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Supporting equality in international school leadership


by Beccy Fox     @WomenEdTH

Three things have happened recently that got me thinking about women in leadership, in particular, women in leadership in international schools.

The first was some 'smack you in the face' data: out of nearly seventy applicants for a recent head of school search, only eleven were from women.

Eleven out of seventy. Less than 20%.

Where are all the female applicants? The number was so low I had to go back a couple of times to recount. Surely, I had got it wrong. But no. It was eleven.

The second thing was a meeting I joined with a group called @WomenEd. #WomenEd is "a global grassroots movement that connects aspiring and existing women leaders in education and gives women leaders a voice in education". I was meeting with the Thailand branch - @WomenEdTH - and have recently become a member of the network team. The conversation centred on how to support women who are, or who aspire to be, leaders in schools. Plans were made for a women leaders' advice panel.

Thirdly, I was approached by a grade eight student who wanted to interview me about women's rights in the workplace. These were her questions to me:

  • Would you agree that women face discrimination in the workplace?
  • Do women face any discrimination when it comes to high-ranking roles, like leadership?
  • Do you think that culture influences workplace discrimination against women?
  • Do you have any other information about women facing gender bias in the workplace?

The short answers were: yes, yes, yes and plenty.

Gender bias in the workplace

In October 2021, the Council of International Schools (CIS) published findings from a survey conducted with Diversity Collaborative, International School Services (ISS) and George Mason University. They collected data on nationality and ethnicity in international schools, as well as gender. 

They found that a head of school is three times more likely to be male

Male heads accounted for 75% and female heads accounted for 25%, which corroborated the male:female ratio of applicants we had recently received.

This all begs the question: why? Why in 2022 are we still asking these questions? Why in 2022 are we only seeing a 20–25% application rate from women for leadership positions? Why in 2022 do we need groups such as #WomenEd?

My leadership journey can bring answers from my own perspective and my own experiences. Yes, I have been asked about childcare for my son at interview; yes I have repeatedly come 'second' in leadership recruitment to male colleagues; yes I do believe that some boards and hiring committees feel that a male leader is a 'safer bet' for various reasons, including but not limited to pregnancy, maternity leave and childcare. However, I also hope that those biases must surely be on the decline in 2022, as the discussion on diversity and inclusion is gaining priority in international education, and beyond.

Aspiring female leaders are often given advice. Advice to change their language, to own the room, to act more like a man, to stop apologising for their greatness. Surely the solution should not be for women to change to be more like men. Why can't women be successful leaders in their own right? In an article in Harvard Business Review simply titled '7 Pieces of Bad Career Advice Women Should Ignore', the authors agree, with the punchy statement:

 "Women are constantly told to be less apologetic. But we need to worry less about editing women, and more about editing incompetent and inappropriate men." 

Food for thought.

"Why can't women be successful leaders in their own right?"

Champion our female colleagues

So that brings us back to the data: that only 25% of heads of international schools are female, and this was matched by the number of applicants we received. Why are women not applying? There must be so many reasons. But one thing I do know is that I have been fortunate as a leader because I have worked with amazing female role models and amazing male role models. leaders who have modelled trusting, motivating, distributed leadership.

I had a fantastic female mentor, who continues to guide and advise me. She was my direct supervisor when I started my leadership journey. I was pregnant at the time, and she didn't bat an eyelid… well maybe one or two, but she was nothing but supportive. We need to be mentoring, inspiring, and supporting our female colleagues in their leadership journeys, encouraging them to be 10% Braver and apply for that job. This is where groups such as #WomenEd, and sessions run by ISS and EARCOS specifically for women leaders, are so important as they provide that inspiration and support.

Take action for change

Find yourself a female mentor, someone who is already in leadership, to inspire, encourage and guide you.

Don't forget your male allies. There are amazing male leaders, role models and supporters out there. This isn't an 'us and them' situation!

Join webinars, WomenEd events, support groups and workshops that focus specifically on encouraging and supporting women to take on leadership positions.

Most importantly, be brave. Apply for that job.

This blog was first published in Nov 15, 2022 | DEIJ, ISL Magazine, Leadership.

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