Life histories of Saudi female headteachers
: an exploration of their journeys and experiences of leadership

  • Wafa Alajaji

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Gender inequality is especially evident in developing countries, where women are typically underrepresented in secondary school leadership. In Saudi Arabia, professional women’s lives are shaped by social and cultural pressures in their home, education and professional lives. However, little attention has been paid to the professional experiences of Saudi women head teachers; their voices and experiences remain unheard and have yet to be systematically investigated.
This qualitative study employed a life history method to obtain data on twelve female head teachers of girls’ secondary schools in Saudi Arabia. Twelve semi-structured interviews were conducted with female principals from different girls' schools in a city of Saudi Arabia, exploring their perspectives on their roles, their involvement in decision making in their schools, their perceptions of challenges encountered, and how they overcame these challenges. Thematic analyses of the interview data centres on three key overlapping themes, namely: early childhood experiences and schooling, university life and early career experiences, and headship experience.
The study found that the position of Saudi female principals bears crucial similarities to that reported for women throughout the world. Saudi social structures created a lasting impact on participants' identities; gender inequalities impacted on their home life and education from early childhood onwards. Limited opportunities in higher education and cultural restrictions on women's roles narrowed their career options, leaving the education sector as the primary profession open to them.
Rising to a headship role nonetheless entailed significant administrative challenges. Participants experienced lacking the authority to adequately fulfil their roles, strained communications and difficult working relationships with educational supervisors and the ministry of education, limited training, and poor work-life balance. While these challenges restricted the participants' leadership and decision-making roles, participants could still advance their careers by drawing on their professional experience, their social networks, and the support of their families.
Date of Award12 Jun 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Roehampton
SponsorsSaudi Arabian Cultural Bureau
SupervisorAnthony Thorpe (Supervisor) & Kate Hoskins (Supervisor)


  • educational leadership
  • Gender
  • Female head teachers
  • Life history
  • Social constructionism
  • Saudi Arabia

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