The role of women school principals in improving learning in French-speaking Africa

In brief

The UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP-UNESCO) has recently published a study that examines the link between the gender of school leadership and student performance in reading and mathematics in fourteen Francophone African countries. This study, conducted as part of the Women in Learning Leadership (WiLL) program under the Gender at the Centre Initiative (GCI) and UNICEF Innocenti, highlights the influence of women school principals on the educational environment.

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©Sylvain Cherkaoui
©Sylvain Cherkaoui

Women school principals are likely to play a central role in shaping the school environment. They can have a substantial impact on various aspects, from teacher performance to parental engagement and student motivation. However, despite these significant aspects, it is striking to note that the influence of the gender of school leadership remains understudied. This gap contrasts with the many pieces of evidence of the positive impact of female leadership in other fields, such as health, politics, and business.

The IIEP-UNESCO Dakar study is based on 2019 PASEC data collected in 14 Francophone African countries. It provides a representative sample of the student population at the national level. Significant gender disparities exist in school leadership. In some countries, such as Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Mali, and Togo, there is only one female principal for every ten male principals. These inequalities are not reflected in the same way among teachers. Senegal stands out with a particularly low rate of women school principals, with only 10.7% of students enrolled in schools led by women, well below the regional average of 22%. These women principals often work in urban environments, more developed areas, and in schools better equipped, catering to students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds.


Practices that support a better learning environment

The study highlights a significant positive influence of women school principals in four countries: Benin, Madagascar, Senegal, and Togo. In these countries, students in schools led by women achieve higher standardized scores in reading and mathematics, with an average gap of 0.3 standard deviations compared to their peers in schools led by men. This positive association is not limited to female students; boys also benefit from the presence of female leadership in school administration, although the magnitude of the effect may vary depending on national contexts.

The practices adopted by women school principals seem to play an essential role in improving academic performance. They are more likely to organize meetings with parents, offer academic support classes, and maintain stricter attendance records for teachers. Additionally, schools led by women have lower teacher absenteeism rates, contributing to a more collaborative and conducive learning environment. Women school principals can also create a more inclusive environment for girls, addressing issues such as menstruation and harassment, thereby contributing to a safer and more supportive learning environment. Last, women leaders play a role model influencing girls and their parents’ aspirations, and their presence participates in transforming gender norms among pupils and their communities.

Understanding the influence of women, especially women school principals, is crucial to grasp the mechanisms that promote girls' education and overall student performance. Furthermore, it is a relevant analytical framework for identifying effective leadership and management practices that can be generalized to all school leaders, both men and women.

Co-author of the study