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Who’s Missing at the Table?

Preparing women for international school leadership
By Kathleen Naglee
Who’s Missing at the Table?

It is September 2016 and I have just taken my seat at the Central and Eastern European Schools Association (CEESA) regional directors board meeting. I glance around at the 25 directors and think about who is missing from the year before: Ellen, Mary, and Mamie. They were three of our only five female directors; each had retired or moved on to a new non-director job the past June. I see the new faces and note that a man has replaced each one of my former colleagues. I grab the one and only new energetic female director to the region. Jane and I sit beside her and let her know she has two instant friends. We find out quickly that, as with many female directors, she probably should have been a head of school ten years ago. She has acquired incredible experience in almost every role in a school. Having been a teacher at multiple levels, she has also held various administrative positions, served as business manager, handled operations, and worked in many other capacities. We tease her that maybe “maintenance” is still missing from her resume, and she laughs, insisting she’s had volunteer experience that could easily count. Her approach had been to try to learn every position in a school before choosing to lead, fearing that she wouldn’t be qualified. The male directors who make up our board are lovely, collegial, and supportive. But, honestly, it feels like we women are outliers on a team of men. We are like those rare female soccer players you see on a high school boys’ team—we must be good at something or we wouldn’t be there. We are anomalies within this system and are easily replaced by men. At times, there have been more Roberts or Johns in the room than women of any name. I constantly feel like an exception to the rule. Are we actually rare talents, or just oddities to be admired? CEESA represents one of the most desirable and progressive educational regions in the world. We lead world-renowned schools with highly qualified staff, and accredited programs with U.S. State Department assistance. We qualify as the best of the best. Yet, there were only three female heads of school in our region in academic years 2016–17, 2017–18. And for next year? Only three. Again. We are in a field that is dominated by women serving as teachers, coordinators, principals, and in virtually every capacity except head of school. How is this still the case in educational leadership? It’s not as if the women in the region haven’t made efforts to increase our numbers. Two famous female directors on the verge of retirement, Ellen Stern and Linda Dueval, held sessions at the Educational Collaborative for International Schools (ECIS) conference for years. Ellen pushed CEESA female directors to organize sessions at the regional conference in 2015, and we joined her. I took up the baton when Ellen moved on, offering a two-hour session in March 2016 entitled, “How to Interview for the Head Position.” After that session, a female recruiter in attendance confided to me with disappointment that, though she’d hoped to meet some potential candidates for headship at international schools in Germany, she hadn’t found a woman in the room who was ready to take on this role. She was right. I, too, had realized that the workshop participants were lacking experience, confidence, and executive presence—the “it” factor that is palpable when you meet other female leaders. I knew I had to find women earlier in their career and I needed more than two hours to explain the steps needed to position them for growth and leadership. What I needed was a retreat. There were simple tips we’d need to discuss about how to navigate your career, but more importantly, I needed to teach each participant how to speak to her individual vision of education in public. Every leader needs to know and own their view and have the confidence to speak to their beliefs. After that conversation with the recruiter, I knew I had to think of a new plan that connected mind, body, and vision. Two months later, in May of 2016, I went to the board of directors with a proposal to found the CEESA Aspire leadership retreat program for women, telling them about some of the obstacles I had noted and experienced. I wanted to delve deeper into the issues surrounding this phenomenon. I then showed a photo of myself getting ready to deadlift 60 kilos, my bodyweight. Underneath the photo, a caption stated, “Directors Do the Heavy Lifting.” The photo felt shocking. The people in the room only knew me as a fellow board member, a female in her late forties, a mom… certainly not as a weight lifter. I told them that this photo was a metaphor, pointing to the problem of perception in the position of the headship. Others do not imagine women doing the “heavy lifting” of leading a school, running a multi-million-dollar budget and making difficult decisions. We, as women, often do not see it in us either. We have been taught to lift the one-kilo pink weights instead. I had the confidence that I could work on the issue of self-belief in the context of a female retreat, but I needed each director to do his or her part to be the outside voice of positive perception. I asked each to tap a woman for Aspire, one they believed had the potential to lead a school some day. It’s been two years now since I made that initial proposal. Since then, two cohorts of women have completed the CEESA Aspire program. I have felt energized by the capacity of these amazing women and have honestly learned so much from working with them. The experience has allowed me to witness powerful changes of perspective on leadership itself, where it is perceived as a mindset connected to one’s devotion to helping others. One of the most powerful moments of Aspire was the first: the act of the director nominating a woman to the program. Being seen as a future leader by a person in power effectively changed women’s perspectives on their own potential. This is a simple act, frankly, that is not happening in schools around the world but easily could. It was incredibly empowering for these women to hear these words of encouragement which, until Aspire, most of the women in both groups had never heard of. Aspire has begun to make a difference. A woman from our first cohort attained a head of school position for the upcoming school year. Women in the group have since published books, moved into more vital roles, and—perhaps most importantly—they’ve come to understand that their unique vision is needed in the world of education. Aspire continues, having been funded as a permanent program in our region. To make global strides, however, a call to action is required. We need school leaders around the world to recognize this as a genuine problem and understand how powerful the encouragement of younger female colleagues can be, whether in the form of opportunities or even a few words. If women do not enter the pipeline towards leadership by their late thirties, it is unlikely that they will be able to navigate into the headship in subsequent years. Most male leaders I have met attained their first headship by the age of forty. Some were even leading major schools in their thirties. Many female heads only feel ready to apply when they’re closer to fifty, after their children have grown or they finally feel qualified. Ironically, many will then face another problem of age discrimination or lack of experience in comparison with men in the final rounds of interviews at top schools. We will not see a change or any movement toward gender equity in the next decade unless we begin to act now. Please join me by recognizing this as an issue in the top international schools and then join me by stating to women, “I see you leading a school one day.” Kathleen Naglee is currently the CEO and Director of the International School of Estonia and moves on as the next Head of School at the International School of Helsinki in the 2018-2019 school year. She serves the global community as a keynote speaker, workshop leader, educational consultant and executive coach.

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06/24/2018 - Stephen
Kathleen Naglee's courageous leadership is noteworthy because of the lengths to which women have to go to in order to be recognized as worthy in the company of men who have far less experience and credentials. Women in leadership are needed now more than ever. Thanks for this timely article Kathleen and keep disrupting the status quo.
06/24/2018 - Isola
Dear Ms. Naglee,
A well written and timely article and one which I have seen throughout my 22 years as a school executive. As an African American educator and school administrator your reality is mine but mine is a more stark reality as it is more rare to find men of color in school leadership positions. To make matters worse, men of color when seeking employment have the additional task of breaking through prejudicial barriers that believe either openly or subliminally only white men from Western countries can lead. Let's keep bringing light to this elephant in the room.
Sincerely, I
06/24/2018 - Emily Meadows
Thank you for this important piece, and for your example and leadership.