Women are far from a minority in international school settings. In fact, according to a report published by the Council of International Schools, at 61% a firm majority of teachers are women. It’s surprising then (or at least it should be surprising) to see how hard things skew back towards men when looking at positions of power: 75% of head teachers are men, as are 60% of board members. 

To understand what’s behind this phenomenon, and how we as a community can move beyond it, I had a chat with two women leaders who have bucked the trend. Here, they tell us about their experiences, the challenges they’ve faced, and the strategies that have brought them success despite the clear biases still at play in the profession. 

What’s holding women back?

The status quo has a habit of preserving itself. The examples we’re shown throughout our lives shape (and then reinforce) our perceptions of what a leader is. Unfortunately, these perceptions don’t always hinge on the important things like character, integrity or competency – but superficial traits. When someone comes along who doesn’t match those superficial traits, it can drastically change the way they’re seen. 

As the statistics above illustrate, there’s certainly a lack of balance between men and women leaders in international schools. Anita McCallum, Elementary Principal at Raffles American School in Malaysia, told us that throughout her career “the senior leadership team has generally been dominated by men”, Dr Liz Gale, Deputy Director of Schools for Shanghai Community International School (SCIS) and the Head of School for the SCIS-Pudong Campus, agreed, stating a “boys club still exists” and that type of atmosphere can often lead to “microaggressions”  targeted at women who don’t fit in.

 

This sense of being “outnumbered” (as Anita puts it) can have a drastic impact on how women in these teams are judged. Anita relates that, like other women holding leadership positions, she’s been “labelled ‘bossy’ in the past” on occasions where she’s been assertive or simply doing her job. It’s a term we almost never see aimed at men, and which describes what is essentially just a vital part of leadership – the ability to be decisive and resolute. 

Liz tells us part of her drive comes from having a female role model close to home in the form of her mum, a successful career woman. Seen in this light, the lack of women at the top in international schools is doubly harmful. There’s less acceptance within leadership teams that women can embody the virtues of leadership (even if only on a subconscious level) and less reason for those outside of leadership to feel they belong there. 

Strategies for success

Both Liz and Anita stressed how helpful they’d found it to talk to other leaders, outside the context of the “the boys club”. In Anita’s case the EARCOS Leadership Conference provided a great space to talk to have conversations that are “more comfortable in a different setting”. For Liz, the ISS Women in Leadership conferences played a similar role, offering contact with people who could offer inspiration and advice. 

While organisations as a whole might not always do as well as possible in helping women progress, the biases that we see on a structural level very often aren’t there at all on an individual level. And that can make mentorship really valuable. 

Liz stresses that finding a mentor and setting a regular time to meet is one of the best things women can do to bolster their chances of progression. She stresses that this mentor doesn’t need to be a woman: “A leader’s job is to create more leaders, regardless of gender”. Anita agrees: “find allies and reach out to them.”

Motherhood and leadership

Anita and Liz are both mothers. Anita took one year away from work when she had each of her girls, and is sure that was an excellent decision. It wasn’t easy when she started again. ‘There was a feeling that I’d always be letting one of them down: the family or the school’. Since this feeling will never really go away unless you address it, her solution is to find peace in knowing it’s not possible to do everything brilliantly and keep everyone happy all the time. The secret is to organise her time well, and to shift priorities when her focus shifts.

They say there is never a good time to have a baby, but Liz faced a real challenge when she found out she was pregnant just after signing the contract for her previous position as Lower School Principal. Her baby was born in July, and three weeks later she was stepping into her first Principalship. She reflects on this time now: ‘I was doing all that I could to ensure a successful start to the school year, while also balancing the demands of being a mother to a newborn. There were many sleepless nights and tears during those early days.’ In hindsight, she likely would have done things differently, if not only for herself and her child, but also to serve as a role-model for other women in a similar situation.  

This is crucial: we can’t make change if we don’t support one another. We women need to have the babies, but we are also equipped, partly because of this, to be excellent leaders. It’s time for schools to put in place the structures that allow for mothers who lead, so that we can be successful because we can be ourselves. It’s 2022, and no woman should have to fit into a man’s world by changing their inherent nature. 

Some schools understand this. Teacher Horizons has just visited a school in Cairo that has a purpose-built daycare centre for children aged six weeks to three years. If contracts only allow a short maternity leave, there should be designated rooms for mothers to express milk and ‘pumping-time’ given during the day.

 

Parents should also be able to bring their babies in to visit the school, not just for their own convenience, but also because it builds bonds. A charity called ‘Roots of Empathy’ gives children the chance to get to know pregnant women and babies over the course of a year, with weekly visits to the classroom. Inspired by this, I regularly brought my son in for ‘show and tell’. My class of Grade 6s were exemplary babysitters, and it certainly brought us closer as a group.

How can Teacher Horizons help women leaders move up the career ladder?

Teacher Horizons is committed to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. This means that we want to do everything we can to support women in progressing through their careers. Here are a few things we are committed to in order to achieve this: 

  • Schools are asked to self-assess themselves on DEI and receive a star rating DEI badge based on the information they provide. This helps candidates know whether schools are likely to be supportive of their ambitions.
  • Teacher Horizons explores the imbalance of women in senior leadership in their recruitment course.
  • We have a strong network of coaches and mentors that we partner with, and have run webinars for aspirant leaders in the past (although this wasn’t solely for women).
  • We have a LinkedIn group: International School Heads and Senior Leaders. Connect, Learn, Share. Where women (and men) in international school leadership can share their experiences and support others.  https://www.linkedin.com/groups/4145823/
  • In the future we will be running a webinar for women in leadership.
  • We are planning to develop a mentoring buddy programme that will enable educators, whether women or men, to connect and support one another at every stage of their career journey

One of our Teacher Horizons Senior Leadership Advisers, Joanna de Beer, is an experienced international school senior leader herself and understands the importance of closing the gap when it comes to the balance of men and women in international school leadership. ‘We take in-depth briefs with schools when they advertise a role with us to ensure that the recruitment process is inclusive and fair. We are also available to offer personalised advice and to mentor the women senior leaders and aspirant leaders that we represent at each step of their application. This support extends to the men that we represent, too, of course!’

Our kind contributors

Dr. Liz Gale is the Deputy Director of Schools for Shanghai Community International School (SCIS) and the Head of School for the SCIS-Pudong Campus.  In July, she will assume the position of Deputy Head of School for Taipei American School.  Prior to her current position, Liz served as the Lower School Principal for SCIS-Pudong.  She also has experience as an Elementary Assistant Principal, PYP Coordinator, and Elementary classroom teacher.  Liz is a member of the Advisory Board for Teacher Horizons and has presented at various conferences on women in leadership, as well as other topics primarily related to curriculum, instruction, and assessment.  As a leader in education, Liz strives for excellence, values diversity of thought and is constantly looking for innovative and creative ways to build capacity and push boundaries within education.

Mrs. Anita McCallum has worked as a Primary Principal, Deputy Principal, and Curriculum Coordinator in her 20-plus years of teaching and leadership experience, including over a decade in international schools. Currently, Anita is the Elementary Principal at Raffles American School in Malaysia and has held leadership roles in schools around the world for the past sixteen years. Anita has worked internationally in Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, and the Sultanate of Oman, as well as in rural and city schools in her home country of Australia. Her credentials include a Masters in Educational Leadership from the Australian Catholic University, and she is a visiting team member for the Council of International Schools. Although she has many interests when it comes to education, Anita is particularly passionate about personalising learning through differentiation, the importance of developing strong literacy skills, and Early Childhood education.

photo of author
Written by Camilla Cook
Camilla has been working in education for the past sixteen years, teaching English in the UK, El Salvador, Thailand, and Tanzania. She participated in the Teach First Programme in 2005, and went on to support another Teach First teacher in her efforts to set up The Literacy Pirates, an education charity working to develop the literacy, confidence, and perseverance of young people referred for extra support by their teachers. As their first Director of Learning, she was responsible for planning, leading, and evaluating the learning programmes. She has worked as the Head of Language and Literature in international schools for the past five years, and is now living in Brighton with her husband and two children, attempting to reacclimatise to the weather by cycling around as much as possible and eating lots of ice cream.
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