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Overcoming Barriers, Part 2:  Supporting Women Who Seek (and Deserve) Leadership Opportunities

Only when we give voice to our story do we understand that we are not alone
By Kimberly Cullen
Overcoming Barriers, Part 2:  Supporting Women Who Seek (and Deserve) Leadership Opportunities

Last month, @DebraLane and I presented at two separate virtual gatherings of international educators about the struggles that women leaders in international k-12 schools face.  Our booktentatively 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.  My own story is filled with undertones of imposter syndrome—23 years in the same school and a variety of positions over that time.  I began as an intern in the Headmaster’s office (writing letters and filing), gradually moving into the position of Alumni Coordinator followed by Head of Development and Community Relations.  In 10 years, I got married, had three children, and got two masters degrees.  The school took a chance on me, moving me from back office to front and center, and I became the school’s secondary college and guidance counselor.  After six years, I took on another new role:  Dean of Students.  With each new position, I worked hard to overcome the learning curve.  With each move up, the learning curve grew steeper.  Eighteen years after I began working at the school, I became the Upper School Director.  No matter how well-prepared one might feel they are for a leadership position, there is no better learning than doing the authentic work of leadership.  While my journey has the makings of a good, solid “self-made” story, where success came as a result of hard work and determination, the story is not uncommon for women:  this story is riddled with self-doubt and the sense that I had to take everything on to prove my worth.

Imposter syndrome comes from fear—fear of not being enough, of not meeting people’s expectations, of failure.  It can cause a kind of fight, flight or freeze response.  From fear of speaking up in a meeting or stating your opinion in the Boardroom, to fear of making decisions, or taking a strong stance.  Wanting to be everything to everyone means you constantly feel like a fake.  Over time, I learned to learn, I learned to fight—not freeze—and I learned to lean on my network. I learned that the single most important thing in my own professional existence was the intersection of authenticity and integrity.  I learned to establish boundaries, to know my worth, to trust my instinct.  After 20 years of feeling grateful to just have a good job in a good school, I finally learned to negotiate a salary increase.

With both the AAIE and ECIS groups, Debra and I challenged the women and men in the zoom-room to think about the lessons they have learned as leaders and gatekeepers.  We asked them to identify what it is they are willing to start and stop doing to raise themselves and others up.  Here are their responses:

Start Doing

  • Take up more space! (physical and metaphorical)
  • Push to achieve my vision!
  • Speak up more—especially about tough topics
  • Have more intentionality
  • Trust my instincts
  • Continue to network
  • Having some more faith in my own intelligence
  • Ask for help
  • Engage men in conversations about gender inequity
  • Staying curious about viewpoints with which I don’t agree
  • Speak out more about injustices
  • Set time for learning and reflecting
  • Believe in myself more
  • Advocate more for myself!
  • Continue to raise the issue with regional association
  • “Sponsor” rising women leaders
  • Create a stronger network for all women
  • Make space for flexibility within work schedules
  • Start asking all genders
  • Be more inclusive of voices that are not being heard
  • Mentor women
  • Continue to raise the issue with regional association
  • Reach out to other female leaders for mentorship
  • Encourage women to pursue their dreams too.
  • Recognize the systemic systems upholding sexism in my school
  • Speak up, even if the ideas make some people uncomfortable.
  • Hire women in roles that are traditionally male
  • Mentor women, be a champion of other women
  • Encourage women to believe they can lead & balance their lives
  • Tap women leaders and give them opportunities

Stop Doing

  • Being afraid to stand up and be different.
  • Thinking that women can’t break the barriers.
  • Beating myself up with my words. I am my worst critic.
  • Being afraid of being labelled a feminist.
  • Stop being afraid to advocate for my needs.
  • Assuming male leaders will get the jobs I am interested in.
  • Comparing myself to other women in a critical way.
  • Telling myself I’m not good enough.
  • Being afraid of failure.
  • Accepting bad behaviour from unsupportive men and women.
  • Succumbing to the unspoken external expectations around what women should and shouldn’t do.
  • Beating myself up with my words (stop being my worst critic).
  • Telling myself I’m not good enough.
  • Spending too much time anticipating what others might expect of me.
  • Wondering if I will be articulate enough.
  • Feeling like I’m not good enough.
  • Shaming my lack of knowledge.
  • Thinking that I need to know everything.
  • Pushing myself so hard!
  • Feeling like I have to have all of the answers
  • Undervaluing myself.
  • Doubting myself.
  • Not believing in myself.
  • Apologising for being good at what I do!
  • Being scared to dare.
  • Only engaging in conversations where I feel I have ‘authority’ to speak.

When you consider your own professional learnings—what do you see here that you connect with?  When you think about how to Raise Her (or others) Up, what are you willing to start doing?  What are you willing to let go of?

From "Overcoming Barriers, Part 1" (posted recently on LinkedIn and TIEOnline): 

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. 

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

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05/29/2021 - A Female Feminist Int’l Teacher
It’s about time someone raised the bar on this in this highly nepotistic and sexist international education scene. Good tips. Important article. The day someone told me that the majority of international school heads are former PE teachers - male - was the day i opened my eyes and counted. There’s truth to it. Count the number of paid leaders in schools. Men outnumber women. It is unacceptable and must be systemically challenged.