School of Education

Inspiring People

Juliet Thondhlana

Professor Kay Fuller

Women, gender and feminism in educational leadership


Kay Fuller is an Associate Professor and is convenor of the Centre for Research in Educational Leadership and Management.

It’s difficult to get funding for research in gender and school leadership. That marginalisation of an emergent field means I have to be creative and flexible. 

How would you explain your research?

My research focuses on women, gender and feminism in educational leadership. Women’s marginalisation in leadership, particularly in secondary and higher education, leads me to consider social justice in education widely. So, I am interested in gender in education not just in leadership. That means I am interested in how women and men lead for social justice and in socially just ways for the benefit of the children, young people and adults whose learning and work they lead. 

I take an intersectional feminist approach that recognises gender interacts with aspects of identity such as ‘race’ and ethnicity, social class, sexuality and religion. It interacts with aspects of identity not recognised by legislation such as appearance – height and weight, for example. 

What inspired you to pursue this area?

I have always been interested in gender issues. During childhood, I recall the women’s protest at the Miss World final in London in 1970. I was teased by my godfather for being a women’s libber – it was assumed that I was one when I was a teenager. I was elected as Chair of the Sixth Form when I was 17 so have always taken an interest in shaping activities in education and the representation of marginalised populations such as children and young people, women and minoritised individuals and groups. 

However, once I entered the workplace, (in retail management and secondary schools) I was fooled into thinking women dominated in secondary school leadership. When I said that at an EdD teaching session at the University of Birmingham, I was quickly disabused of it. The experience led me to find out why I was so mistaken. Gender and leadership became the topic for my doctoral dissertation. I found out the south-west area network (SWAN) of schools Birmingham, where I was teaching at the time, was unusual in having women leading 60% of the secondary schools. It led me to chart the distribution of women headteachers in England over time from 2001 to 2021 in five year intervals. I am currently writing up the most recent survey (2021) for publication, with two former masters students who carried out their own surveys in different sectors of education.

How does your research influence your teaching?

My research has a direct impact on my teaching as I teach mainly on the MA in Educational Leadership and Management programme. I revised a module to take a more critical approach to leadership studies. It encourages students to think about the importance of respecting and providing for diversity in education. It encourages students to disrupt normative conceptualisations of leadership as white, male, able-bodied and middle class. 

It influences the supervision of doctoral students as they research leadership in different phases of education secondary and higher education, and in different country contexts such as, the UK, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan. 

What's been the greatest moment of your career so far?

It’s difficult to identify a single greatest moment. 

Great moments include the achievement of students. That’s recognised at the end of a viva when a student has no corrections or when examiners clearly enjoyed the work and at graduation. 

Great moments include winning grants and the publication of hard-won papers and books. 

Great moments include collaborative work with colleagues in and well beyond the University of Nottingham – for example with the Women Leading Education across Continents group of scholars, the BELMAS Gender and Leadership Research Interest Group and #WomenEd since 2015. 

It’s a privilege to work with scholars worldwide. So, one great moment I recall with joy was receiving an invitation, from the scholars whose work I admired, to join an international network of scholars - Women Leading Education across Continents in 2011. By invitation, I spoke at their conference in Greece. I have spoken at their conferences on four continents. We hosted the 2019 conference at Nottingham.

Following that, I co-founded the BELMAS research interest group for Gender and Leadership. We celebrated our first 10 years at an event hosted by Nottingham in May 2022. 

What's the biggest challenge in your field?

It’s difficult to get funding for research in gender and school leadership. That marginalisation of an emergent field means I have to be creative and flexible. 

Recently, I have secured funding via a Leverhulme Research Fellowship to investigate feminist leadership praxis in higher education. I look forward to hearing about feminist leadership in higher education across the UK. 

I also won an ESRC Impact Acceleration Award to pilot a creative writing project about gender and leadership with children and young people in secondary schools. That one’s in partnership with the social media-based network for women in leadership #WomenEd. We plan to take poets into schools to works with them on their poetry writing. 

What advice would you give to someone considering a degree or research in education?

I left a career in retail to become a teacher. It was the best decision I ever made. 

The PGCE, MEd and EdD that followed helped me make sense of my professional practice. I continued to research after I moved into higher education. 

Research in education by academics and practitioners alike is essential to benefit learners. We must keep that purpose in mind. 

For me, education research is also about and for social justice; it is also about researching in socially just ways. 

School of Education

University of Nottingham
Jubilee Campus
Wollaton Road
Nottingham, NG8 1BB

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