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Realities Women Face in Pursuing a Leadership Career

By Kim Cofino
Realities Women Face in Pursuing a Leadership Career

Based on data from Academy for International School Heads (AISH), the percentage of women in Head of School (HoS) positions has not changed from 28–32 percent over the last 12 years. We may perceive more women in leadership positions. We may even see more at the lower levels of leadership. But, as Deb Welch said in my interview with her for the Women Who Lead project, “The pipeline becomes a trickle at the top.”

Many of us acknowledge that diversity in international schools is a foundational value. However, in practice, we rarely see that diversity reflected in our leadership positions. If you believe that needs to change, it’s time to take action. 

The Women Who Lead Project

During the first half of 2020, I interviewed over 70 successful women leaders from all areas of education, including Heads of School, Principals, Curriculum Leaders, and Influential Leaders such as consultants and leaders of education organizations. In these conversations, we discussed:

  • How to recognize and tap into your potential as a leader
  • The unique challenges women face in pursuing a leadership position
  • The nuances of interviewing for a leadership position, particularly making the jump from divisional leadership to Head of School
  • Handling confrontation as a leader who identifies as a woman
  • Finding a sense of balance
  • Finding focus and priorities as a busy leader, and
  • Essential skills for leaders who identify as women.

The Unique Challenges Women Face

One of the key themes that emerged is that women face specific and unique challenges in pursuing a leadership role, including:

  • unconscious biases that influence decision making at every level unless systems and practices are put in place to check them
  • discrimination against women of color, and non-native English speakers—both overt and covert
  • concerns about hiring women due to their need to balance family and work (questions not raised in conversation with male leaders)
  • dealing with impostor syndrome and the lack of representation seen in daily life, leading women to hesitate to apply for positions although they are qualified
  • navigating the “old boys club” of leadership where positions are rotated between the same group of male Heads

While this appears bleak (and, truthfully, it’s not surprising), there are so many things we can do to support, empower, and advocate for women seeking leadership positions. And of course, there is much that aspiring leaders can do to prepare themselves for this journey. 

Hearing the real-life stories of women who have succeeded because of their willingness to embrace the challenge and the rewards of leadership is inspiring. The over 70 women I interviewed didn’t start out as leaders from birth; each took her own unique path, and many shared similar experiences along the way. Better understanding the path to leadership for women is essential for all leaders and all aspiring leaders. 

Relevant for ALL Leaders

If you are serving or aspire to serve in a leadership capacity, make time to explore these conversations, to reflect on your practice and choices as a leader, and to identify opportunities to empower leadership pathways for those who are interested.

All 70 conversations, edited and organized into eight key themes are available within the Women Who Lead program. Alongside these unique stories are highly curated companion research and resources to put those experiences into a wider context. Each key theme includes reflection prompts differentiated for both current and aspiring leaders to help you identify your next step.

This article was first published on ECIS. Learn more about the Women Who Lead program.

Kim Cofino is a keynote at the ECIS 2021 Leadership Conference, “Diversity and Belonging – the power of commonality and inclusion” taking place 8-10 April 2021. She is an author, entrepreneur, educational consultant, curriculum designer and teacher originally from the United States and currently based in Bangkok, Thailand. Her work is based on nearly two decades of classroom experience teaching in Germany, Malaysia, Thailand, and Japan. Kim is the co-founder and CEO of Eduro Learning, COETAIL, and Board Secretary of the Learning 2.0 Global Conference.

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