11/22/2018 by Barbara Chase |

Women and School Leadership

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Editor’s Note: This piece is adapted from a talk given at the CS&A Women’s Institute in Boston, June 8, 2018.

It is a sad and undisputed fact that women do not have equal access to leadership positions. I mean leadership writ large: the chance to influence and shape our world in ways that matter most. The imbalance is statistically evident and culturally felt. Our voices need to be heard, and heeded. This is as true in education as in any field. Women dominate the teaching staff in most schools, but they are underrepresented in leadership positions. The independent school world is no exception. The exclusion or suppression of women leaders in schools not only hurts our schools and society at large, but it also sends the wrong message to students about who can lead.

After nearly 50 years in education, I have seen progress, but not nearly enough. Only when schools insist on true gender balance in leadership, will they benefit from the full range of leadership talent available to them. Gender balance is only the start, however; women need to exercise their leadership in whatever positions they fill and feel supported in the process. So I offer five guidelines, rules, if you will, for women leaders — rules I have no doubt broken as often as not over the years.

1. Be brave; speak up; speak out!

As women in school leadership, we need to make our voices heard. We must speak up tenaciously — even in the face of being rebuffed, even disrespected. It’s equally important that we support and help each other to be brave.

In her recent book, “Women and Power: A Manifesto,” the British classicist Mary Beard includes a cartoon from the British humor magazine Punch. Six colleagues sit around a table — a man at the head, one woman among the other five. The leader addresses the woman: “That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.” The only thing that doesn’t ring true is that, in my experience, Miss Triggs would simply have been ignored. The leader would have had to wait only a moment for one of the men to make virtually the same suggestion, which would then have been met by vigorous nodding of heads all around. As Beard points out, one of the most damaging parts of the “Miss Triggs” story is the likelihood that Miss Triggs will be silent in the future. In this gem of a book, Beard notes that silencing women has been present in Western culture since the time of Classical Greece and Rome. Don’t let this happen today without protest.

And, remember, when you sit at the head of the table, you can be sure that Miss Triggs will be heard.

2. Fight stereotypes of how to be a leader.

The enduring image of leadership, in virtually all fields, including independent schools, is male. This image plays to worn-out cultural stereotypes about not only what leaders look like but also how they lead. We shouldn’t have to make the case that women can be — and are — effective leaders in every field today, but given the persistent gender imbalance, clearly we still do. Given what research tells us about successful organizational leadership in the 21st century, we need to champion field-tested alternatives to the hierarchical approach.

In 1970, Robert Greenleaf, an AT&T executive, wrote an essay titled “The Servant as Leader,” which he eventually developed into a book, “Servant Leadership.” Reading the article at the time I was moving into school administration, I was taken with Greenleaf’s ideas because they spoke to the core reasons I wanted to be a leader. It wasn’t about power or money or prestige. I wanted to serve people — students and teachers — and I felt I had good ideas that weren’t being considered by the men in power.

The concept of servant leadership harks back to ancient Eastern thought. Lao Tzu believed that a good leader is one who serves, and is self-effacing. A sign of great leadership, he wrote, is when, after a task is accomplished, the people say, “we ourselves have achieved it.”

My view is very much in this vein. My ideal leaders:

  • empower others,
  • build and trust a team,
  • share praise liberally,
  • freely admit mistakes and grow from them,
  • take joy in the advancement of others, and
  • let their ego take a back seat to promoting the greater good.

Whether these traits are more traditionally female than male can be fairly argued. But certainly, servant leadership flies in the face of the stereotypical male leadership model. To the degree that we embrace this more servant-like leadership, we need to be assured in it, celebrate it, and champion it. And we need to push back against persistent stereotypes. More easily said than done, I realize, depending on where we stand in the power structure. But those of us who can, should have the courage to point out such biases wherever we find them. We can also point to the growing body of research that supports collaborative leadership today. In my experience, most reasonable people do listen. We are making progress and gaining allies along the way. But the road is long and the journey sometimes exhausting, so we need to stay resolute and help others to do so.

3. Make rearing children everyone’s responsibility.

To make it possible for young women to have children and careers, we need to spread the burden of childcare more broadly. That means spouses and partners and institutions and the government need to take a much more significant role in caring for children.

To change this picture in the long run, we need to work with our boys and young men to teach them to carry their fair share to support the family when the time comes. (A related challenge, of course, is that we also need to teach our boys to resist the forces of the alarmingly pernicious misogyny they see everywhere around them.) In our broader society, we need to elect government officials who will work to make affordable childcare more available, especially for underserved families. Young women who are thought to be planning to have children or who are pregnant face discrimination in the broader workforce. I hope that this does not happen in our schools, but I have heard that it sometimes does. This discrimination must end.

4. Mentor and mentee all the time. (Never stop teaching and learning!)

As a school head, I loved helping colleagues move on to greater influence and responsibility. I’m sure they learned as much what not to do by watching me as they learned what to do. But it was always a pleasure to sit with them and discuss the joys and challenges of school leadership.

As a mentor: Be willing to show your vulnerabilities. Be willing to say, “I have trouble with this” or, “Well, that was certainly a mistake.” Be willing to share what you have accomplished or helped others to accomplish. Be open to “reverse mentoring.” People of different generations have valuable skills, insights and wisdom to impart. As a mentee (of any age!), don’t be shy. Ask people you admire to mentor you; keep asking until you find a good match. Be curious; ask questions; make suggestions; ask for advice; listen and learn.

In a recent interview, Geena Davis described going to a first read-through for the film “Thelma and Louise,” with Susan Sarandon, her costar. Sarandon (about 10 years older than Davis) interjected after reading her first line: “I don’t think Louise would say something like this; she would be more like….” Geena Davis had been wondering about some of her own lines, but thought she couldn’t object, or if she did, she would need to be indirect and deferential. Davis was amazed and empowered by Sarandon. “She changed my life,” Davis said.

Take mentors wherever you find them, including allies, men who are rooting for us, who want us to succeed. After I retired, a stroke took away my ability to communicate — to say or write even a word at first. My speech got better slowly, but a year and a half later, I still spoke haltingly, and I felt very frustrated by the pace of my recovery. One day, a friend asked what I was planning to do next professionally. He believed that, as a retired school head, I would have experience and talents to share. I said I was uncomfortable with my disability; that I wasn’t sure people would want to work with someone who (and remember clearly my self-pitying phrase): “…talked funny.” What a shame, he said, if Stephen Hawking had felt the same way. It seemed ridiculous; I could never even come close to contributing to the world what Hawking did, and my handicap was not nearly so severe. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought about it — which is why I’m now working as a consultant with Carney, Sandoe & Associates. One of the most enjoyable parts of the work is getting to know younger women who are talented and interesting, and who have so much promise and perhaps being able to mentor them in some small way. I have loved that!

5. Be OK with being less than perfect.

As women leaders, we feel we must prove ourselves over and over, to demonstrate that we are worthy. Trying really hard during all of our waking hours (and too often in our dreams) can produce positive results in what we achieve in the workplace. But, being a workaholic, being on high alert all the time, comes with a significant cost: exhaustion, stress, anxiety. We must give ourselves a break, know that even if we don’t earn an A on every outing, in every test, it’s OK. This is paramount! And if you take care of yourself, you will be able to take better care of others.

Carve out and protect time for family, for friends, and for yourself. Walk along a trail in the woods and listen to the birds. Have coffee with a friend. Read with a child. Sing with a chorus — or by yourself in the car or the shower. Join a book group. Try a new recipe. Watch a movie. Laugh! These things (and many more you will think of!) feed you. They keep your body healthy; they clear your mind. Most important, they help your soul to breathe!

I invite the thoughts and ideas of others as we resolve to work to advance the leadership of women in our schools. I recognize that in my independent school career and throughout my life, I have undoubtedly enjoyed many privileges because of my identity. I cannot speak for the experiences of women of color and/or those who are LGBTQ, and I would especially welcome their perspectives. One thing is clear, the more our schools open themselves to the talents of the broadest possible range of people, the stronger they will be.


Barbara Chase is a Senior Consultant for Carney, Sandoe & Associates. She served as a head of school for 32 years, first at The Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore, then at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Barbara has served as a trustee of various boards and professional organizations, including Pike School; Tower Hill School; Brown University; the Annenberg Institute for School Reform; Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence, MA; NAIS; School Year Abroad; The Association of Independent Maryland Schools; and Baltimore Educational Trust. She is currently on the board of the York Public Library in Maine. She can be reached at barbara.chase@carneysandoe.com.

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1 Comment

Janet Durgin 4/5/2019 at 10:56pm

A terrific article. I related to every bit of it. And a great road map for any young leader setting off on her journey.