Women, Leadership, Independent Schools: The Promotion Paradox

Women make up only one-third of the population of heads of independent schools, a statistic that has made little movement in the past decade. What are the variables at play?

My colleagues Liza Lee, Head of School at Columbus School for Girls, and Melissa Boocock Soderberg, Head of School at Columbus Academy, joined me in exploring this question during the fall and winter months, culminating in a presentation at the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Annual Conference in February.

Using the work of Jill Flynn, Kathryn Heath, and Mary Davis Holt in Six Paradoxes Women Leaders Face in 2013 (Harvard Business Review, 1/03/13) as a springboard, we considered trends beyond the independent school world, examined data available from NAIS, and reflected on our own experiences. Here, in several parts, is what we learned.

The Promotion Paradox

It is as plain as day that women are qualified to lead in terms of skill and talent, yet we capture far fewer job slots at the top.” — Flynn, Heath, & Holt

Is this true in the world of independent schools? Let’s take a look at the numbers: current demographics, data on aspiration to headship, and the few studies that have examined independent school career trajectory by gender.

Current demographics. Gender demographics in independent school “middle management” posts in fall 2013 showed relative balance in several positions: Associate Head, Assistant Head, and Middle School Head. Upper School Heads tend to be male; Lower School Heads tend to be female.

Promotion Paradox

Aspirations. NAIS reported in The State of Independent School Leadership 2009 that 12% of female member-school administrators expressed the intention of obtaining a headship in contrast to 22% of member-school administrators overall.

Pace of career trajectory. Another variable to consider is career point when headship is reached, suggests Sea Crest School Head Tekakwitha Pernambuco-Wise. She reports that, within the cohort of heads of independent schools studied in her dissertation research of 2011, “It took women an average of five years longer than their male counterparts to attain their first headship.” Similarly, in her exploration of gender and headship in Friends schools in 2000, Martha Bryans found a six-year differential.

 

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Women, Leadership, Independent Schools: The Double-Bind Paradox

Women make up only one-third of the population of heads of independent schools, a statistic that has made little movement in the past decade. What are the variables at play?

My colleagues Liza Lee, Head of School at Columbus School for Girls, and Melissa Boocock Soderberg, Head of School at Columbus Academy, joined me in exploring this question during the fall and winter months, culminating in a presentation at the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Annual Conference in February.

Using the work of Jill Flynn, Kathryn Heath, and Mary Davis Holt in Six Paradoxes Women Leaders Face in 2013 (Harvard Business Review, 1/03/13) as a springboard, we considered trends beyond the independent school world, examined data available from NAIS, and reflected on our own experiences. Here, in several parts, is what we learned.

The Double-Bind Paradox

Flynn, Holt, & Heath assert that the personal qualities considered leader-like in men are often seen as negative in women. They cite a 2007 report from Catalyst, with the compelling title The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership: Damned if You Do and Doomed if You Don’t, revealing that female leaders are either perceived as competent or liked — but rarely both.

This video from the Pantene Philippines #ShineStrong campaign illustrates the point clearly:

My personal experience with this phenomenon includes being labeled a “bossy girl” as a child — associating shame with my inclinations to organize and direct. As I shared with our NAIS Conference audience, I have had conversations with other female school leaders who express the same lament. We need to be aware of the messages we give our assertive “tween girls,” in particular. And as educators and parents, we have critical roles here.

The recently-launched Ban Bossy movement is an effort by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In organization and the Girl Scouts to address this very concern. Their work has met with both applause and criticism as you might guess (see Sheryl Sandberg’s “Ban Bossy” Campaign Meets Critics. Christian Science Monitor, 3/20/14). I find the movement heartening and the resources they offer, worth a look.

If we are interested in seeing more women in leadership positions, we need to encourage the qualities that will enable them to be successful there.

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