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Gender Equity in School Leadership: Why it Matters and What Can Be Done

Women not only belong in school leadership; they may be instrumental in transforming the leadership landscape in ways that will help all students and whole school communities thrive.

My perspectives on this topic come from years of serving as a consultant on international school leadership searches and as a coach for educators aspiring to these positions. It didn’t take long in this role to see that white Anglo/American males were the predominant leader prototype in these schools, and that the supportive infrastructure around leadership – recruiting processes, networking, mentoring, leadership development, etc – reinforced this prototype. AND that this prototype was not sustainable or tenable even for those who most embodied it, grounded as it was on outdated assumptions of gender expectations and roles – for men and women.

At the same time I found myself informally coaching women seeking out leadership roles, and began to identify both where they got stuck in the process and why this was to the detriment of international schools. These realizations led to the founding of my own coaching/consulting practice (Sidecar Counsel).

It is in this capacity that I was invited by SchoolRubric to share my thoughts on equity in school leadership in a recent webinar, alongside others with active practices in addressing this issue. What follows are my thoughts on the questions posed as part of that webinar.

Why is gender equity in leadership crucial?

For so many reasons, but I’ll focus on two that have been brought into stark relief by recent events: 1) Attacks on ‘the other” in this past year, and 2) COVID.

Attacks: When children are exposed to a range of faces/ voices in leadership roles, they get the message that leadership is open to all — not limited to a certain ‘prototype.’ They implicitly absorb the message that they, too, can be leaders, no matter their gender, skin color, accent or other ‘superficial’ differentiating factor.

Schools are ‘first institutions’ for most children, their entry into the world of organized people and systems (beyond the family). This is not only where they pick up their ideas of their place, acceptance and opportunities in larger society. This is also where they learn what leadership looks like and ‘acts like.’ Seeing is believing!

The murder of George Floyd, the harassment and killing of people of Asian – mostly female Asian – descent, the murder of Sarah Everard… These are all borne out of damaging biases that can be counteracted in schools.  And that starts at the top.


There are enormous cracks in the current school leadership paradigm, which is predicated on a hierarchical system with a white Anglo/American male leader at the helm who has no personal life or family caregiving responsibilities.

Burnout is real because the role of school leader in its current iteration is untenable. It doesn’t even work for white males when put to the stress test.

Burnout is real because the role of school leader in its current iteration is untenable.
Burnout is real because the role of school leader in its current iteration is untenable.

Burnout will result in an exodus of leaders. So – from a practical perspective — we simply need greater VOLUME of leaders, regardless of gender, race, or other superficial differentiating factors.

We also need to rethink the leadership paradigm whose faultlines have been exposed by COVID.  That’s where it will be especially helpful to have the attributes of women and people of color, who bring different perspectives and lived realities to the role of leader – perspectives that are incredibly relevant to today’s world and to what’s coming in the future.

What do you see as some of the greatest barriers to making real change in increased representation by all genders, races and ethnicities in school leadership roles?

In my world of supporting women leaders in international schools, I see a couple of significant barriers:

  • Rules of the Road:  These were made by men, with a male prototype of leadership in mind.  Women are struggling with abiding by the rules vs going ‘off road’ or creating a new roadmap that reflects their leadership attributes and realities and the real value they can bring to leadership posts. Related to this, the ‘gatekeepers’ for access to these posts tend to abide by the original rules and assumptions on which they were based.
  • Role of Men: Men are reacting differently to this call for greater diversity and equity. Some are defensive and digging in their heels. Many are puzzled about where this leaves them and what they should do.  Some are jumping right in, awkwardly if necessary, to say they want to be part of the solution. The reality is that we need male leadership! We need it in different doses, sometimes channeled in different ways, intermixed with other forms of leadership. As a school leadership community we need to help men help the rest of us.

In your work with education leaders of all levels, what have you observed are some key needs they may have that would positively influence their capacity for success as a school leader and, further, what entities can support those needs being met?

Respect. This literally means ‘to look again.’ It’s time to look again at what leaders of any background bring to the table. Yes, this includes white males – as part of the larger leadership ecosystem.

Respect means to have regard for someone’s abilities, qualities, achievements EVEN WHEN those are different from the dominant prototype.

Speaking from a gender angle…

Respect is an inside job of ‘attitude adjustment’ for many women. They need to take a look at themselves again, not against the impossible comparator of the male prototype, but through a fresh lens of what school leadership could be and how their inherent attributes contribute to that.

Respect is also an outside job the whole leadership ecosystem must take on in order to cultivate thriving school environments for everyone.

What can help?

  • Leadership training with a female perspective. And not with the goal of making women more like men, but of how women can bring their inherent attributes to leadership. Current leadership programs can:
    • ‘Womanize’ their offerings
    • Engage in partnerships with schools to identify and ‘tap’ high potential female candidates
    • Provide scholarships for high potentials without the means to support themselves in this training
  • Coaching – yes, of women in leadership, but also of males so they can learn to be more understanding of, and better allies to, female leaders. And – learn something from them. Schools can offer coaching as part of professional development opportunities for leaders.
  • Mentorship and Sponsorship programs focused specifically on women. These have worked well for men. They should be tailored specifically for women to address women’s specific realities and attributes and to circumvent potential bias.
  • Support networks. These can be formal and informal.  I know of networks for women leaders in the U.S. and for those on the international scene. I run some myself and know how powerful these can be.
Mentorship programs should be tailored specifically for women to address women’s specific realities and attributes and to circumvent potential bias.
Mentorship programs should be tailored specifically for women to address women’s specific realities and attributes and to circumvent potential bias.

Those who do the hiring –  Boards, District Admin, or school-based leaders – play a tremendous role in the likelihood that our field will experience real change in increasing equitable representation in education leadership. What guidance might you offer these groups to engage in practices that will support them in leading, or sustaining, this change?

  • Educate yourselves on the imperative for and benefits of equity in leadership. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: actively engage women/ people of color in helping you understand this. There are resources out there and consultants who can help you with this.
  • Commit to change. Publicly. Be specific about what change you are pursuing.
  • Develop an action plan, with timelines and deliverables, and with the input and guidance of women and people of color.
  • Hold yourselves accountable. Report on your progress. Be transparent. Admit and learn from your mistakes.
  • Repeat.
Develop an action plan, with timelines and deliverables, and with the input and guidance of women and people of color.
Develop an action plan, with timelines and deliverables, and with the input and guidance of women and people of color.

Closing words: what should education employers (such as those listed above) do right now to radically change the disparities in representation by all genders, races or ethnicities in school leadership positions?

Commit to one significant action they will take in the next 90 days and make that public, so that by this time next year we’ll see measurable progress on these issues. AND we’ll learn from one another’s efforts.


  • Bring in a DEI consultant to help your institution effectively address these issues.
  • Do an audit of your school’s or organization’s current equity landscape. Are you living up to the values and ideals espoused in your mission and vision statements? Do your practices reflect the diversity represented in your studenty body and your local community? Are you intentional about determining how every single member of your school community experiences the atmosphere at your school, and feels either empowered or limited by it?
  • Develop a task force at your school or organization to dig in to these issues and come up with recommendations.  This should obviously include representation from a range of genders/ backgrounds/ roles.
  • Develop a mentorship and/or sponsorship program for women leaders and leaders of color.
  • Develop an institutional approach to leadership coaching aimed at women/ people of color, backed with funding for this and transparency around how to access it.

The one thing you shouldn’t do? Nothing. There’s too much at stake, and too much to be gained.

I look forward to being part of the solution with you.

This article is available and can be accessed in Spanish here.

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Bridget McNamer
I am passionate about helping leaders enhance their sense of the possible - both in their own professional 'tool kit' and on the issues to which they've committed themselves. I have brought this passion to my work with international school leaders, social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, corporate executives, and young people. I currently serve as Chief Navigation Officer for Sidecar Counsel, which aims to bring more women into leadership roles in international schools, enhance their leadership capacities once there, and cultivate an environment where women in these schools - and thereby all members of the school community - can thrive.

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