‘Now is the time for female leaders to set their own terms’

Sandrine Paillasse and William le Fleming explore why empowering students and fostering leadership skills lies at the heart of every girls’ school’s mission

girls education, female empowerment

Sandrine Paillasse, head of St Christopher’s School, Hampstead, London:

It was not long ago that we had several female leaders in positions of global power – Theresa May, Liz Truss, Jacinda Ardern, Angela Merkel, Nicola Sturgeon. Suddenly they are gone. Leadership, all powerful and visible, is behind them, according to media pundits and public opinion. But is it?

These determined women, whose image and authority were defined by their professions, have reframed their power. The concept of leadership is ever evolving, and not only in politics. The vocabulary of leadership training courses, where styles are discussed and temperaments analysed, has oft included “alpha females or authentic leaders”. Now is the time for female leaders to set their own terms, their own rules. The same applies in education.

Heart and compassion

There is one universal but unspoken rule that governs our interactions: everybody wants to be understood. We feel powerful and important when someone with authority takes the time to listen to us and deems us worthy of their time.

Senior leaders encourage their staff and pupils to lead with heart and compassion, to enact virtues and to embrace vulnerability. When we say “no” to our children, as educators or parents, we implicitly teach them boundaries and consent, to allow them to have the confidence to say “no” in future years, be it in personal or professional contexts.

“What model are we giving our young people if they learn that leaders should be heroes?”

The same is true of leaders recognising their own mistakes, and even changing the course of their narratives publicly. How powerful to hear a colleague declare “I don’t know” in a meeting; it can only happen if the senior leadership team enables this level of transparency and cultivates a collegiate school culture.

It is easy to fall prey to the busyness of school leadership, with piling responsibilities and deadlines to juggle. Inevitably, this becomes an ingrained image of leadership: everywhere but unavailable. What model are we giving our children and young people if they learn that leaders should be heroes?  Perfectionism is a toxic soil.

Empower, re-power

The best examples of female empowerment in schools come from our children. Before they become teenagers, little girls enjoy being little girls. Before the world tells them that they are powerless, they are empowered. They believe in themselves and in each other. They love wearing princess dresses – not all, of course, but let us not ignore the plain truth: at that age, most children sing and dance to Disney stories quite unselfconsciously. That is the best model one can hope for older girls, for women.

“Before the world tells girls that they are powerless, they are empowered.”

Girls are powerful in their unselfconsciousness; sadly, this changes when, as teenagers, they become conscious of a world that wants to take away their power. How does the girl happily singing Disney songs with her friends become the senior leader apologising for being clumsy as she presents to her peers? It is then, in a context that will even set women against each other, that we need to empower, re-power even, them.

I am sad when I hear stories of women not supporting other women. As a girls’ school, we aim to educate our pupils to be allies for one another.

An open door: an unspoken invitation

When I started as a head, I thought about how I wanted to interact with the girls. Should I run drop-ins, or special meetings at scheduled times throughout the week? Attend School Council? I have found that the best way to give girls the courage to speak up is to open the door – no glass ceiling, no door to push.

Still today, many of my interactions with girls (and indeed with staff) are often unscheduled – diaries can be real obstacles to overcome, and these impromptu meetings are often the most authentic.

An open door is an unspoken invitation. It enables equal access to the school leadership and what it represents: its vision, its strategy, as well as the roadmap and the compass. I model a behaviour I hope our girls will enact in the future: they will open their door and listen to others, they will say yes, and sometimes they will say no – and always, it is my wish, with heart and kindness.

Will le Fleming, executive head of the Abbey School, Reading:

Empowering and encouraging female leadership is at the heart of our purpose as a school. Joining The Abbey girls’ school as its first male head, I felt my personal responsibility in this regard with stark clarity.

When asked – not infrequently – whether a man should be the head of The Abbey, I had an impassioned answer to give: I believe that the responsibility for gender equality and empowerment is one we all share. It is a question of mutual human dignity and freedom.

And I knew from my previous experience in all-boys, all-girls and co-education that I wanted to commit to girls’ education. But while I knew my answer, I certainly thought it was a fair question to ask.

What’s painfully apparent is how powerful the barriers to such empowerment remain. Education itself is a good example.

Obstacles

One simple obstacle is the inflexibility of the demands. Everyone in education works long and intense hours and at the senior level the demands intensify further. There is the routine workload; there’s the need to be at so many of the evening events and functions and celebrations that punctuate every term-time week; and then there are the crises, almost as routine as the routine workload, that take an ongoing toll.

“The pay gap between mothers and fathers with post-school education has got worse since the 1970s, not better.”

It remains the case that more women than men need flexibility in their working lives and, as we tackle the underlying causes, employers need to find solutions to enable this: from job sharing to strict limits on the sheer number of hours that all colleagues are expected to be available. That is particularly true for pastoral leaders. The nature of their work is to always be on call: we have to find ways to make this sustainable as the demands, and the complexity of those demands, continue to increase.

We also see the uneven impact of family life on leadership aspirations. Care and the responsibility for care is not fairly distributed. So often it is clear that even in families where men and women have joint childcare responsibilities, women are the managers and the brains and the authority and the arbiter: they may share the hours, but they bear the weight of the decisions. A study by the University of Kent this year showed that the “motherhood penalty” – the pay gap between mothers and fathers with post-school education – has got worse since the 1970s, not better. The same pattern repeats across the whole range of personal and care responsibilities beyond school: unequal obligation and unequal impact.

Counter systemic biases

Set against these challenges there are powerful ways our community, and every all-girls school, can work to counter systemic biases and other conscious and unconscious forms of discrimination that contribute to them.

“It is no good waiting for perfect applicants to emerge.”

One of the most striking is the absolute assumption of the normality of girls and women taking the lead. The simple fact of every student leader being a girl has power. The same culture permeates the staff body: the shared purpose of those working in girls’ education is female empowerment, and that is evidenced by the inspiring women leading teams of all kinds and sizes across the school.

While in most cases this is as natural as breathing, which is the heart of empowerment, there are times when it needs nurturing. Female leadership in every function – finance, IT, marketing, estates – needs equal encouragement, as does balanced leadership at the most senior academic and business levels. It is no good waiting for perfect applicants to emerge. Schools must have mentoring programmes, recruitment goals, active search, and an equally active attention to the visible and invisible factors that may deter women from specific roles and opportunities.

Leadership

The GDST recently produced The Girls’ Futures Report. Some seized on the fact that “being a leader” ranked lowest of 17 attributes in terms of career aspirations for girls: but what the report made plain is that they are not interested in the model of leadership we all see too often in the world – a loud voice, limitless self-belief, swagger and speech-making. They believe in a model of leadership that means working in a team, being committed and responsible, inspiring others, appreciating individuals, helping them to achieve their best.

This has been characterised as a female model of leadership: but in truth it just seems like a better model of leadership – more humane, more collaborative, more effective. We see it in student leaders all the time – the mutual respect they show one another, the desire to include, the readiness to listen.

One of the most important actions a leadership team can take is to heed this example and demonstrate their commitment to it. We have to ensure that leadership is transparently based on the values we foster in classrooms.

Empowering female leaders is in part about a culture of leadership that matches the leadership girls show in their own lives, and that looks and feels like something worth doing – in every sense.

This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the latest summer 2023 edition of School Management Plus print and digital magazine.