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Overcoming Barriers, Part 1: Changing the Narrative around Gender and Leadership in K-12 Education

By Kimberly Cullen
Overcoming Barriers, Part 1: Changing the Narrative around Gender and Leadership in K-12 Education

In 2019, Equality Can’t Wait, part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, reported that at the current pace, it will take 208 years to achieve gender parity worldwide. These days, when a woman is hired as the CEO of a major multinational organization, this is newsworthy. As women, we celebrate these victories, and yet, at the same time, it is frustrating that the fact that a woman is selected as CEO for a company should be newsworthy at all. The world of international education is no different. 

In 2019, UNESCO reported that around the world, 94% of early childhood teachers and less than 50% of secondary teachers are women, in high-income countries like Finland, Japan, Portugal and South Korea, women make up no more than 13% of the school leaders. Worldwide, it is clear that “teaching is frequently a female profession with men in charge.”  

Earlier this month, Dr. Debra Lane and I presented at two separate virtual gatherings of international educators about the struggles that women leaders in international k-12 schools face. Our book - tentatively called Raise Her Up: Leadership Lessons from women in international k-12 education - is now in the publisher’s hands, and we are hoping to see it in print by the end of 2021. Our presentations, hosted by the Educational Collaborative for International Schools (ECIS) and the Association for the Advancement of International Education (AAIE), were attended by over 50 participants, most of whom were women. The book brings together the stories of ten different women, all of whom have served as leaders on various levels in the world of international education, and identifies some of the common challenges that these women have had to overcome along the way.  

Our presentations explored themes like vulnerability, authenticity, self-awareness, boundaries, self-care, persistence, resilience, relationships, imposter syndrome, and courage. Women often find themselves climbing uphill only to have to break into leadership, easily carried off track by things like parenthood, family responsibility, and fear. Too often, women are asked to choose: to choose between being a mother and being a professional, or between hard and soft. The assumption is that women cannot (or should not?) be both. We explored some of these challenges with the women in attendance, and we asked them to share some of the things that get in the way of their own self-confidence as they navigate their leadership roles and responsibilities.  

Fear of failure stands out as one of the biggest hurdles women face as they settle into leadership positions. That fear comes from a range of internal and external expectations. Other fears reported by participants include:  

  • Fear of not being able to have my voice heard.
  • Fear of not being decisive enough in crisis situations. I tend to be more reflective than some of my male counterparts and don’t always jump to take the “quick, decisive action” often associated with males in leadership. 
  • Fear of not being good enough all of the time.
  • Fear of not being as good at my work as people think I am.  
  • Fear of not doing my part to mentor and support others.
  • Fear of not being able to advocate or communicate effectively for myself and others.
  • Fear of not being able to lead as well as the community believes a man would do.
  • Fear of not being able to attend to the needs of my teachers (pandemic related, virtual teaching, work-life balance).
  • Fear of being minimized or that my voice is not heard.
  • Fear of failure in a new job.
  • Fear that I’m not good enough. 
  • Fear of not being able to handle everything that I take on.
  • Fear that there are so many people more capable and experienced than me, and that I may not stand out as unique.
  • Fear of not being able to live up to people’s expectations of me.
  • Fear of speaking up. 
  • Fear of the future and what my career may look like post covid.
  • Fear of not being good enough for the Board, the staff, the parents.
  • Fear of confrontation (even though I do it well).
  • Fear of disappointing people.
  • Fear of losing my true self as I strive to meet the demands of my job and others’ expectations. 
  • Fear of judgement and being misunderstood.

Our work focuses on women’s stories and the lessons they learned. Our book brings together those lessons into common themes that we then dig into with targeted, thoughtful exercises for women designed to help build on their strengths, and we believe this is important work. But it’s also essential that we not put the onus on women to have to bust into leadership or to continually prove their worthiness, even once in the roles. There is enough research out there to demonstrate that women are every bit as competent as men in leadership positions, and in some cases, even more. There should no longer be a glass ceiling, period.

Many of the things that are happening - mentoring, promoting, providing increased opportunities, and so on - do help. Ultimately, though, we need to change the narrative around gender and how it relates to leadership. I consider myself a professional woman, and woman leader, a working mom, and these have been sources of great pride for me when I consider that I was raised in a fairly traditional family. The problem is that the very composition of labels suggest that the two - professional and woman, woman and leader, working and mom - don’t go together. That may have been the case in the past for many women, but it’s simply not something we need to carry into our future.  

When we consider the roles we play in society as educators, we have to remember that we are all responsible for ensuring that the generations to come create and contribute to a world that is socially responsible, equitable, and cares about inclusion and diversity. As educators, we need to be the first to harness potential, open doors, and create opportunities for everyone, independent of the things that make us different.  

In an article published in the Harvard Business Review in 2013, Ibarra, Ely and Kolb talk about second generation gender bias, which includes the subleties of gender discrimination - i.e. actions and attitudes that aren’t in any way intended to discriminate yet they are carried over from the past and contribute to propagating that discrimination in spite of ourselves. For example, women are often asked questions in an interview that would never be asked of men. About a year ago, I was interviewing for an international school head position and I was asked about my family situation. When I explained that I was planning to travel alone, because my son would be entering his final year of high school, and my husband would stay with him, the interviewer said two things. First, the interviewer responded “You must have a very supportive husband.” They followed this with “how do your parents feel about you taking a job on your own somewhere?” I am confident that an interviewer would never refer to the supportive nature of a man’s spouse, nor would they ask about how one’s parents might feel about their professional goals.   

There is much work to be done. Schools are working hard to ensure that diversity, inclusion and equity are being taught k-12. However, examples of diversity, inclusion and equity need to be modeled among the adults and in leadership. We need more women at the top - by and large, women are thoughtful, empathic, inclusive leaders with vision, and who focus on empowering growth among their staff. 

For more information about Raise Her Up, coaching and consulting with Debra and Kimberly, please contact us at [email protected] or [email protected]

Share your story with us! Email us or send one of a private message on LinkedIn and we’ll set up a time to connect via zoom. 

Kimberly Cullen is a professional coach, education consultant, and writer, as well as a veteran educator and school administrator.

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