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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