I was fortunate to attend and present at the Inaugural Carolyn Warner Women in Leadership Conference hosted by the Arizona Association of School Administrators this week. It was uplifting and fulfilling to spend a day with amazing speakers and to have the opportunity to collaborate with such incredible female leaders from across our state. It got me thinking deeply about the paradoxes of being a leader who also happens to be female. It also made me think about the responsibility I have to support and encourage women as they pursue leadership roles. Maybe more importantly, it reminded me how important it is to continue to be a source of inspiration to others as we embrace top leadership positions.
Where are the Women in Senior Leadership?
The challenges are well known: women in education face a gender gap for senior-leadership positions. There are fewer and fewer women at each step along the path to the superintendency, although we represent a majority of employees at the teacher-rank and outnumber men in college-graduation rates. The barriers include a mix of cultural factors, fixed mind-sets, and stubborn forms of gender bias. The responsibility to address the gap belongs to society in general. Until society changes, it rests in the hands of superintendents and other school leaders – both female and male.
To be a female leader is demanding. There’s a lot of research and information out there demonstrating that many female leaders feel the need to go above and beyond in their roles; they need to be warm and kind as well as competent and firm. Our problem as women, is these characteristics are often seen as opposites. The societal expectation from women is warmth, yet for leaders and men, it is aptitude and toughness. As women, we have to be cautious about coming across too strong; men rarely have that problem. So where does that put us when we lead? And what happens when the female leader also happens to have a diverse cultural or linguistic background?
Women with diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds face additional barriers. Sometimes their credibility is questioned; they’re stereotyped and seen as token employees. Other times they aren’t provided access to critical leadership experiences; and are excluded from influential networks. Individuals in leadership roles need to understand the reasons why some women face these challenges and work to find solutions.
How does our Culture Promote Accessible Leadership?
An inclusive culture, one where belonging and connections are a part of an organization’s core values, is essential to promoting leadership that is accessible for all. Inclusive leaders assure all team members feel they are treated respectfully and fairly, are valued and experience a sense of inspiration and confidence in the workplace. As leaders, it’s important for us to intentionally embed inclusive behaviors and practices into our systems of induction and professional learning; building trust and creating an inclusive team environment as we build and live out our collective vision.
It’s also important to help ease the tensions around what it means to be a leader in our organization; helping our diverse leaders navigate the need to be demanding, yet caring; having high expectations for others while also demonstrating a gentle and compassionate spirit. It takes a safe and trusting environment for leaders to assert competence and express vulnerability. Both are important leadership competencies, yet they are often perceived differently when demonstrated by individuals of diverse backgrounds. The culture we establish and promote makes the difference not only in recruiting diverse leaders, but in building an environment where they feel valued and connected. To build this environment, we have to dig deep in to our traditions and habits of mind. We also have to have courageous conversations related to our assumptions about one another.
How are we Addressing Hidden Bias?
One of the biggest challenges exists in the eyes and minds of our employees: the hidden biases that shadow women throughout their careers and can wreak havoc on their leadership trajectory. Held by men and women alike, these biases take many forms. As leaders, we have to be aware of these biases in order to successfully navigate them and help others do the same. Recently, some of our district leaders have been engaging in dialogue about hidden or implicit bias. It’s a topic I’ve engaged in conversations with family members about as well. In learning more about our implicit biases, we’ve explored various text, and have taken an assessment called the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The discussions are rich and intriguing. They take a lot of internal trust, as often, the results of the assessment are not what folks expect. I am hoping we can continue to expand our conversations and collectively grow from our experiences. And as we continue to learn and grow in this area, it will be important to extend our learning to include workplace biases – especially as we are looking to assess the support and impact of our efforts.
Are we Supportive and Inspiring Enough?
As inclusive leaders we need to be visible and vocal about our support for one another. It’s easy to get caught up in the competitive spirit, but much more difficult to cheer others on. As women, we need to be cognizant of the fact that most executive level leadership positions are held by men, and while this is okay, if we want to see more women joining our ranks, we have to be less competitive and more collegial. If we choose to get caught up in the sprint, we lose sight of the marathon. We compromise our vision of the future and that of our female peers. Ultimately, by not leaning in and actively encouraging other leaders to shine, we are closing off opportunities for ourselves and for others.
So in this spirit, it’s important for us to share explicit narratives about why being inclusive is important to each of us personally and to our schools more broadly whenever we get the chance. These stories allow us to emotionally connect, and helps drive the sense of purpose and collective spirit we are hoping to instill; that each leader is valued and important. It’s about sharing that leadership is fundamentally about service, about loving others into their true potential. It isn’t about us, personally. It isn’t about our position or title or about elevating ourselves above others. And most importantly, leadership is never about about ego. Leadership is about being humble so the people who work with us, and most importantly, our students, thrive and perform at their best each and every day.
Supporting one another can be as easy as promoting another’s success by ‘retweeting’ a post they’ve made on Twitter, sending a note or email to let them know how inspired they’ve made us feel, or more formally recognizing them by nominating them for an award. Taking the time to offer support and feedback to a colleague could make all the difference in their day and/or career. I recently saw a strategy I am going to start using tomorrow. I am modifying it to make it attainable for me. Each day I am going to put out two post-it notes on my desk. As the day goes on, the post-its will serve as reminders of two individuals I want to call, email, message, or otherwise meaningfully address in order to to let them know I am thinking of them and they matter. I am anticipating that many of the post-it notes will be dedicated to female leaders – some in my district and some across my network. My aim is to be a better version of me – more uplifting, authentic, and inspirational in order to encourage leaders who are doing the hard work. It is important to me to contribute in this way, and I believe strongly that each aspiring leader deserves encouragement.
How do we Measure our Impact?
We also need to regularly check our impact. Everything we do, intentionally or unintentionally, models leadership attributes and dispositions for others. As leaders we have the opportunity to model and explicitly instill the capabilities we all need to thrive. Some of the most important are resilience, grit, and confidence. We do this by actively discussing the difficulties we face and the strategies we use to overcome them. By sharing stories about courage and demonstrating strength of character, we are also modeling the ability to rise above tough times; transforming challenging experiences into greater self-assurance instead of self-doubt. It is important for us to share the stories of our struggles as well as our success, so future leaders can see themselves in our examples and anchor their experiences in their own challenges and achievements. Leadership can be a rocky road, and if the portrait that is painted looks glamorous, we fail to paint an accurate rendering of the journey.
We need to show future leaders we believe in them and persist in finding ways to serve them. But believing in them is not enough. We have to proactively set a tone and direction of equity for our districts; stressing inclusive dispositions and practices. Our future leaders need us to model a growth mindset toward colleagues and encourage a culture of acceptance and collegiality. They need us to show strength by being willing to interrupt inequitable mindsets and practices when we see or hear them surface. Most importantly, they need us to communicate our vision – in meetings, on written documents, every chance we get – so there’s no mistaking what we believe in and stand for. And when a breach happens, we have to be prepared to be strong. Demonstrating strength means holding true to our vision and remaining strengths-based. By focusing on strengths instead of deficits, we model what we want to infiltrate throughout the culture of our district. This helps others identify and see the strengths in others, including those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds; offering them the access and opportunity to lead and learn together.
In order to address and dismantle our hidden biases, we need to be comfortable with uncomfortable conversations that push the status-quo. A stronger education system, one fully equipped to meet the needs of our changing society is ready for a more diverse pool of leaders. We, too, need to be ready. The power to change and to keep moving forward lies in our hands.
- What are the ways you have intentionally supported women in taking on senior leadership roles?
- To what extent are you familiar with your own hidden or implicit biases?
- When was the last time you engaged in dialogue about your hidden biases and the strategies you use to address and/or compensate for them?
- What else should school superintendents consider when looking to support female leaders wanting to advance in their careers?