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A Transformational Approach to Leadership for Women in Education

By Alexandra Ritt Gustad
A Transformational Approach to Leadership for Women in Education

“Be pretty and quiet,” I was warned. This line stayed with me until adulthood from the time it was first thrust upon me. I was 9 years old and was apparently bolder than what was appreciated on a school trip when trying to advocate for myself in a chaotic public space.

Growing into a woman, along with other intersections of identity, societal norms reinforced that “feminine qualities,” such as being soft-spoken, responsive to the feelings of others, and putting the needs of others first, were the norm in everyday life. That expectation, however, was juxtaposed with the jolting reality of the messages about how a woman must act in order to excel in a professional capacity. Once I began to pursue a leadership role within education, I was encouraged to shed my “softer” qualities and adopt a more assertive, overly confident, unapologetic stance. The polarity between what was considered appropriate for my identity versus what was desired and accepted for leadership was conflicting, confusing, and systematically reductive in regard to the potential that women bring to the professional landscape. As I aspired to move from a more unofficial leadership position in an international school to a more formal role, I was consumed with confusion about how my identity and actions would be judged, rather than getting on with the educational role itself.

Navigating through the world of leadership within international schools has been characterized by challenges, personal growth, and the invaluable mentorship found from many inspiring women along the way. Throughout my journey, there have been certain touchstones which shaped my conceptualization of leadership and propelled me towards redefining my own skills as unique, valuable, and effective in growing my own career as well as supporting other women who aspire to lead within education. One thing became clear; no journey is the same. Women tend to have distinctly unique pathways (with far more variables as seen with men in leadership) towards a range of goals, but we need to move from the mindset that we are traveling down these roads in isolation. Quite simply, we are not. The significance of women leaders uplifting others is tremendous, through modeling and mentorship, along whatever their path turns out to be.

One of the most impactful professional learning experiences that I have had has been taking the EduroLearning course, Women Who Lead, and listening to dozens of women leaders speak about their experiences in education within international schools. It reinforced the reality of certain trends that women leaders repeatedly face, validated the need for women to support other women in the leadership space, and showcased that mentorship and modeling are inherent to moving from aspiration to action. Is it solely women’s burdens to personally change their approach towards leadership or does this require greater systemic, transformational change that comes through movements - movements such as women acknowledging these common themes and galvanizing around methods of action to improve the system? This question is analyzed in a practical, research-based way in the book that came out of the Women Who Lead interviews, Finding Your Path as a Woman in School Leadership (2023). It is simultaneously a guide and a catalyst for positive change towards a more diverse and inclusive educational landscape. This book has influenced my own journey as I move towards supporting emerging women leaders in education through action. 

The unnerving reality is that leadership roles within international schools contain far fewer women than men in the top positions. This is a disconcerting statistic, considering that 75 percent of general educators in schools worldwide identify as women. According to research from Finding Your Path as a Woman in School Leadership (2023), 28-30 percent of Heads of international schools are women. The disparity is alarming and highlights the inequitable representation of women in leadership positions within education.

Within education, women experience unique pathways toward leadership roles, both formal and informal, which are juxtaposed by the common and very specific barriers that women in these positions face. These challenges range from feelings related to imposter syndrome, lack of confidence, or being criticized for having too much confidence (often described as aggressive/bossy when seen in women or as confident/strong when witnessed in men), as well as minimizing the value of skills that are seen as primarily “feminine.”

As highlighted by Chamorro-Premuzic and Cindy Gallop in the Harvard Business Review (2020), women are under-represented in leadership roles not because they are unqualified or lacking in competency and other leadership talent. Research shows that gender differences in leadership efficacy actually favor women, claiming that, “gender differences in leadership effectiveness (what it takes to perform well) are out of sync with gender differences in leadership emergence (what it takes to make it to the top).” This supports the analysis that women need not emulate men; rather, they need to leverage their own skills for greater effectiveness in leadership, thus elevating themselves and other women. Certain approaches which are considered more effective and seen more typically in women leaders (according to this research) include embracing vulnerability as an asset. Owning your limitations and committing to improving - this is an authentic, honest way of acting from a position of competence, rather than empty confidence. Empower others through the power of emotional connection, support, and empathy.

Having read about the common experiences and anecdotes of myriad women leaders, it became clear that there is great diversity in all their personal stories and their end goals. Some women want to be Principals or Heads of Schools, others want to consult privately, and many want to be masters of their subject area as coordinators or Directors. The common thread amongst them is that they are not alone. There are others who are there to validate the conflicting feelings, the confusing barrage of societal messages, and to help move past these barriers to ultimately realize ambitions. Recognizing this and shifting towards actively empowering oneself and others along this path is a way in which women leaders can uplift one another.

Here are some concrete ways to join the movement:

  • Find a mentor/be a mentor; cultivate a culture of support and foster an environment that empowers future women leaders in education.
  • Identify your unique skills, the skills which can inspire others to enhance their own qualities as leaders. Dig deeply! Qualities or skills that you might have dismissed as considered “soft skills” are key and need to be re-examined.
  • Engage in the reflective and transformational process of reframing your ideas of what qualifies as leadership qualities. This requires an examination of your own biases, societal biases that are positioned as “the norm,” and a commitment towards publicly acknowledging both of these biases at play and the importance of nontraditional leadership qualities that have emerged as effective.
  • Engage in a book study of Finding Your Path as a Woman in School Leadership in your organization, or as part of a collaborative with several organizations. The more we galvanize, the wider our reach.
  • Gather formal, informal, and aspiring women leaders in your school and take the Women Who Lead course from Eduro Learning as a cohort.
  • Bring men into the discussion! In order for transformational change within educational leadership to take hold, it requires investment from a range of stakeholders.
  • Share your voice as a woman leader signifying the importance of supporting other aspiring women leaders in education. Write an article, blog, social media post, or contribute to a podcast to help propagate the incredible work that already exists and to create your own.

No matter what your end goal might be, and whatever pathway you choose or fall into, supporting other women will provide guidance in navigating through the challenges and uncertainties of being a woman leader in schools. Regardless of the stage in the journey or role you are pursuing, uplifting through mentorship and action is empowering and will lead to greater diversity and representation within school leadership.


Alexandra Ritt Gustad is the English as an Additional Language coordinator PreK - 12 at the American School of Bombay.

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03/28/2024 - Sharin
This article is not only interesting, but it is also extremely useful for women in the beginning, middle, or even twilight of their careers. My favorite suggestion is to involve male counterparts to create a new and more useful definition of leadership.
03/28/2024 - TRISA
I have been so touched and encouraged as i read through the article. I could see myself as I read your personal experience, i believe many women out there should have this kind of information to inspire them. As a woman school leader , I have realised this is where I belong to see myself rise higher in my leadership skills.