Can you be ‘too nice’ to be a school leader?

In her second article in a special series, Kim Cofino looks at some challenges affecting women looking for senior leadership roles in schools

women in leadership too nice

In Spring of 2020 I interviewed over 70 successful female leaders, in international schools as well as in some public and private schools around the world. I wanted to seek their personal stories and insights on the challenges and realities facing women in leadership in education.

Those interviews highlighted many of the unique challenges that women face pursuing a leadership role in schools. Their stories can help aspiring leaders recognize there are some common experiences and barriers for those who do not fit the stereotypical view of “a leader”.

In this latest article, I will highlight some specific stories regarding four areas of challenge which emerged from these interviews, including:

  • perception (or reality) of lack of opportunities for women
  • exclusive networking practices among “traditional leaders”
  • impostor syndrome and double standards
  • availability of mentorship and guidance
Few visible role models, disproportionate representation

Many interviewees mentioned the widespread perception that there are limited opportunities for women leaders, and several pointed to the lack of visible role models as contributing to this perception.

This is particularly noticeable in the international school environment, where leadership teams tend to be very male-dominated. Katrina Charles, International Baccalaureate Diploma coordinator at the American School of Doha, highlighted that it’s difficult to find women, particularly strong women, within leadership.

Within her career she has often been “the only woman on the senior leadership team”.

Ultimately, pursuing a leadership pathway is an ongoing challenge in an environment where, as Nadine Richards, then high school principal at the American School of Dubai, noted, “the glass ceiling still exists”.

As she pointed out: “It’s been an historical factor and things just don’t change overnight”.

“Women have to work harder to successfully secure a position at the very top level.”

While we may perceive (and hope) that there are more women in senior leadership positions, making this a reality continues to be a slow and long term process.

Madeleine Heide, then head of school at Lincoln American School, Buenos Aires, highlighted that, although we may see more women in lower leadership positions, the gap widens when you begin applying for a head of school position.

“Women have to work harder to successfully secure a position at the very top level of our schools”, she said.

Madeleine recalled that she was interviewed for 15 different positions and was rejected. Because it’s not that common for a woman to be head of school, she could feel them asking themselves “Can you lead?”

Women, and particularly women of colour, have to prove themselves over and over again to be viewed as successful leaders.

This combination of lack of visibility of strong, successful women leaders, alongside the societal expectations of leaders and the belief that there are limited positions for women, can lead to women feeling as if they are competing with each other for positions, rather than supporting each other.

Exclusive networking practices

The disproportionate representation of white male leaders of a specific age becomes even more visible in upper level networking opportunities. In my conversation with Nicole Schmid, high school principal of the American International School Johannesburg, she shared her experience of walking into one of the cocktail events during leadership recruiting fairs and seeing almost exclusively older white men.

“If you don’t know how to play that game, it’s hard to break in.”

“There’s a bubble around access and the engagement and conversations that happen in those social circles are not particularly welcoming unless you’re in that clique. If you don’t know how to play that game, it’s hard to break in”, said Nicole.

Seeing a very homogeneous group moving from one senior leadership position to another makes it very challenging for anyone who doesn’t “fit the mold” to become part of that exclusive group.

As Junlah Madalinski pointed out, getting a foot in the door for a leadership position is often overly reliant on who you know. It’s very common to hear that “you need a network” or “you need to put yourself out there”, but if you don’t yet have that social currency, as a newer leader it can be so much more difficult.

Junlah also noted that because the international school community is so homogenous, it’s even harder for women of colour to make those supportive social connections that will help them leverage a network.

Impostor syndrome and double standards

Many women mentioned feeling so unsure of themselves that they might end up sabotaging their job search before it began. Rachel Caldwell recognized that she has had bouts of impostor syndrome throughout her career, facing feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy, in particular when looking at job descriptions.

Despite being confident that she met the majority of the requirements, she still wouldn’t apply, even though she saw her male counterparts applying when they seemed to have fewer of the required skills and still being successful.

“Any time a decision needed to be made, the others looked to my male colleague.”

Catriona Moran, head of school at Saigon South International School in Vietnam, shared a number of stories of being perceived as being “too nice” to be effective in a leadership role. She shared a particularly fascinating story about being the lead administrator for the design of a construction project.

“One meeting there were 20 people in the room (19 males, and I was 8 months pregnant). Any time a decision needed to be made, the others looked to my male colleague – even though I was making the decisions.” As she points out, there is a perception that women might not be able to step up and make, and then communicate, hard decisions.

Lack of Mentorship

Women I spoke to said there were sometimes limited opportunities to be mentored, especially in the early stages of their careers. It will likely remain challenging for many women to find mentors who look like them until there is more equal representation at the very top levels of school leadership.

Although things are slowly changing, it is still a struggle for many women to find mentors who look like them, who share similar life and professional experiences. The reality is that for those who need it most, finding a mentor is likely the hardest.

Cofino K (2020). Women Who Lead Interviews. [Video Course].

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the summer digital edition of International School magazine, out now.