Empowerment Spaces of Female School Principals in South African Township Schools

  • Teresa Auma OginaEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Global Education Systems book series (GES)


In this chapter, the researcher presents an alternative way of thinking that involves personal and internal strategies identified and developed by the principals to be able to address the leadership and management challenges they experience in their schools. The proposed strategy expects the female school principals to identify their own personal empowerment space, strength, and approach to cope with the daily challenges that they experience. The researcher highlights the unique abilities of the different female principals and the different self-generated energy that enables the principals to lead and manage their schools. After the introduction, the rest of the chapter is structured as follows: In the next sections, the researcher presents literature on management, leadership, and challenges as well as the strategies used by school principals to manage and lead their schools. The researcher explains the context of the study that is discussed in this chapter, which is followed by the research methodology, findings, and discussion. The chapter concludes with implications from the study.


Leadership and management Female school principals Empowerment Challenges 

1 Introduction

International studies on the leadership and management practices in schools show a distinct gender differences in the perception and expectation of female and male school leaders (Wrushen and Sherman 2008; Witherspoon and Taylor 2010; Matheri et al. 2015). Atwater and others (2004) reported from their study that male leadership was perceived as task-oriented highlighting strategic planning and problem-solving as some of the main activities while female leadership was observed as relationship-oriented and focused on mentorship, providing feedback, recognizing the potential of the others, as well as monitoring work done by subordinates. Literature (Oplatka 2001; Coleman 2005; Fuller 2009) describes “feminine” management styles as patient, tolerant, nurturing, emotional, and less centralist in decision-making, while “masculine” traits are perceived as less emotional and more rational, being assertive, and less vulnerable. Although the masculine and feminine ways of leading and managing schools are perceived to be different as indicated in the studies, there are other studies that argue for the merits of the different approaches and their effectiveness (Coleman 2005;Krüger 2008), meaning that there is no gender-based leadership or management style that should be regarded as more superior to the other. Other studies have reported socially constructed gender stereotypes and assumptions that put leadership style of women under constant scrutiny in terms of effectiveness (Moorosi 2010; Wrushen and Sherman 2008).

Previous study of female school principals have only focused on the barriers to effective leadership role of female principals such as patriarchal beliefs and practices, inability to make decisions, insubordination by both male and female teachers, as well as lack of respect and support from the school community among other gender discriminatory practices (Moorosi 2010; Mestry and Schmidt 2012). Although these studies have identified the challenges experienced by female principals and highlighted a number of recommendations of how to better lead and manage their schools, the suggested changes seem to be mostly restricted to external forces and dependent on policy, organizational changes, attitudes, and beliefs of the different stakeholders among others (Oplatka 2001; Fuller 2009; Mestry and Schmidt 2012; Wrushen and Sherman 2008). Much less is known about what the principals themselves can do to cope with the identified challenges.

2 Education Management Practices

School principals are managers as well as leaders in their schools. Management is a process that involves planning, organizing, leading, and controlling activities to achieve the goals of the organization (Van der Bijl and Prinsloo 2016). Education management can be described as a revolving process that entails ongoing interactive and interrelated activities like planning, organizing, decision-making, policy-making, and other management tasks that focus on achieving the goals of teaching and learning (Van Deventer 2012). The management areas in education are human, physical, and financial resources (Van Deventer 2012).

Previous research has established that educational background, gender issues, and the field of education influence management styles of female school managers (Saeed et al. 2011). Such studies suggest that female principals may adapt different management approaches. A quantitative study done in Kenya by Matheri and others (2015) found that the majority of female school principals had to establish clear rules and regulations that provide guidelines on how to manage teacher and student behavior. A management strategy used by some female principals in a South African study is collaborative approach (Morojele et al. 2013). This study found that female principals adapted collaborative management, which involved caring, collective decision-making, and empowering staff members. Morojele and others (2013) recommended that female school principals should nurture their own identity that displays collaboration, caring, and emotional connection instead of managing their schools in the traditional socially constructed masculine nature of school leadership. Saeed and others (2011) found that good interpersonal relationship, encouraging and motivating people to work hard, as well as promotion based on the abilities of teachers were identified as attributes of the female school manager that results in job satisfaction. Likewise, a study done by Bakker and Xanthopoulou (2013) reported that the teachers perceived Dutch female principals who were involved with their teachers in terms of social support, performance development, and resources in the schools as charismatic and creative. Strategies like the focus of the principal on moral support of the teachers as Howard and Mallory (2008) have highlighted are significant for ensuing that the daily activities of the school run smoothly.

Mestry and Schmidt (2012) also found that the women principals who participated in their study were able to effectively lead and manage their schools even though there were experiences of prejudices and discriminatory remarks from other stakeholders. The study showed that the stereotypes identified in gender studies seem to originate from cultural belief system that conceptualized power as male characteristic, which perpetuated patriarchal tendencies in leadership (Mestry and Schmidt 2012). It means that in order for female principals to be able to manage schools against the societal norms that restrain the potential of women as leaders, they have to be creative and innovative in managing the challenges that they experience in their schools. The study by Shapira, Arar, and Azaiza (2011) on Arab educational system found that the female principals had personal stories of empowerment as a source of strength that they needed to cope with the challenges.

The strive to be resilient to the challenges in the management position especially in the traditional way of the conception of servant leadership limits the capability of female principals to own and use their power in leading and managing their schools. While the use of power seems to be limited in certain cases for some female principals, others devise alternative means of managing their schools without the use of direct power. In the study by Witherspoon and Taylor (2010), African American female principals used their spiritual power in changing their lives and the lives of the other stakeholders in their school. Religious beliefs and practices seem to have influenced the knowledge, management style, and ability of the principals to manage their schools and nurture their students (Witherspoon and Taylor 2010). Such management strategies affirm the school of thought that perceives feminine characteristic as more people relationship oriented than a typical masculine perspective (Fuller 2009). These studies show unique strategies used by female principals as school managers.

3 Leadership of Female Principals

Leadership is part of the management process which focuses on influencing behavior and motivating and providing direction in an organization (Van der Bijl and Prinsloo 2016). Leadership is a process in which an individual influences a group of people to achieve a common goal through motivation (Bolden 2004). Increasingly, women are acquiring positions as school principals in South Africa coming from an era of under-representation of women in management positions (Kaparou and Bush 2007). Despite the efforts to address gender inequalities in educational leadership, female principals have reported experiences of insubordination by both male and female teachers and lack of respect and support from the school community (Moorosi 2010). The stereotype beliefs regarding the leadership style of female principals are socially constructed and lead to gender discrimination. Gilbert and others (2008) highlighted from their study that the contribution of female teaching principals needs to be emphasized especially in communities that perceive male principals as figure of authority and female as emotional and nurturing. In such gender-biased communities, female principals are not regarded as effective school leaders. In the study by Wrushen and Sherman (2008), some female principals struggled to lead their schools following the “footprints” of their male predecessors due to the existing gender stereotypes, which limit the power of women in leadership position. The struggle of female principals as school leaders was also evident in the study by Shapira, Arar, and Azaiza (2011) which identified traditional norms of the Arab society and family background that emphasize masculinity in leadership as barriers to successful school leadership of female principals.

Constructing feminine identity is normally not a straightforward process. Female school principals in the study by Witherspoon and Taylor (2010) had a complex identity constructed from different roles although race and spirituality were a common denominator. One would assume that the socially constructed views of women would have impact on the female leadership style. An earlier study by Celikten (2005) indicated that women principals did show masculine characteristics in maintaining authority and kept feminine characteristics like being moderate, tolerant, and willing to negotiate when confronted with problems. Another study (Priola 2007) showed that at times women demonstrate masculine qualities and suppress their emotions in order to be in control of their managerial role. The reason for portraying male gender traits could possibly be a sense of success/failure associated with masculine gender (Wilkinson and Blackmore 2008; Wrushen and Sherman 2008).

The study done by Christman and McCellan (2008) that explored how some women administrators in educational leadership programs have sustained their administrative roles indicated that the characteristics of participants’ resilience emerge from an intersection between masculine and feminine socially constructed gender norms. Rather than aligning resilience strategies with one gender norm, the women leaders described their experiences as interplay between the two gender norms (Christman and McClellan 2008). In this chapter, the researcher further explores the resilience strategies of female principals and the source of their strength to cope with the challenges they experiences as leaders.

The leadership traits that are considered as essential for high school include effective communication skills, trustworthiness, honesty, and sincerity (Giese et al. 2009). These traits speak to the relationship between the principal and the other stakeholders. Bakker and Xanthopoulou (2013) state that positive work relationships between the principal and the teachers provide the opportunity for motivation, creativity, and work engagement which contributes to effective teaching and learning. The female principals in the study by Giese and others (2009) also acknowledged that motivating, inspiring, and recognizing the abilities of the teachers contributed to successful leadership as well as collaborative decision-making and monitoring the work done by the teachers. In another study (Witherspoon and Taylor 2010), female principals were described as religio-spiritual leaders because they grounded their way of knowing and practices as leaders in their spiritual beliefs. African American female principals were found to be passionate and committed to caring for and providing holistic support to their students despite lack of assistance in terms of mentorship from the district office to address gender and age discrimination (Peters 2012). Although these attributes are considered as feminine and less effective, Morojele, Chikoko, and Ngcobo (2013) affirm that female school principals can succeed in managing their school from a feminine position or a hybrid of both authoritarian and democratic leadership styles. This chapter presents an argument that for female principal to be successful leaders, they need to find a space in which they can identify a source of power that they can use in their role as leaders.

4 Challenges Experienced by Female Principals

There are a large number of studies (Howard and Mallory 2008; Mestry and Schmidt 2012; Peters 2012; Celikten 2005) internationally and in South Africa that have described the challenges experienced by female principals. Mestry and Schmidt (2012) are of the opinion that stereotypes, cultural perceptions and beliefs, gender discrimination, and myths about leadership could have negative influence on the leadership and management responsibilities of female school principals. In their study, Mestry and Schmidt (2012) found that some male teachers as well as female staff members had a tendency of questioning the decision made and the authority of female principal. Similarly, Peters (2012) also maintains that female principals experienced resistance, lack of teamwork, and inability of some teachers to take instructions from them. Despite the behaviors that are likely to have negative impact on the confidence and leadership authority of the principal, some female school principals lack self-assurance and have doubts on their own beliefs, abilities, and leadership skills despite their real capabilities as leaders (Wrushen and Sherman 2008). Social roles in the society like nurturing and giving care to children, gender inequality, organizational barriers, as well as other social cultural issues and stereotypes also limit the leadership capacity of female school principals (Steyn and Parsaloi 2014; Fuller 2009).

The relationship between the principal and the teachers may be influenced by the leadership role of the principal. Peters (2012) found that the age of the female school principal was perceived as a challenge and barrier to effective leadership and management. Some staff members discriminated against some of the first-year female African American principals who were under 40 years. Another challenge was the change in the relationship between the principal and the teachers. The transition from a teacher to a leader, administrator, and manager changes the interpersonal relationship between a beginner principal and staff members, causing a feeling of loneliness and isolation in their leader-subordinate relationship (Howard and Mallory 2008). The principals in the study devised strategies such as family support, distributive leadership, external mentoring, and motivating teachers among other strategies as a coping mechanism. Howard and Mallory (2008) also found that through distributive leadership the principal as an instructional leader is able to fill the void in relationship with the teachers that manifest a feeling of isolation.

With all the challenges women in leadership experience, one may wonder how they manage to stay in the leadership position and manage relationships in school. The discussion of the findings that are presented in this chapter aligns with Christman and McCellan (2008) who acknowledged the assumption that female leaders could reflect on the leadership styles that assert their femininity and embrace socially constructed views of and characteristics of women leaders as factors contributing to their professional resilience as opposed to the assumption of stereotypes as having a negative impact on female leadership role.

5 Context of the Study

In South Africa, a nation not yet three decades into post-apartheid transition, the challenges of managing schools in similarly difficult contexts are exacerbated by the requirements to implement radical changes in the curriculum with inadequate teacher development, support or resources, and effective school leadership. A further complication is that gender issues may require a particular type of leadership style in the school principal. Schools that are found in South African township operate in extreme conditions characterized by vandalism, theft, lack of resources, low parental involvement, and other related problems. This chapter is based on the findings of a study that explored the experiences of eight female school principals in township schools in Pretoria. The researcher focused on the strategies that the principals use to address and cope with the challenges they experience in their leadership position. The attention was on identifying the sources of the principals’ strength and endurance in the conditions in which they had to operate. In this chapter, the researcher argues that female principals need effective strategies to cope with the leadership challenges they experience in their school. Such strategies need energy and ability that the principal draws from empowerment space created by the principal.

6 Legislation

There are studies that have recommended that the issues of gender inequality to be addressed by legislation. For example, Mestry and Schmidt (2012) recommend that there should be legislation and policies in place for changes to be made to address gender differences, stereotypical perceptions, and discrimination at workplace. In addition, there should be workshops and seminars that promote the awareness of gender differences at workplace. Another study done in Birmingham by Fuller (2009) reported that legislation had not effectively changed perceptions and practices that discriminate against women in general and female leaders which is the focus of this chapter. Steyn and Parsaloi (2014) also concluded that equal opportunity legislation, employment policy, and social practice had no significant effect on the socially constructed roles of male and female and recommended that the local education authorities should review the implementation and monitoring of equal opportunity policies to advance the role of women in leadership. Without practical implementation of policies that promote gender equality, the existing gender-related stereotypes might continue to limit the potential and capabilities of female leaders (Steyn and Parsaloi 2014).

The South African Constitution promotes equal treatment of all citizens and strives to redress the imbalances of the apartheid period through affirmative action and other policies that include gender equality. The Bill of Rights enshrined in the Constitution Act 108 of 1996 declares that everyone has the right to equality and should not be discriminated unfairly. The other acts that prohibit unfair discrimination and promote equal treatment of men and women are the South African Schools Act No. 84 of 1996, the Employment of Educators Act No. 76 of 1998, and the Employment Equity Act No. 55 of 1998. These legislations support and promote the appointment of South African women in leadership position as one of the initiatives of addressing the past imbalances in which men dominated the leadership positions at school and other workplaces. Despite these legislations, the reviewed literature suggests that discriminatory tendencies still exist in schools and female principals have to find ways of coping and at the same time lead and manage schools effectively. The discussion in this chapter intends to contribute in filling in the leadership gap by highlighting the empowerment spaces and sources of power that the researcher identified from interviewing eight female school principals.

7 Feminist Post-structuralism

The conceptual framework of this study is feminist post-structuralism. In post- structuralism, knowledge is produced through language and discourse of marginalized group of people. The fundamental assumptions are giving voice to the marginalized people (Fletcher 1999). Fletcher examines the ways in which the dominant perspective is endorsed and accepted as knowledge. In this framework, the relationship between power and knowledge is scrutinized. Knowledge production is viewed as an exercise of power. Traditionally, the voices of women telling their own stories about their experiences were not part of knowledge production on gender issues (Fletcher 1999). In the feminist post-structuralist framework, meaning of the research data is shaped by language used because language is a tool of power (Fletcher 1999). Post-structural feminists criticize theory and practice that are dominated by male gender ways of knowing and explore female experiences to produce knowledge. From the feminist post-structural perspective of power sources instead of viewing power as being diffused, in this study the researcher focused on the generation of power used by the female school principals to cope with the challenges they experience as they lead and manage their school. The researcher identified the empowerment spaces in which the different principals drew the power they used to manage the challenges.

8 Methods and Theory

The methodological approach to this study was qualitative because the researcher wanted to understand the experiences of female school principals. This study aimed at explaining the challenges, how the principals manage the challenges, and the kind of power they use. The aim of this study was to gain new insights on the different types and spaces in which female principals generate power to manage their schools. Qualitative approach was suitable for this study because it explores the subjective experiences of the participants (Creswell 2013). The study focused on the experiences of six female school principals from a township area of a province in South Africa. In order to understand how female school principals identify and use their empowerment space to cope with the leadership and management challenges, the researcher asked the following questions: What are the experiences of female school principals as managers in their schools? What are the challenges/barriers they experience? How do they describe the strategies they use to manage the identified challenges and barriers?

The researcher used a combination of purposive and snowballing method of sampling by contacting a few female women principals, interviewing them, and asking them to recommend other female principals. Purposive sampling enabled the researcher to select information-rich participant’s cases Yin (2014). The sample included principals from schools in a township area. Six female principals were individually interviewed. The principals are referred in this chapter as follows: P1 (high school), P2 (primary), P3 (primary), P4 (primary), P5 (high school), and P6 (high school). Three principals were in high schools, and the other three were primary school principals. The principals were between 32 and 58 years old, and their position as school principals was from 2 to 25 years. The number of teachers in their schools ranged from 12 to 38 and the learner population 280 to approximately 2000. The schools in the rural areas had fewer teacher and lower learner population compared with the schools in the township.

The researcher contacted the principals personally and obtained permission and consent to involve them in the study. The principals who participated in the study were individually interviewed. The interview was semi-structured and face to face allowing the participants to reflect on their experiences and challenges. The researcher asked follow-up questions during the interview for clarity and depth (Briggs et al. 2012). The interview duration was approximately 45–60 min using a standardized, open-ended interview protocol that allowed the participants to give detailed data. The interviews were transcribed verbatim. The analysis process was inductive which resulted in identifying patterns in the data (Creswell 2013). The researcher coded while reading that transcripts line by line, after which the codes were merged to form merged broad categories of the experiences of the principals. The second phase of data analysis was identifying themes and sub-theme (Creswell 2013; Yin 2014). The themes that were identified were the following: experiences of female school principals as managers, challenges and barriers, and empowering spaces and sources of power.

The findings of this study do not represent the experiences of all female principals but provide insight and contribute to knowledge as well as understanding of female school leadership through the voices of the participants. The researcher identified three themes from the data to answer the research questions. The themes were experiences of female school principals, challenges and barriers, and the strategies used to manage the schools.

8.1 Experiences of Female School Principals as Managers

The principals in this study experienced discrimination that is based on the tradition and commonly shared belief of leadership as a male role and the inability of women to be leaders.

We attend churches where women are not supposed to be leaders and most of our teachers come from a community that is why when you give them instructions in school they will not take it. They will say, I will not listen to a woman, a woman cannot be a leader or they will just undermine you. (P1)

The community is strong in the church and carryout the instructions that they get from the church. Men in our church do not respect women but other men. We do not have a voice at church and in school, the male teachers dominate decision-making. (P5)

The quotations show how the principals in this study were subjected to stereotypes and cultural beliefs of masculinity that were perpetuated in the community and doctrine in religion. The reaction of the teachers seems to be rooted in the norms of the school community and disrespect the power and authority that are invested in the leadership position of the principal. A similar finding was also reported by Mestry and Schmidt (2012) indicating that gender stereotypes and cultural belief system conceptualized power as male characteristic and encourage patriarchal tendencies in leadership. The social roles in the society, cultural issues, gender inequality, as well as organizational barriers have negative effect on female school principals (Steyn and Parsaloi 2014). Women in the community where the research was conducted seem to be regarded as weak and play the subordinate role. Women seem not to be accepted as leaders. The church in this regard seems to play an influential rule on the behavior of the community on day-to-day activities of the school. The influence of the community norms on the teachers seems to supersede the professional conduct that is expected of them. This finding is consistent with that of Morojele and others (2013) who also found that some principals struggled to control their school due to the influence of the community that believed in masculine superiority and did not accept their power and authority as principals. In another study, Wrushen and Sherman (2008) also found that some female principals confined their leadership within the common stereotypes and limited their own abilities.

There were some teachers who supported me as the principal; others wanted an insider to be appointed as the principal. We had three groups, one supporting the female who was acting principal being the insider; another just wanted a good principal and made a welcoming speech when I arrived; the third group is the lazy group they wanted a principal who will not push them. It was not easy for a female principal to be accepted by other female teachers. They are jealous of you. (P4)

The internal politics threatened the confidence of the principal and divided the staff members. In such situations, interpersonal relationships between the principal and the teachers and among the teachers are weakened and may have negative influence on the leadership and management role of the principal. The reason for the formation of the different cliques among the teachers was based on personal reasons and not necessarily on the competence of the female school principal. The finding on women not supporting the female principals could imply that women also lack confidence in their own gender and are reluctant to think and react against the norms of the community, which discriminate against women as leaders and promote patriarchal views. In another study, female staff members also questioned the decisions taken by the female principals and undermined their authority which had a negative impact on leadership of the principal (Mestry and Schmidt 2012).

There are teachers who have cultural roots running very deeply in them, so when you come to school, you have to make an axe to chop these roots. It’s never given, you fight for it. I went through the fights. The attitudes, I fought through them. Even now, they know that if you make a mistake, I will take you head-on. (P6)

This quotation shows that the female principal is aware and understands the source of the negative attitude of the teachers and is prepared to use authoritarian leadership style to manage the teachers. The principal seems not to hesitate in confronting the attitudes of the teachers. It suggests self-confidence and the power to overcome the stereotypes that limit the abilities of female leaders. In the case, the principal believes that in leadership, power and authority are earned and she has to assert herself to get respect from the teachers. Mestry and Schmidt (2012) also found that South African women have to assert their ability to be effective leaders despite the challenges they experienced as a result of patriarchal beliefs and practices.

8.2 Challenges and Barriers

This sub-theme discusses the challenges experienced by the principals that were involved in the study. The principals who were interviewed were at different stages of their career. The newly appointed and young principals experience discrimination and insubordination. School principals had the following to say in this regard:

I was a student here and there is a teacher who taught me. He is the deputy now, and it is not easy to give instructions to somebody who taught you. He is very stubborn; you cannot work well with him. He is very bossy, bullying, undermining you and being disrespectful in a way. At times, he just refuses to take orders. The relationship has to work. You cannot take him out of the system. (P5)

When we are in a meeting some people do not want to talk, but after the meeting, they go and tell their followers that you are lying. They cannot stand in the correct forum and say, you are wrong, this is the correct policy. They will refer to you as a child. They say you are a child you cannot monitor us, they would rather take their work to another older principal. (P2)

These quotations suggest that the female novice principals feel intimidated by more senior teachers in terms of age and experience. The senior teachers also have a dominating and rebellious attitude toward the principal. This finding is consistent with that of Peters (2012) who found that novice African American principals who were under 40 years struggled to gain control of their teachers due to their age. A possible explanation for the inferiority complex experienced by novice principals could be that novice principals have gone through a recent transition from a teacher to a leader, administrator, and manager; this changes the interpersonal relationship between a beginner principal and staff members which may not only result in isolation and a feeling of loneliness (Howard and Mallory 2008) but also create tension between the young principal and the teachers.

The prior experience of being a former student in the same school as indicated by Principal 5 seems to impede the professional growth of the principal and self-confidence in the leadership position. The principal seems to sub-consciously still have the identity of being a student in the school, and the teacher that is still teaching in the school does not accept and embrace the new identity as the school principal. The quotation of Principal 2 is a case of disrespect and sabotaging the efforts and the leadership authority of the female principal. The principal seems frustrated and intimidated by the attitude and the behavior of the teachers who were not open and transparent in forums that require their contribution and commitment to collaborative work ethics.

The relationship is positive, we socialize, we drink tea together, we discuss the learners, we talk about their problems in the subject areas but when we get results you find that the performance is not good, things are not working. During classroom observation, they will tell you that they have experience and that they know everything but when you are in class, you see that things are not working. (P5)

This finding shows that although the interpersonal relationship between the principal and the teachers seems to be friendly, the professional relationship was problematic. Bakker and Xanthopoulou (2013) state that positive work relationships between the principal and the teachers provide the opportunity for motivation, creativity, and work engagement. This was not the case in the current study. The relationship between the principal and the teachers was not based on honesty and trustworthiness. Howard and Mallory (2008) point out that in school situation where there is honest interpersonal relationship between the female school principals and the teachers, there is emotional healing for the principal. Such principals do not feel isolated and lonely. The teachers in the current study were reluctant to acknowledge that they need development. There seems to be ineffectiveness in the analysis of the professional development needs of the teachers, a problem that is created by the unwillingness of the teachers to do self-reflection on their performance and learner achievement.

8.3 Empowering Spaces and Sources of Power

It is evident in this study that female school principals experience different kinds of challenges that relate to gender issues. The principals talked about how the different how challenges affected them and what they did to cope and continue to be managers and leaders in their school. In this section the researcher highlights the space of empowerment and the sources of power that the principals in the study used to cope with the challenges they experienced in their schools.

We are struggling to get there through motivating them. I have learnt a lot from other schools. I realise that if you do not have pace setters you can go to other schools and see what they are doing. Then you come back to your school and implement what you have learnt. I tell you, I am a hard worker. I tell them in the assembly that they must show us what they have done. For example using flash cards, especially grade one. I have a lot of photos. I have pictures of the read-a-thon. What can the teachers say-I do more than them. (P6)

I involve all the stake holders in developing the vision of the school to ensure that it has all the things that we want to achieve in the school. At one point, I told them to get visions from various institutions, so that we can look at it. We realised that our vision does not speak to what we want to do if it just says ‘quality education. (P6)

The above quotation suggests that the empowerment space for Principal 6 is the role that she plays as a role model. Her strength seems to be in her content and pedagogical skills, her passion to learn, and high expectation of accountability from the teachers. The coping power is her ability to exceed the performance of the teachers through high expectations and holding the teachers accountable for their performance.

Another finding was on how to deal with the uncooperative and problematic teachers. One of the principals narrated how she manages to control the teachers who seem to be out of control. The principal said:

I motivate my teachers and show them what to do. I am not fast in acting, I try to avoid conflict, I am a patient with them. I believe in talking, if “push comes to shove” it will be one-on-one. I do not just let someone come and resign because I am threatening him/her that is not my style. I believe in peaceful situation so that we can communicate positively and show each other the way. (P3)

The empowerment space is a positive and non-confrontational relationship with the teachers. The power is in the ability to communicate effectively with the teachers. In agreement with Giese et al. (2009), the findings in this study showed effective communication, trustworthiness, sincerity, and honesty contribute to successful leadership of the female school principal. The principal believes in working in a non-threatening environment in which conflicts are avoided. This kind of approach to addressing challenges could be a result of the personality of the principal.

I try to help the teachers, I like teaching. I started by giving instruction. I fight with them for not going to workshops because that is where the some of the things that I do not know are taught. That is why I motivate them to go for workshops. As a woman I have seen people disrespect and undermine you. They feel that you cannot do the right thing. They oppress you and you feel the pressure to change your character and you may become what you are not. (P4)

In the case of Principal 4, there is a strong awareness and experience of gender discrimination and lack of respect for the authority of a female principal due to an assumption that the principal is not competent. The empowerment space for this principal is self-development and the development of the teachers. She uses her pedagogical skills as a source of power in managing and leading in her school especially in her passion for the professional development of the teachers. The passion to develop teachers also accords with earlier studies, which showed the importance of the professional development of teachers (Giese et al. 2009; Saeed et al. 2011). Although in this study the principal was passionate about teaching, in another study (Gilbert et al. 2008) the community expected the principal to be able to teach effectively across the grades and regarded the teaching role more important than leadership and management of the school. In the current study, the principal seems to struggle to change her character due to the pressure from the teachers and the environment. The uncertainty of their potential and the possibility of the principal to change her character suggest self-doubt in her own ability to manage the school. An earlier study by Wrushen and Sherman (2008) also reported that some female school principals lack confidence and have doubts on their own beliefs, abilities, and leadership skills despite their real capabilities as leaders.

The next findings show that while some leaders “are born,” others “can be made.” Principal 2 talked about the influence of her postgraduate studies on leadership and management on her role as the school principal.

I learnt from the book that if you are a principal use participative methods and people will feel ownership of what they are doing. I am aware of other leadership styles from my studies and I use them appropriately. Some male teachers in my school are difficult to work with. They do not take instructions from me because I am a woman. For such teachers I do not get upset. I call them to my office and give them responsibilities. They want to show you that they can do better than you. So they do a good job and follow-up with other teachers who were unwilling to work. I have to trust people, give them task as long as they come back to me and i assist them when needed. You develop those who need to be developed. If you bring people next to you they will support you. (P2)

The empowerment space for Principal 2 is the background knowledge of leadership and management. The principal uses the knowledge on leadership to manage the challenges she experience in her school. The power she uses is her ability to analyze the behavior of the teachers and use their ability positively through distributive and participative leadership. The finding on participative leadership was also reported by Saeed and others (2011) in which participative decision-making contributed to good interpersonal relationships and job satisfaction. In another study Giese and others (2009) also reported that female principals who adapted collaborative decision-making and monitored the performance of their teachers used effective leadership strategies. Other factors that influence the leadership style are educational background, gender issues, and the field of education. Although the principal in the current study shares certain responsibilities, she monitors and remains accountable for the work done by the teachers.

A common strategy is used by Principal 1 and Principal 5. These quotations show the religious influence and the spiritual power in the lives of the two principals:

In this school, we pray a lot. Praying cools even the hot heads. You call them to your office, and read scriptures from the bible where Jesus talks about the parable of the talents. I ask the teachers what they will do with their talents. I tell them that mine will shine. It’s up to them if they want to dig up a hole and hide their talents. That makes people scratch their heads. Hot heads are all over; these are people who are trouble makers. Sometimes they behave badly because you are a woman, they do not respect you. This is when I call them and we talk and pray. (P1)

Praying is part of the school culture. Prayers are used as a means of controlling the behavior of the teachers. This finding confirms the association of the power of prayers with changing their lives and the lives of the other stakeholders in their school and influencing the leadership style of the female school principal (Witherspoon and Taylor 2010).

The Bible is used as a point of reference for the conduct of the teacher setting the framework as well as a tool for managing the behavior and expectations of the performance of the teachers. The empowerment space of Principal 1 is the spiritual space, and the source of power is prayers. The leadership and management style of the principal seems to be based on scripture. This finding further supports the idea of religio-spiritual leaders grounding their practices in their spiritual beliefs (Witherspoon and Taylor 2010).

Principal 5 also talked about praying, but the need for prayer is not necessary for influencing the behavior of the teachers as in the case of Principal 1 but for the principal’s personal comfort and strength.

When I am stressed up, I pray, I leave everything to God, whether I cry in the office or not. I go to God and ask him to give me strength. My job is to deliver and I am passionate about children they know about it whatever I do. I say that I must not disappoint the children. That is my aim and it is what keeps me going even though there are many challenges in this school. The male teachers do not listen and do not care. The belittle me as a principal. When I am almost giving up I say what about the children? God gave me a chance and I must do what is right. (P5)

This finding shows the commitment of the principal to care for the children. Fuller (2009) also stated the perception of women as caregivers to children. The empowerment space is the commitment to caring and nurturing the learners. The priority and the sense of the need to care for the learners are a source of motivation and also a reason to endure the challenges that the principal is experiencing. The principal is emotional about leadership and management challenges at school. The source of strength and resilience is from prayers. The power of prayers in supporting learners as emerged from the narrations by Principal 5 seems to be consistent with another study that female principals believed in spiritual power in managing their school and nurturing their students (Witherspoon and Taylor 2010).

9 Conclusions

In this chapter, I argue that female principals need effective strategies to cope with the leadership challenges they experience in their school. Such strategies need energy and ability that the principal draws from empowerment space that they created. Even though there has been increase of research done on women in leadership position in general and school leadership in particular, a lack of research exists in understanding the coping mechanism that the principals adapt to. This chapter adds to the existing body of knowledge regarding leadership practices of female school principals. The findings of this study shows that female principals are capable of identifying a particular space and a source of power to be able to address the challenges they experience in their school in order to be effective leaders and managers. The empowerment spaces and sources of power identified in this chapter are summarized in the table below.


Empowerment space

Source of power


Spiritual space

Power of prayers in leadership and management style of the principal


Background knowledge of leadership and management

Ability to analyze the behavior of teachers and the use of participative and distributive leadership


Positive and non-confrontational relationships

Ability to communicate effectively with the teachers


Self-development and the development of the teachers

Power of pedagogical skills and the passion for professional development


Commitment to caring and nurturing learners

Power of prayers for emotional strength and resilience


Role modelling

Power of setting high expectation and exceeding the performance of the teachers

10 Recommendations

It is recommended from this study that female principals should acknowledge, appreciate, and learn from each other especially newly appointed female principals to be able to identify the unique empowerment spaces and sources of power that can work for them. Furthermore, leadership preparation programs should encourage principals to do self-reflection on the individual strengths and encourage them to draw from their strengths the power that they can use as a source of resilience. Future studies should also focus on what female school principals have to offer in terms of their strengths in the management and leadership of the schools.

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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of EducationUniversity of PretoriaPretoriaSouth Africa

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