In this column, I previously shared an article about the double standards facing women pursuing a school leadership role. But there’s one topic that comes up again and again, what about having children? Has pursuing a leadership pathway been impacted by, or influenced their decisions about, raising a family? Interestingly, the stories about their experiences as parents parallel many of the same lines as all of the other challenges of being a woman in leadership.
It’s worth noting that these questions about parenting and family life are almost exclusively directed at women. Women seeking to attain and navigate leadership roles encounter far more frequent questions from others and are perceived as facing far more dilemmas related to their family choices and responsibilities than their male counterparts. Women around the world clearly contend with the weight of a complex web of internal and external pressures, stereotypes, expectations, and decisions around family life. The following stories from the Women Who Lead interviews reflect their frustrations and also their strategies for success in this often sensitive but crucial area.
Many of the Women Who Lead express frustration about having been asked about being a parent during interviews for leadership positions. Carla Marshall, then director of teaching and learning at United World College (UWC), Southeast Asia, recalls an experience when she was pregnant with her first child while interviewing for a leadership position (prior to moving to UWC). During that process, there were some questions about being a parent and how the “emotional state” of being a parent could influence her role. She points out that there “needs to be a high level of trust within the organization, that a person can play both roles of parent and leader.” In the end, the questions asked during the interview process led her to pull her application because she could tell there was not a cultural fit between her and that particular school.
Similarly, Michelle Khuns, formerly a curriculum director and now an international school consultant, shares a story about coaching aspiring school leaders and noting that women often get comments about how to be a successful principal while also being a parent, but men rarely do. She wonders, “How do we respond to that question? What are our words? That’s what we need to figure out as female leaders.” Finding ways to positively address these unfair but frequent questions about family can clearly be a constant and draining challenge for women.
Carla also notes that in society, not only are women generally the primary caregivers, but even when both parents are involved, the cognitive load to organize and do all the planning often still falls on the women. “Just because the father is present, doesn’t mean that he’s the one doing the thinking. In most cases, the mother is doing exactly the same job at home, carrying the cognitive load for the family. Generally, the same expectation doesn’t exist for men, and fathers have more freedom to choose their hours.” Grace McCallum also reflected on this challenge, highlighting that “the mental load of being a woman and a parent, it’s invisible but it’s big. All these little, tiny nitpicky things on our minds that are unseen but important.” The extra energy required to work against these unbalanced expectations can be a significant stress on women pursuing leadership roles.
Lack of Role Models and Perceptions of Parenthood
Jennifer Tickle, secondary principal at Dresden International School in Germany, notes that a lot of the women she saw in leadership positions didn’t have kids, so she found it hard to envision both being a working mom and being in a leadership position. She points out that she wasn’t able to visualize the possibilities of balancing those situations until she happened to be working in a school with four women who all had children around the same age, as well as leadership ambitions. She says, “It was really powerful to see that there were others with the same challenges. The more we can share our stories the better.” Unfortunately, it’s often hard to find these kinds of role models or exemplars.
Michelle Khuns notes that “people sometimes think that leadership and family life are not compatible.” She points out that even women sometimes tell other aspiring leaders that they can’t be good parents and good leaders. But she doesn’t believe that’s true, saying, “You can make it compatible because everything you’re doing that makes yourself whole is going to help you in your leadership position.” Michelle notes, “You can be an effective school leader and be an effective family member or friend. You don’t have to give up all of that to be an impactful leader.” It might be important for aspiring female leaders to find strategies to ignore unhelpful advice, even if it comes from other women, and instead to seek out perspectives such as Michelle’s to focus on.
Advocating for a Personal Life
Anita Chen, who was the director of technology at the International School of Helsinki at the time, shares her story of moving to Finland, away from her family, when her daughter was very young. She points out that Finnish society places a high priority on families, so she had very generous childcare leave. However, even with all of the support, she still felt like she was failing because she was struggling to juggle home and work, which had an impact on her mental wellbeing. This experience taught her the importance of being able to look after herself and her family before attending to school issues, which became one of her criteria when she began looking for the next job.
One interviewee noted that once you’re in a leadership position having a family can actually make it easier to draw distinctions between work and personal life. Katie Koenig, elementary principal at the American School of Rabat at the time of the interview, explained that it’s challenging to be a leader, no matter your gender. She points out that “it’s hard to be a young single woman because there’s a lot of hustle in leadership and it’s really easy to say ‘I have to go home to my family,’ and I don’t get to say that. Having a life outside of that takes a lot of advocacy.” The truth is that leaders are probably going to be expected to work unusually hard no matter their family situation unless they find ways to place effective boundaries between work and home life and express them to others.
Making It Work
Rashida Nachef, a multi-campus school director in the United Arab Emirates, notes that being a parent in a busy leadership position may be even more challenging in the Middle East where, she points out, “men don’t give as much support.” Despite the pressure she felt from both her family and her husband’s family to stay home once she got pregnant, she never gave up her career. To appease her family, she always said, “If, at any time, you see that I’m not taking good care of my daughter, you have the full right to tell me to stay home.” Although it was not easy to raise three children while leading, she credits her success to being able to manage her time well, setting aside time for her children as well as time for herself.
She says, “If you give the attention you need to give to your children, without compromising, you can keep your career and success in the workplace, and at the same time give your family the attention they deserve and they will appreciate that.” While every woman’s specific situation might require them to take different approaches in how they structure their time and navigate the expectations of others, many of the Women Who Lead interviewees describe how they were able to find similar ways to support their families without compromising.
Michelle Remington, superintendent at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia, describes some adjustments she had to make when she had children as an established administrator and suddenly found herself working from home and nursing and answering emails at the same time. She says that that sort of challenging situation might not be the right fit for everyone, and stresses that “it’s hard for women in leadership” and that “there are definitely sacrifices that are unique to women; traveling across the world when you’re trying to breastfeed a baby isn’t easy.” But concludes that “I'm a better parent because I work,” a positive perspective shared across several interviews.
Beth Dressler, deputy head of school and primary years program principal at Dresden International School in Germany at the time of the interview, shares how she prioritizes her family by blocking out a morning or a Sunday, and in the evenings. She notes that they intentionally block that time out and name that time as their time together.
Similarly, Clarissa Saysons, elementary school principal at International School Beijing at the time of the interview, notes that she tries to make sure to have family dinner time where everyone is present in the moment. She says, “As my children get older, I’m trying to be more conscious of who my children are becoming and being available to them. It’s really hard when I’m home and thinking about work, but I know that they’re the most important people that I need to focus on.” Intentional strategies for focusing and prioritizing like these were frequently mentioned as helping several of the Women Who Lead interviewees create space for family time together without allowing work to creep in.
Being a Role Model
Many of the women I spoke to pointed out the importance of being a role model for others, including aspiring female leaders who want to have a family, as well as for their own children and for school community members. By being a parent and a leader, these women are demonstrating that it’s possible.
Grace McCallum, elementary principal at Frankfurt International School at the time of the interview, says, “Taking on leadership as a young woman, we all have the responsibility to be sure that we’re making this experience normalized.” She says at first there was a little bit of pressure to keep her family life and her work very separate, but she knew that was never going to work for her. She notes, “It was really important for me to set the tone of: this is who I am, this is what I bring to the table, this is what it’s going to look like. If that doesn’t work, I’m out.” During one point in her career, she had to bring her newborn with her and nurse her at the table. “If you want to be involved, and your baby is young, you can do both if you want to. You’re going to have to rip off the band aid and make it normal to everyone.” In other words, she realized that making leadership possible for her meant that she couldn’t hide that she has kids.
Rashida Nachef highlights that because she worked while raising her children, she taught them to be self-responsible and how to appreciate work. She says her “girls can’t imagine themselves getting married and being simply a housewife,” and they never missed anything that their cousins had, in relation to the attention and affection of a mother. She is proud to have provided a role model of a successful working mother to her daughters.
Nicole Schmidt, high school principal at the American International School Johannesburg, addresses the challenge of being a leader in a small international school community where “you’re always the principal, even at a birthday party or game.” She uses those opportunities to say, “I’m here as a mom, I need to be a mom today” to help other parents recognize the varying roles she has within the community.
Melanie Vrba, high school principal at Western Academy of Beijing, shares the story of when she was considering accepting a leadership role and her daughter, in elementary school at the time, said, “Mom, but principals are boys” and she realized that every other principal at the school had been a male. She decided to take the role then and there because she wanted her daughter to see that families can function in different ways.
Jennifer Tickle appreciates that international schools have really helped with these issues because they’re family-oriented environments, and she’s worked to foster that within schools that didn’t have those structures set up. She says, “It’s really important as a school leadership that we set up structures so that people can manage working while having children. We’ve learned that it’s ok and we are human and sometimes kids will come in and be more of a pressing priority.” In this way, she exemplifies someone who’s acting to serve as a role model for leaders with families and who is also working to make structural changes to make the possibilities more visible to the whole community.
The stories shared make it clear that there are definite obstacles faced by women leaders in the area of family. However, many of them are more about facing the internal and external challenges posed by societal expectations and the perceptions of others, rather than representing any actual insurmountable barriers to women who want to both lead and have a rich family life. This is why it’s important to share these interviewees’ stories about their experiences as parents. They reflect, in miniature, all of the frustrations and paradoxes of being a woman in leadership but, through doing so, provide some reassurance and guidance along the potential paths to success.
If you’re a recruiter and you find yourself continually asking questions about family life primarily to women, or if you’re a female leader and you find yourself frequently being asked questions along these lines, now is the time to stop and consider your actions. As a recruiter, why are you asking this question? What does it say about the organization you represent and what you believe about female leaders? As an aspiring or experienced female leader, what is your response when asked? What does this question reveal about the organization that’s interviewing you? While there are invariably challenges for all leaders who are parents, why should the burden mainly fall on women?
Kim Cofino has been an educator in international schools since August 2000. Having lived and worked in Germany, Malaysia, Thailand, and Japan, Kim has had a variety of roles in international schools, including (her favorite) instructional coach. Now based in Bangkok, Thailand, Kim is the co-founder and CEO of Eduro Learning, which offers online customized professional development in a community-driven environment, including COETAIL, Women Who Lead, and The Coach Certificate & Mentorship programs. Kim is co-author of Your Connected Classroom: A Practical Guide for Teachers, as well as co-host of the #coachbetter podcast and YouTube series. Find out more about Kim at edurolearning.com.