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Women teach and men lead? Gender inequality in South African schools examined

This article is more than 5 years old

  • The findings covers state-run schools only, not the independent sector.
  • Data from June 2018 shows that women made up 72.5% of teachers and 37.3% of principals on the state payroll.
  • The data shows gender inequity in leadership of state-run schools.

Studies of female teachers’ path to leadership positions usually focus on the barriers and challenges they may face.

That’s why Stellenbosch University academic Nuraan Davids turned to female principals’ stories and experiences, she explained in an article in the Conversation Africa.

“My findings suggest that female principals in South Africa follow very different routes in pursuit of leadership positions,” Davids wrote. “Their own identities as leaders are both informed and inhibited by a range of complex interrelated factors.”

To show that there were fewer women than men in school leadership positions, Davids wrote that “female teachers make up about 68% of the country’s teaching force. But only 36% of principals are women.”

A reader asked us to check if this was true.

Numbers from education minister’s speech

Davids linked to an August 2013 report in the City Press newspaper headlined “Motshekga: Only 36% of school principals are women.”

It was about the launch of a support network for female principals addressed by basic education minister Angie Motshekga. In a speech prepared for delivery, she said: “There are 257,633 female teachers (68.3%) and 119,579 male teachers (31.7%) in public schools in the country.”

She added: “There are only 8,210 female principals and 14,337 male principals appointed in permanent posts. Female principals represent only 36.4% of all principals.”

Women make up over 70% of state-paid teachers

The chief director of media liaison and communications in the basic education department, Elijah Mhlanga, gave Africa Check the latest numbers on teachers working in public schools.

In June 2018, there were 387,328 teachers and principals on the government’s payroll. Women made up 72.5% of state-paid teachers, but only 37.3% of principals.

  Teachers Principals
Female 265,179 72.5% 8,070 37.3%
Male 100,528 27.5% 13,551 62.7%
Total 365,707   21,621  


(Note: These figures don’t account for all teachers in the country. Mhlanga said the department doesn’t have data on teachers in public schools whose salaries are paid by school governing bodies. Africa Check was also unable to locate totals for independent schools.)

Equality in school leadership not much improved

Dr Gabrielle Wills, a researcher with the Research on Socio-Economic Policy unit at Stellenbosch University, told Africa Check her research showed the gender gap “emerges at the middle management level and widens at higher post levels”. (Note: Wills’s paper will be published later in 2018. We will update this report to include the link.)

In the past decade there has been little improvement in gender equality in school leadership, Wills said. “For example, the percentage of principals who were women only improved by two percentage points from 34% in 2004 to 36% in 2016.”

Wills said this could be a reflection of gender stereotypes “and subtle practices of discrimination suffered by women in the workplace and at home”.

“It may also be attributed to the possibility that fewer female teachers apply for leadership positions, rather than just reflecting the unequal appointment of men over women.”

But more data is needed to assess possible discrimination in the process of selecting principals.

“Currently, data on who applies for posts is not systematically collected in South Africa, so we don’t know who applied but didn’t get a promotion post,” Wills said.  

“Schools and leadership programmes need to build the leadership identity of female teachers, encouraging them to step into more senior roles.”  

Conclusion: Data shows women make up 72.5% of teachers and 37.3% of principals on state payroll

In an article on women’s experience of leadership in schools, academic Nuraan Davids wrote that while women made up about 68% of South Africa’s teaching force, only 36% of principals were female.

Her figures came from an August 2013 speech by basic education minister Angie Motshekga.

State payroll data from June 2018 suggested that women made up even more of the teaching force: 72.5% of teachers employed by the government were women. But share of female principals was also higher, at 37.3%.

We therefore rate the claim as mostly correct.

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