09/08/2015 by Marlene Shaw |

Promoting Women Leaders

For quite a long time now, there has been talk about the small number of women who serve as school Heads and other top leaders in our independent schools.

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There has been speculation about the reasons for the disparity, but little talk about what to do, and even fewer initiatives to remedy the situation.

It is time to go beyond the “talk.” Having more women in leadership roles in our schools is much more than just a parity issue; it is about ensuring that our schools have the most talented leaders—women as well as men.

Clearly, there is a need to demonstrate the problem by collecting and analyzing the data on women in independent schools. Without data for benchmarking and goal setting, we will never know the extent of the problem, nor will we be able to determine if our efforts are achieving any success in improving the situation.

Current data tells us that while the number of mid-level women leaders has increased somewhat, the number of women in the Head’s role has not changed significantly in the last 20 years—only a 10% increase in a quarter of a century. Let me repeat that: in the last 20 years, the number of female Heads of School has increased by only about 10%. Even now, only one third of NAIS member schools have female Heads, and most of those that do are girls’ schools or elementary schools. We know the data demonstrates the smaller representation of women at the top, but it doesn’t tell the whole story—or make the case for increasing the representation. Why is it a good thing to have more women as school Heads?

In her 2012 dissertation Tapping on the Glass, Barbara Ostos summed up the issue quite well. “Gender balance in educational administration not only encourages broader opinions and experiences to guide educational vision, it also establishes a mental model for boys and girls that both men and women can hold top executive positions. The early images of leadership that children see and experience create paradigms for how they perceive the world and make decisions.”

Research studies have also shown that women’s natural way of leading is transformational—they are more likely to build individual and group capacity through authentic interest in and support for the individuals in the school community. Several recent studies indicate that women generally are more intentionally relational, work harder to ensure a climate of trust, and prioritize transparent communication. In recent months, some exciting new research on teamwork in organizations points out that teams with more women outperformed teams with more men.

Do our schools need women as transformational leaders? You bet! Do we need to engage to build the support network for women to become leaders in our schools? You bet! Our independent schools need transformational, relational leaders to meet the challenges of our current model of education, and each of us can work to ensure that women are there in equal numbers, bringing their special skills and leadership.

Now is the time to be intentional about making the case for women as Heads and establishing advocacy networks so that women in our schools have a stronger, more supportive pathway to leadership roles. Women seeking leadership roles not only need great mentors; they also need strong advocates of both genders who will proactively help them to advance: recommending them to others, pointing out opportunities for advancement, and coaching them along the way.

Remember the Madeline Albright quote that goes ‘There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”   Now is the time for all school leaders, men and women, to work to increase the representation of women at the top leadership roles. We can do that by 1) making the case for why our schools need women in top leadership roles; 2) advocating for women leaders in our schools; and 3) building networks of support with mentors and coaches.  What are you doing?

Image credit: Pixabay

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