ATA Magazine

The new thoroughfare

Removing the stop signs at the intersections of gender and educational leadership

If teaching is such a feminized profession, then why are so few women in leadership positions? This is one of the primary questions driving a new study being conducted by the University of Alberta in partnership with the Alberta Teachers’ Association, the College of Alberta School Superintendents and the Fédération des conseils scolaires francophones de l’Alberta. Funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council partnership development grant, this three-year project explores an underrepresented area of research into the experiences of women in educational leadership, family leaves, unpaid labour and career progression (Park, Lee and Budd 2019). Through the lens of intersectionality (Crenshaw 2017), the different facets that make up one singular identity, we hope to better understand the barriers at play as women navigate their teaching careers and move into educational leadership. The project addresses this multidimensional issue through the following research questions:

  • What are women's beliefs, both strengths and challenges, in regard to the role of family leaves on entry and progression in educational leadership?

  • What are women's beliefs, both strengths and challenges, in regard to the role of unpaid labour on entry and progression in educational leadership?

  • How have the new leadership quality standards and leadership certification complicated the entry into leadership for women?

  • How are the intersectionalities of gender reflected in school leadership in Alberta?

So why this research? The underrepresentation of women in educational leadership in Alberta, and across the world, is concerning for two main reasons. First, “[it] convey[s] to pupils a vision of society where it is legitimate that men occupy the most valued positions” (Moreau, Osgood and Halsall 2007). Second, the education system is “an institution through which gendered divisions are reproduced” (Moreau, Osgood and Halsall 2007).

Thus, there is an urgent need to recognize the lack of cultural, racial and gender diversity in leadership as schools “constitute a key site in which democratic citizenship is understood and practised” (Fuller, Hollingworth and An 2019). In democratic societies of the 21st century, it can no longer be argued that women lack the necessary skills or ambition, or that the pool of qualified women does not exist. “The question, therefore, becomes whether organizations in globalized economies recognize the escalating expectations of leaders [particularly women] together with the intensification of educational labour pitted against the demands of managing family/work conflict” (Blackmore 2013). Additionally, when it comes to school leadership, no solid baseline data exists regarding the gender and intersections in these positions. In fact, across the province, no educational stakeholder records data relating to gender or race.

Given the scope of this project, the research was developed in three phases:

  1. Establish baseline data and administer an anonymous survey.

  2. Conduct small focus group or individual interviews.

  3. Work with the data gathered to pinpoint both the challenges and strengths identified by the women and put forward recommendations to remove the barriers at the intersections of gender and educational leadership.

The findings

The first phase of the research has been completed and the data set analyzed. Through an online survey, we have gained an overall understanding of educational leadership across the province.

The survey was sent to school and division leaders, through various channels, in both French and English. It included questions on current leadership position, previous teaching and leadership experiences, past and present caregiving responsibilities and demographic information, as well as educational background and credentials.

The online survey was open to all teachers. Women represented 67.6 per cent and men 28.2 per cent of participants, mirroring quite closely the percentage of men and women working across school divisions in Alberta. The survey was completed by 640 educational leaders from all corners of the province, which puts us in the margin of error and allows us to extrapolate valid and reliable information from our data.

Respondents worked predominantly for public school boards, and nearly eight in 10 (76 per cent) were principals or assistant principals. Of these, elementary school principals and assistant principals were the largest group (46 per cent) whereas secondary school (junior high and high school) principals and assistant principals represented 31 per cent of participants. The age of respondents ranged from 41 to 60.

The survey revealed three important findings:

The age gap

First, there is a significant difference in the ages reported of men and women entering into leadership roles. The Mann-Whitney U test was used to compare the age at which men and women obtain leadership positions.

The results reveal that

  • when awarded the position of department head, women's age scores were significantly higher than those of men;

  • when appointed to the position of assistant principal, women’s age scores were significantly higher than those of men; and

  • when first designated a principal, women's age scores were significantly higher than those of men.

Additionally, as the level of leadership responsibility increased, the gap in age became wider. As we consider the impacts of this data, important issues are starting to emerge, such as the difference in earning power between men and women. If women are entering leadership positions later in life, then their access to leadership allowances and earning capacity is reduced when compared to their male counterparts on a similar career trajectory.

The motherhood penalty

Second, we examined if there was any relationship between appointment to a leadership position and variables such as having children, having dependent adults for whom participants are the primary caregiver, having accessed a maternity or parental leave and having accessed a long-term unpaid personal leave due to caregiving responsibilities.

Data reveals one significant relationship between leadership appointment and those variables. A negative correlation was found between appointment to a leadership position and taking a maternity leave. Teachers who accessed a maternity leave were appointed to leadership positions later in life than those who had not.

Although family leaves and unpaid work can be perceived as barriers to female teachers intending to become principals or superintendents, we recognize that women are not passive agents when it comes to their career path progression, and they work hard at navigating professional ambition and family commitments. However, relying solely on a woman’s individual choice and agency to obtain equal opportunities in the workplace and a fair division of labour in the household, as suggested in liberal/mainstream feminism, is not just insufficient; it is contradictory. Systemic barriers and chronic social problems need to be addressed at the systemic level through the lens of system thinking (Mayer and Le Bourdais 2019). In education, this may involve hiring practices, a reimagining of part-time work, remuneration and pension repayments after leaves. These are all issues that we are exploring as they are beginning to emerge from our phase two focus group sessions.

Lack of diversity

Finally, among the participants very little diversity was reported. In Alberta, over 25 per cent identify as visible minorities (term used in Statistics Canada reports) and only 4.1 per cent identified as such in our data set. Because of the lack of diversity in school leadership, students and teachers are not seeing themselves represented.

Systemic barriers and chronic social problems need to be addressed at the systemic level through the lens of system thinking.

Mayer and Le Bourdais 2019

Moving forward

As we progress through the research project, we are motivated to recommend positive changes to the policies, both locally at the school division level and provincially so that all women working in education can enter and progress through leadership careers. It is our hope that this project will fill the missing baseline data; take up the gap in research, knowledge and practice to develop much needed policy to better support working women across the intersections of gender; and, finally, create a tool so that educational partners can continue to track and manage data.

To make these changes, it is imperative that women are around the table in the decision-making process. As the late justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.”


Blackmore, J. 2013. “A Feminist Critical Perspective on Educational Leadership.” International Journal of Leadership in Education 16, no 2: 139–154.

Crenshaw, K. W. 2017. On Intersectionality: Essential Writings. New York, NY: The New Press.

Fuller, E., L. Hollingworth and B. P. An. 2019. “Exploring Intersectionality and the Employment of School Leaders.” Journal of Educational Administration 57, no 2: 134–151.

Mayer, M., and C. Le Bourdais. 2019. “Sharing Parental Leave Among Dual-Earner Couples in Canada: Does Reserved Paternity Leave Make a Difference?” Population Research and Policy Review 38, no 2: 215–239.

Moreau, M, P., J. Osgood and A. Halsall. 2007. “Making Sense of the Glass Ceiling in Schools: An Exploration of Women Teachers’ Discourses.” Gender and Education 19, no 2: 237–53.

Park, T. Y., E. S. Lee and J. W. Budd. 2019. “What Do Unions Do for Mothers? Paid Maternity Leave Use and the Multifaceted Roles of Labor Unions.” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 72, no 3: 662–692.

Statistics Canada. 2022. “Visible Minority by Ethnic or Cultural Origin.” Statistics Canada website. action?pid=9810033701 (accessed Nov. 7, 2023).


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Elissa Corsi

Associate Executive Secretary, ATA

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Samira ElAtia

Professor of Education and Associate Dean, Graduate Studies, Campus Saint-Jean, University of Alberta