences of women managers. Six years on from incorporation, funding constraints coupled with increased workloads and decreased pay have placed considerable strain on the FE sector in terms of its industrial relations (Burchill 1998) Low staff moral amid widespread allegations of bullying, sleaze and serious financial mismanagement have led to calls for greater accountability within the system (Hodge 1998). This comes at a time when over half of colleges are reported to be operating at a loss with 21 % considered to be ’financially weak’ (FEFC Council News 6 October 1997, no 41).

Given its multiple restructuring along market and managerial lines essentially on the principle of ‘more for less’, FE shares much in common with public sector elsewhere in the UK and global economy (Ethworthy and Halford 1999) However, what distinguishes FE from other sectors is the widespread exodus of staff from the sector with over a fifth of the teaching workforce being made redundant or retiring early since colleges left local authority control in 1993 (TES). This has been accompanied by a 32% turnover in Principals between 1993-96 following a wave post incorporation retirements (FEFC 1998). That a greater number of women should be recruited to management positions (Stott and Lawson 1997) at this time, raises questions about what this means for issues of gender, work and organisation in FE. For example, are new organisational spaces being created for women that facilitate and even validate women’s preferred styles of management (Newman 1994)? Or is FE being re-masculinsed with women concentrated primarily in middle management carrying the burden of transformation in the sector (Pritchard et al 1998)? Or are we witnessing an identity shift with women adopting more masculine approach to work (Yeatman 1995; Whitehead 1998).

It is not possible to answer these questions in their full complexity from within such a small scale project because there a larger economic and social processes that need to be analysed. However, by drawing on data collected as part of wider ESRC funded project, Changing Teaching and Managerial Cultures in FE (CTMC), this paper offers a contribution to a small but growing debate focusing on the relationship between gender, management and organisational cultures within FE (Pritchard, Deem and Ozga 1998; Whitehead 1998; Cole 1998; Deem and Ozga 1996a&b. The CTMC project is concerned with the impact of the 1992 Further and Higher (FHE) Act on the local and institutional level of FE through a case study of five colleges. Specifically, the research seeks to understand the way that work and identity are being re-shaped through processes of incorporation and marketisation in this sector. This particular paper takes an in-depth look at the accounts of 23 white ‘middle’ and ‘senior’ managers and explores conceptions of work and identity in the post-incorporated FE sector. It builds on earlier work (Gleeson and Shain 1999a &b) that looks more generally at new and changing managerial roles within the FE sector. Throughout the paper the term senior manager is used to refer to those operating at executive level on senior management teams or groups and includes vice principals and principals. The term middle manager is employed to denote those who occupy a broad range of positions termed variously within their institutions as programme sector or school head, curriculum/programme leaders, managers and developers and cross-college co-ordinators whose work often involves a combination of management and teaching. Before moving on the consider the implications of this gender re-ordering (Pritchard, Deem and Ozga 1998), at the local level in the further Education sector, it would be useful to briefly outline the policy context that has given rise to it.

The changing policy context of FE

Further Education is large sector catering for over 4 million students and employing over 220,000 staff (FEFC 1998a&b). The 1992 FHE Act (the framework of which was laid in the 1988 Education Reform Act) brought about a number of system changes. Underpinned by notions of economic rationalism and competitive individualism these changes have characterised much of educational policy reform over the last two decades and effectively ‘marketised’ education (see Avis et al 1996).

Specifically the 1992 FHE Act reduced the power and control of LEAs by granting colleges their independent corporate status with effect from April 1993. Colleges of FE were reconstituted as autonomous education and training enterprises run by non-elected governing bodies with a dominant (50%) business membership[1]

The Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) a government quango was set up to administer funds through a new funding mechanism based on the ‘more for less’ principle and to ensure the ‘adequacy and sufficiency’ of provision to the sector.

Independence from local authority control has also led to a re-designation of roles and responsibilities with colleges taking liability for systems and functions such as finance and personnel previously the domain of the local authority. As senior management teams become increasingly pre-occupied with such issues as finance and the (re-)definition and communication of strategic aims and objectives to staff on a regular basis, other duties including the day to day management of people, budget control, income generation and their associated stresses and pressures have been ‘pushed further down the line’ (Watkins 1993) to the ‘bufferzone’ of middle management (Gleeson and Shain 1999a; Ozga and Walker 1999). This ambiguous territory involves the mediation of tensions and conflicts in the FE workplace in an environment that is characterised by rapid and unpredictable change and uncertainty. New funding arrangements have also intensified competition between colleges schools and other providers encouraging College management teams to pay attention to the physical and corporate appeal of their institutions in an attempt to attract potential students. Cost-cutting, delayering and reorganisation mean that self-regulation and the ‘management of insecurity’ (Bourdieu 1998) has become an integral feature of the FE work environment.

As argued elsewhere (see Shain and Gleeson 1999) this restructuring of FE education along market and managerial lines has much to do with wider educational reform and sustained attack on teacher professionalism based on conservative government’s low trust model of accountability and continues through to New Labour’s consensual ‘third way’. While this is high on the rhetoric of inclusivity, partnership and social justice, it maintains a commitment to a fiscally driven reform agenda in FE. Managerial reform of FE through the discourses of Total Quality and Human Resources Management has brought the discipline of the market into the workplace and greatly increased the regulation and intensification of education work (Esland 1996). It has also created a ‘performance’ culture in which certain measurable objectives (for example, recruitment targets and retention rates) that are underpinned by the values of competitiveness and efficiency and economy come to define the ‘business of FE’ (Ainley and Bailey). The implications of this for management is that it leads to a ‘performative management culture’ (see Kerfoot and Knights 1993; duGay 1996) that rewards managers who ‘get things done’ or who ‘carry off certain objectives’ above experience, age, seniority gender or ethnicity. However, far from being gender-neutral this is a culture that Halford, Savage and Witz (1997) have argued ‘depends on a particular configuration of relationships between home and work which valorises the independent, lone individual with no other commitments. This has the de facto effect of making it difficult for people, especially women, who value other aspects of their lives or who have domestic responsibilities they do not wish to or are not able to avoid, from playing a leading role in the organisations concerned’(pp264-265). It is against this background that the recent challenge to men’s numerical dominance in FE management needs to be analysed.

Changing management cultures - women at the top?

According to a survey carried out by FEDA (Stott and Lawson 1997), more women than men (554: 410) have been recruited into management positions since 1993. The survey sampled 3,000 managers in over 250 of 452 FE colleges in England and Wales. At the end of 1997 there were 81 women principals 17% of Principals compared to just 3% in 1990. This compares favourably with wider figures on women in employment that indicate just 4 % of women in England and Wales reach senior executive position and 5 % in European Union countries (Davidson 1997:10). Such figures also represent a challenge to men’s historical numerical dominance in FE management (see Pritchard et al 1998 for a discussion). However, women continue to constitute the majority of the workforce in FE as is the case in both primary and secondary education where men outnumber women in senior positions in a predominantly female workforce. In FE, it also the case that women are found predominantly in the lower levels of middle management (4th tier and below) where they comprise 50-60% of this level of the workforce compared with under 20% at the very top (FEDA 1997). There are number of competing interpretations of what this changing statistical picture signals for gender relations, management and organisational cultures in further education.

Whitehead (1996; 1998; Kerfoot and Whitehead 1998) suggests that the FE environment that women enter into as managers has been re-masculinised and is characterised by an insecure environment that reinforces and validates men’s sense of having to become more competitive. This aggressive and competitive masculinity (a ‘boys’ own’ culture) presents a challenge to an earlier FE environment that was marked by a ‘benign liberal paternalism’ (Kerfoot and Whitehead 1998:437). This new instrumental and competitive arena privileges aggressive behaviours that are indulged in predominantly by men. Women are not exempt from this culture but in order to succeed they must reconstruct themselves in a masculinised fashion. Whithead (1998) contends that like many men, women are also being seduced by the existential pull of management. In the search for ontological security he argues that work is beginning to replace other forms of security and identity found more traditionally in family and home for these women.

The competitive and instrumental arena that Whitehead refers to, has similarities with the ‘competitive’ organisational culture that Newman (1994) sees as a feature of the new public management of the public sector. Drawing on imagery of how the business world works, this competitive organisational culture privileges cut-throat, macho or ‘cowboy’ styles of working. Newman argues, ‘It is as if the unlocking of the shackles of bureaucratic constraints had at last allowed managers to become ‘real men’ operating in the ‘real world’ of the market place, and released from the second-class status of public sector functionaries’ (Newman 1994:p194).

For Newman the public sector also contains another variant that is developing greater salience in the public sector as it recovers from the impoverishment of the Thatcher years and attempts to rebuild cultures delivering quality services. This model ‘transformational culture’ is primarily concerned with the empowerment of staff. Within this organisational culture leaders are expected to communicate missions and visions. Newman argues that the emphasis on cultural change ‘offers the possibility of new ways of doing things, and perhaps offers new organisational space for women. There is a recognition of the need to change the values and styles of management with a greater emphasis on the ‘soft skills; (communicating with, staff and customers) at which women excel (ibid, p196)

For Pritchard, Deem and Ozga (1998) however, it is the concentration women at the lower levels of middle management especially as programme or curriculum managers that is of significance. Due to the multiple restructuring against the background of funding constraints they suggest that women could be argued to be more vulnerable to ‘carrying the burden’ of transformation as they engage in both the tasks of teaching and management. Drawing on the work of Yeatman (1995) and Casey (1995,6) and Ozga and Deem (1996a &b) they suggest that processes of cultural change are currently in train in the tertiary sector that contain both progressive and inclusive elements and apparently coincide with feminist agendas and with women’s preferred styles of management; but, also challenge women’s principles by implicating them in corporate managerialist and economic rationalist led policy making.

Cole (1998) argues that the decline in traditional craft industries and the ascendance of the service sector is one possible explanation for the increasing participation of women in further education both as students and staff. This shift was occurring prior to incorporation but was given further impetus through incorporation when colleges were pushed to go for growth. This has encouraged colleges to employ more women on service industry related courses opening up further opportunities for them to aim towards management positions. Based on current trends in the sector and with the younger profile of women senior managers in mind, she argues women leaving their posts are highly likely to be replaced by other women creating a ‘snowballing’ effect.

In the section which follows I draw on data from the CTMC project to explore some of these various interpretations. I focus primarily on issues how women manage and are seen to manage (particularly at the higher levels of their organisations) and the concept of ‘career planning’. These areas are critical in terms of understanding whether there has been a re-masculinsation of the FE work environment or whether the increase in senior women in management signals a shift towards more feminised or transformational management styles that present a challenge the ‘boy’s own culture’ that that is said to exist in the sector (Kerfoot and Whitehead 1998). The second area of ‘career’ is important because if women are beginning to engage in planning their careers and are actively seeking further promotion this may also signal an identity shift towards a more masculinsed approach to their work.

Women managing to lead?

As stated earlier, this paper draws on the accounts of 23 middle and senior managers Fieldwork was conducted between January 1997 and 1998 during the critical transition from Conservative to New Labour control of education. In all, over 150 interviews were conducted with key individuals across 5 FE institutions including governors, teachers, support staff and union representatives in addition to senior and middle managers. The colleges were selected from 3 counties across middle England. They included 2 large colleges one of which was inner city location two mid-size colleges in a town centre and suburban setting the fifth institution was a small sixth from college was situated in a small rural town community. This paper draws primarily though not exclusively on the accounts of 23 women managers.

Semi-structured interviews were conducted with all 10 senior managers (including 2 principals and 1 vice-principal) in post at the time of interviewing. Thirteen academic middle managers were selected from a wider sample of middle managers. All were white which is not unrepresentative of the wider picture in FE (e.g. 98% of FEDA respondents were white). Unlike the women interviewed by Deem and Ozga (1996a and b) in their study of feminist academic managers in F/HE the women in the CTMC project held a range of political views and opinions. The women interviewed ranged from those effectively downplayed or denied the sexism of the system and their colleagues (Marshall 1993) ( eg ‘I’ve only ever been a women; I don’t know what it’s like to be a man’) to those who saw gender as a fundamental organising principle in their work and spoke of sexualisation and eroticisation of their positions within the organisations (Hearn and Parkin 1991) ( eg ‘the behaviour of my male colleagues borders on harassment [it’s] the way they look at my body and what I wear; the way I walk, the way I move’)

Gender, management and organisational cultures - women at the very top.

At the time of conducting the research there had been considerable turnover in senior personnel in all the colleges and the majority of senior managers interviewed were relatively new to their current positions. Four out of the five colleges had appointed new principals during the period 1995-7; two of these were women. The majority of men and women mangers characterised their own styles as ‘participative’, ‘open’ ‘consultative’ but an analysis of the way management styles are viewed by others presents a more revealing picture of the changing nature of the relationship between gender, management and organisational cultures. An interesting theme emerging from data analysis was that in the comparison of management styles of old and new guard of principals, the previous regime was characterised in highly masculine terms. Though there were variations, the terms overwhelmingly used to described two of the out-going principals and one outgoing vice-principal (all men) included - ‘brutal’, ‘aggressive’ ‘unwilling to listen’, distant’; bombastic:

[the teachers] didn’t trust him, didn’t like him; he didn’t like them, he told them so. He didn’t go to speak with them. ……. There was a fear. [He] would storm around the place if he was angry and people would be threatened. He threatened me a number of times. ‘If I ever did that again you’ll see what reference you’ll get from me’. Oh [..] some wonderful stuff ; he knew I wanted to move on. (Monica; middle manager)