This morning as I waited for an appointment, I flicked through the NESLI 2018 YEAR OF WOMEN IN SCHOOL LEADERSHIP white paper and sighed.

Firstly, I think it is high time that this topic got some serious airplay and I am glad that the white paper does this. However, I can’t help but think that many of the reasons put forward for the relative lack of women in Principal positions is somehow due to a deficit on the part of women. When discussing why there is not parity in leadership numbers, there seems to be an undercurrent that women need to do more, be different or be fixed in order for the tables to turn. I dispute this.

When I became Principal in 1994, I was the only female in the room at my district Principal forums. As a clever and enthusiastic young thing, I was stunned. Where were all my awesome female colleagues? It never occurred to me that they would not have aspired to leadership too. In the fabulous book Lead Like a Woman, authors Megan Della Camina and Michelle McQuaid, investigate the three mindsets we hold as women in our careers:  1) my gender is an advantage, 2) my gender is a disadvantage or 3) my gender is neither an advantage or disadvantage. Up until this point I had never considered my gender would have any impact on my career AT ALL. Yet, all of a sudden, I was being referred to as a “female principal”. Not so subtly I was reminded that I was lesser on three counts, I was young, female AND in special education and therefore on the lowest rung of the pecking order.

In the course of my career I was often made to feel by my line managers that my emotional intelligence, skills of collaboration and relationship building were weaknesses. In a performance review I was told that I was too passionate and that I needed to “care a little less”. Seriously.

While I had amazing female mentors and sponsors, when I requested assistance from a male in authority it was very rarely forthcoming. This is not a whinge but a fact – in 20 years in public education, not one single male in a leadership role did anything proactive to assist, encourage or develop my career.

After leading schools for twelve years, I left public education and created my own company. In collaboration with others, I have delivered highly regarded aspirant leadership programs and had the privilege of coaching hundreds of newly appointed or early career principals. It is my lived experience, as well as 1000’s of hours of coaching conversations with female educational leaders, that leads me to the following inter-related conclusions.

Below are the reasons I believe we don’t have more female Principals.

  • Women often believe they have to learn their way out of every challenge.  They feel they have to know more and be more qualified. They go to every single professional development opportunity, enrol in every course and still believe they need to know more. This is incredibly admirable but it ultimately prevents or delays leadership opportunities. So, while this is a challenge for women I believe that the answer lies NOT with the woman herself but often with her mentors. Unconsciously, mentors and line managers can reinforce this belief that more knowledge is the answer, while an alert coach will challenge this thinking. A mentor is an expert and the mentee a novice, creating the assumption that the aspirant needs to learn from the mentor. On the other hand, the role of a coach is to unlock the potential that already exists and to assist the aspirant to identify what is already working and what needs to change to meet her professional aspirations – and it is rarely more knowledge.
  • Studies show that women need to feel that they have mastered the selection criteria before applying for promotion. This is often cited as a confidence issue that can be fixed with appropriate intervention, including more training. I believe it is a perspective issue, which can be overcome by a simple re-framing question.  I frequently ask the female aspirant leaders I work with to consider the following:

Think of male a Primary principal that you know, one that leads a large but average school.

Are you more skilledless skilled or as skilled as the person you are thinking about?

They will ALWAYS say that they are at least as skilled as the male Principal and often identify as more capable. This re-framing allows the aspirant and I to explore stepping forward into leadership based on the competencies she already has.

  •  In merit selection processes as they currently exist, the unconscious bias towards particular speech tones, voice patterns, dress and body language will always disadvantage women – even with an appropriate gender balance of panel members. Unless selection panels are trained to understand this natural human reaction and how to override it, unconscious bias will still occur. Women have been socialised to be modest about their achievement, consequently merit selection processes are already challenging even before we hold them against higher standards.  So yes, we can train women to alter their tone, body language and delivery but again that assumes their authentic style is not good enough, and that the fault lies with the person and not the process.

  • I believe we have been appointing, rewarding and reinforcing leadership types that are outdated and masculine. The ground-breaking research which resulted in The Athena Doctrine by Gerzema and D’Antino sends a clear message that employees want their leaders to have an appropriate balance of masculine and feminine traits (To understand this idea more, I recommend you read the book but in the meantime watch the Ted Talk). Employees like their leaders to be strategic and decisive – masculine traits, as well as collaborative and empathetic – feminine traits. Yet we merit select for the former and in my experience, actively discriminate against the later. Time and again I see the the only women (and men) being put forward for leadership positions are those who come across as competitive, results driven and somewhat aggressive.  These are not the type of leaders a community wants and nor are they the Constructive leaders that can build a culture for lasting results.

  • The white paper cites break in service as a factor in the disparity and clearly this contributes to the inequity. However, it is not only the break in service itself but also the fact that most women still shoulder the burden of household responsibilities, even when they return to work. Many women return part time to the workforce and there is a perception that they are less valuable than their full-time colleagues. In my experience – show me a 0.6 FTE teacher/leader with family responsibilities and I will show you someone who gets a whole week’s work done in 3 days at school.  Schools educate children yet they are largely un-family friendly in their structures and processes. I believe many women look at the long hours and multiple stressors on the Principal and make a conscious decision to prioritise their wellbeing over their leadership ambition – at least while their children are young. This is not something within the woman we need to fix – it is within the system. 

When given permission to lead authentically, with both head and heart, women will step forward in greater numbers and be selected. They are competent, skilled and more than able. Women don’t need fixing. Women need an education system and it’s many processes, including merit selection and leadership development to value them and not create artificial barriers.  They need skilled sponsors, mentors AND coaches throughout their careers who will assist them to get to leadership positions and provide the support to thrive in those positions. 

Hello there! I am Jenny Cole – Coach, Consultant and Cheerleader. I work with women to create careers, workplaces and lives that allow them to flourish.

I love nothing better than watching smart, capable but overwhelmed women step confidently into their best self and truly succeed.

I am endlessly curious with two successful businesses behind me. My blog shares what I see, what I know and random musings.

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