Women, Leadership, Independent Schools: The Careful-What-You-Wish-For 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 is the last of four posts about what we learned.

The Careful-What-You-Wish-For Paradox

Combining professional life with family life brings its own challenges, and these seem to play out differently by gender. As a result, we see some women opting out of the workforce and others working full-time while carrying more than “their share” of the family- and home-related work.

Opting out: Flynn, Heath, & Holt, citing results of the Parenthood and Economy 2012 survey produced by Forbes and TheBump.Com, report that “more women than ever aspire to walk away from work to stay home full-time to raise children.”

An unequal load: In her popular and controversial 2014 book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg reports that, according to the latest data, women do “40% more child care and about 30% more housework” than their male partners in families with a father and mother both working full-time outside the home (p. 106). Earlier this month, in a report entitled, “5 questions (and answers) about American moms today,” Pew Research Center noted that leisure time for fathers averages 28 hours per week compared to 25 hours for mothers, with a wider gap on weekends.

To what extent does the tug of family life inhibit progression to independent school headship – and to what extent does this differ for women as compared to their male counterparts?

The NAIS report on The State of Independent School Leadership 2009 offers some relevant data:

  • Among participants in the Aspiring Heads Fellowship Program who decided not to pursue headship, personal and family commitments were most commonly cited. Over half of the fellows “opting out” cited personal-work balance, family commitments, time commitments, and long work hours as reasons.
  • Among the heads of school surveyed by NAIS, 21% reported the perception that the job is too demanding with children at home. Among the female heads surveyed, 34% expressed this belief. Among administrators not in headship, that figure was 39%; and among female administrators not in headship, 44%.
  • When surveyed about greatest sources of satisfaction and dissatisfaction with the work of headship, female heads reported the greatest dissatisfaction with the amount of time they have for themselves and families – with 64% reporting that they are somewhat or very dissatisfied with this aspect of their jobs.

As my co-presenters and I reflected personally on this conundrum, we each shared anecdotes of laying claim to certain responsibilities by virtue of “being the mom,” no matter which partner had the more time-demanding job. The division of labor varies by family, of course, but shopping for children’s clothing, for instance, seems to be a common mother’s duty. In my own household, I sheepishly confess, I seem to be the standard-bearer on matters of order and cleanliness.

Could we share the family and home responsibilities more equally among men and women? And would that change the gender distribution in headship?

I leave you with Sheryl Sandberg’s 2010 TEDWomen Talk on this topic, in case you haven’t seen it. Don’t have 15 minutes to watch? Fast-forward to the “Make Your Partner a Real Partner” segment, 10:06, for the nugget relevant to today’s post.