Lost leaders

Having read Helena Marsh’s post ‘What glass ceiling?’ I found myself reflecting on the issue of women in educational leadership and what might hold them back.

I thought about my experience of working with many women leaders and aspiring leaders over my 30 year career in education.  Three of the six schools in which I taught were girls’ schools, with a majority of women on the staff.  I have known some exceptional women leaders at all levels, both as colleagues, and through contact with professionals in other schools.  Since finishing full-time headship in 2010 I have met even more inspiring women leaders through the world of Twitter and blogging, and spin-off events such as #TeachMeets, #Pedagoo,  #ResearchEd and #SLTcamp.

However, I have also known women I think of as the ‘lost leaders’, those who could have been exceptional leaders and role models but who, for a variety of reasons, didn’t fulfil their leadership potential.  And this has made me thoughtful.  Are there acceptable, and also unacceptable, reasons why this happens?

There are women who choose not to take on further professional responsibility.  They are capable of doing so, and they know they are capable, but they choose a different path and a different balance in their lives.  It may be because of family commitments.  One impressive Middle Leader I worked with told me that she decided to remain in that role because she had four children and a husband with a demanding job whom she felt she needed to support.  I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of disappointment – I felt she would have been an exceptional headteacher – but this was her carefully considered choice.  I believe strongly that we have to respect others’ choices even when they differ from our own.  Women, in my experience, can be particularly critical of the choices other women make, perhaps because they feel this somehow reflects adversely on their own choices.  I wish we were more tolerant and less quick to judge.  That’s something I’ve tried hard to learn over the years.

And then there have been women I have worked with who have consistently undervalued themselves.  Women who are quick to convince themselves that they don’t have what it takes.  Women who won’t apply for the next position of responsibility, not because they don’t want to, but because they feel they couldn’t yet do the job perfectly.  Women who don’t accept that, although we prepare for a new role as thoroughly as we can, ultimately we ‘build the bridge as we walk on it’ and learn how to do a job by doing the job. This saddens and frustrates me.  I have worked hard to help women see their own potential, and act on this, rather than holding back.  To feel the fear, and do it anyway.  To embrace being out of their comfort zone because this is the way they can grow.

I know this is sensitive and controversial.  Please feel free to challenge me!

What do you think?

Photo credit: By World Economic Forum from Cologny, Switzerland – Sheryl Sandberg – World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2011, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12849199

This post was originally published on @staffrm in 2015.

It was also published on the #WomenEd blog in October 2017

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