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{HeadLines} September 2014, Vol. 2 
School Leadership and Gender

By Sarah Stewart


Gender equality in the workplace has increasingly been at the forefront of many discussions and studies. Despite women’s gains in education achievements, surpassing men in the attainment of college degrees since 1996, and earning half of all advanced degrees since 2011, women still struggle to gain access to the highest leadership positions in government and industry. 

According to the Center for American Progress, women hold 52 percent of all professional-level jobs, but are only 14 percent of executive officers, 8 percent of top earners, and 16.9 percent of Fortune 500 board members. In government, the United States ranks 60th in women’s political empowerment, below average on the global stage. The world average for the percentage of women in national parliaments is 21 percent; the percentage of women in the U.S. House of Representatives is 18 percent. 

Sitting at this impasse, which experts say has not only stalled since the early 1990s, but worsened, women across the country have been looking for ways to move forward. Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook made a TED Talk in 2010 about the topic. The video went viral and led to her recent best-selling book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. Sandberg calls for women to have greater confidence in their abilities and boldly take a seat at the executive table. However, other studies have found the reason for women’s lack of representation in leadership to be more nuanced, and tied to deep cultural ideas of how men and women should behave, and what leadership looks like. Drawing on a study from the Center for Talent Innovation, Sylvia Ann Hewitt explores that topic at length in her book Executive Presence. She describes the gravitas, communication style, and appearance that we associate with leadership, and admits in a chapter toward the end of the book the challenges women and minorities face in projecting these traits. “If you’re not straight, or not white, or not male, that is, and you aspire to leadership, you’re likely to find yourself up against the impossible expectation that you be someone you’re intrinsically not,” she wrote. 

These disparities and discussions continue into the independent school world. According to a 2010 NAIS report, women comprise the majority of administrative positions in independent schools, but hold only a third of head positions. Also people of color have made minimal inroads into top administrative positions, NAIS found. In independent schools around the country, heads continue to mirror their corporate counterparts; they are largely Caucasian, male, and in their 40s or 50s.

Women attempting to climb the leadership ladder in independent schools have grappled with this reality for some time. Many have pursued roles in all-girls schools where female heads are more common, or navigated a vocational labyrinth, seeking out mentors for advice, or opportunities to become more visible and gain valuable leadership experience. Recently, a growing group of women in independent schools have banded together to create a mentoring network and offer leadership development programs for women. 

In 2010, Gillian Goodman, Sarah Hanawald, and Danette Morton were all working at Greensboro Day School in Greensboro, NC, when they began to discuss a conference for female leaders. Goodman is GDS’s Lower School Director, Hanawald is now the Dean of Teaching and Learning at St. Mary’s School in Raleigh, NC, and Morton is now the Junior High School Principal at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta. The three had recently seen Sandberg’s TED Talk and were inspired to organize an event where female educators could “lean in.” In 2011, they hosted the first Women in Leadership Conference at GDS. Attendees viewed and reflected on Sandberg’s TED Talk, and heard from Doreen Kelly, Head of Ravenscroft School, and Sandra Adams, retired Head of Summit School. The event received glowing feedback and sparked a new network of female leaders.

Overwhelmed with the registration duties, the women partnered with the North Carolina Association of Independent Schools (NCAIS) for their second year. In 2012, they also gained a key partner when Dr. Susan Feibelman joined the staff at GDS as its Upper School Director. Feibelman was finishing her dissertation on the role gender played in independent school leadership, and had a deep network of female heads and leaders that spanned the country. More leaders began to come on board, including Dr. Monica Gillespie, Head of St. Mary’s School in Raleigh, NC, and Dr. Tekakwitha M. Pernambuco-Wise, Head of Sea Crest School in Half Moon Bay, CA. The group also began working with Judith L. Schechtman from Triangle Associates, an international consultancy specializing in higher and independent education. Schechtman helped create the NAIS Leadership Institute and Aspiring Heads programs. The women were eager to share their research and experiences, and discuss formal ways they could support women in independent schools. 

“What we are trying to do is begin integrating theory and practice,” said Feibelman. “Based on NAIS research on leadership trends, we know that there’s a disproportionate number of women teaching and men leading. There’s a deep pipeline of women who can take on leadership roles in our schools and we want to be sure we are speaking to that.”

Feibelman believes conferences and mentoring networks can make a big impact, but that people, and current leaders and board members, need to have conversations about stereotypes around gender and leadership. Leadership continues to be associated with masculine characteristics, putting women in a double bind where they have to seem masculine enough, but still feminine. Instead, she said we need to realize how we are creating these unconscious and inaccurate constructs, and recognize a broader range of leadership styles.

The demand for this type of professional development has been evident in the responses the group has received. The women have averaged around 60 attendees a year from schools around the country and expect those numbers to rise. This summer’s program, held at Providence Day School, focused on “strength, vulnerability, and self-awareness.” They held a discussion panel on current research, as well as a panel on the skill sets search committees and firms look for when filling leadership positions. Contributors included Mark Reed, Head of Charlotte Country Day School, Arch McIntosh, Head of Charlotte Latin School, Matt Gossage, Head of Cannon School, Margaret Sigmon, Head of Fletcher School, and Kerin Hughes, Head of Palisades Episcopal School. 

With the help of NCAIS's Director of Professional Development, Laura Blackburn, the women are also working to create a digital space where they can explore relevant topics and network. The space would house a "just in time" mentoring program, where aspiring leaders could connect with experienced leaders. The group could also dialog over topics that highlight the role of women in society and as leaders. The women have currently been discussing a website that plays off the female stereotypes perpetuated by Disney princesses, called “Rejected Princesses.” “Rejected Princesses” is a blog created by a DreamWorks animator, which in Disney fashion presents women from history or folklore who are either “too awesome, too awful, or too offbeat” to be Disney princesses. While playful, the topic allows for discussion around what it means to be a female leader.  

“It’s been amazing having all these diverse and strong voices to think about our ideas and our network,” said Goodman. “We are committed to creating and providing a network of support and mentoring opportunities for women in independent schools.” 

Goodman and Feibelman will be speaking at the upcoming SAIS Annual Conference in Atlanta, October 18-20. Their session School Leadership: The Role Gender Plays will take place at 8:00 AM on Monday, October 20. Check out the conference schedule and register at To continue this conversation on Twitter: @SAISnews, #saisac.


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