Letter to the Editor

Fall 2022

To the Editor:

Kelley King’s article “Research Insights: Search Consultants Share Perspectives on Women’s Barriers to Headship,” in the Summer 2022 issue of Independent School magazine, contained some valuable insights for women aspiring to school leadership. However, the author’s recommendations for women are troubling.

While King’s work with consultants was research-heavy and showed the bias that women are going to need to work through in the K–12 independent school pipeline, her recommendations for women were not research-based. One need only to read the work of researchers Charol Shakeshaft, Margaret Grogan, Judy Alston, April Peters, Terri Watson, Jennie Weiner, Alice Eagly, Ella Bell Smith, and Stella M. Nkomo to understand that women attaining school leadership is complicated and will not be solved by being more confident or attaining a specific position, such as an upper school headship.

Weiner wrote about the “double bind” that women face in leadership in her 2015 Harvard Educational Review piece; Eagly has written extensively about how women’s careers are not a path but rather a labyrinth they have to navigate; Watson has written with KimberlĂ© Crenshaw on why Black women cannot wait for the pipeline and other educational systems to change as they have too much at stake to wait that long. This collective research on women aspiring to leadership, and in particular, school leadership, makes clear that “no amount of hard work will overcome bias,” to quote Weiner.

King’s article takes Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In approach to women moving into independent school leadership, yet the truth is that if schools have any hope of moving the numbers (41% are female heads of school, while 80% of K–12 teachers are women), we need to take a more systemic and research-backed approach to how we advise women to traverse the school leadership pipeline. Though King backs up this point and exposes the systemic bias that search firms and boards are exhibiting in hiring heads of school, the suggestion that exhibiting certain characteristics in order to overcome systemic bias ignores the system and continues to set women up for failure. Women are neither monolithic, nor can we tell them to fix themselves into something palatable for boards and search firms. The problem is systemic, and NAIS and its member schools must recognize it as such.

Eighty percent of K–12 school teachers are women, yet we continue to remain underrepresented at every level of school leadership, with the least number of women at the executive level. Disaggregate that data by race and sexuality, and the numbers are even more dire. If we have any desire to increase the numbers of women in school leadership, particularly women of color and queer women, we need to recognize that the women are not the problem. The pipeline is.

Rev. Loris N. Adams, director of diversity, equity, inclusion and ethical leadership, National Cathedral School (DC)
Jessica Flaxman, Ed.D., dean of faculty, Rye Country Day School (NY)
Sarah Margaret Odell, Ph.D., director of learning and innovation research, The Hewitt School (NY)

Note from the Author

I am writing in response to the Letter to the Editor above.
The first assertion that the “recommendations for women were not research-based” could not be further from the truth. My job as a researcher is to illuminate all the data, regardless of what readers want to hear. My recommendations emerged from hours of qualitative interviews with search consultants and heads of school about their experiences with the headship search process and their advice to all stakeholders, including aspiring female heads.
Further, my findings and recommendations are affirmed by other studies, including those of Darouei and Plutt (2018) and Hartman and Barber (2020), which show that there are identifiable differences in job-seeking behavior between men and women. Studies by Brands & Fernandez-Mateo (2017) and Gipson et al. (2017) find that these differences in job-seeking behavior are the result of women’s past experiences with stereotypes and discrimination. This is a vicious cycle in which gendered social roles become internalized and serve to lower women’s occupational self-efficacy, aspirations, and access to power.
Adams, Flaxman, and Odell assert that providing recommendations for job-seeking portrays women as the problem and dismisses the massive issue of systemic bias. This is not true. An important purpose of research is to inform practice—in this case, to help women take the steps necessary to navigate a system that is rife with bias. Therefore, it is critical for women to understand that, despite the many systemic factors out of their control, the research points to strategic areas in which women do have some control. Further, changing outcomes for women (and all underrepresented groups) requires taking action, not sitting back and waiting for the world to change. Might we call that, as Adams, Flaxman, and Odell quip, “leaning in?” You bet.
Interestingly, they quote Weiner as saying “No amount of hard work will overcome bias.” Exactly. Women need to work smarter, not harder, with laser-focused precision to anticipate and preempt the discrimination they will likely face during a headship search. Adams, Flaxman, and Odell also cite the work of Watson and Crenshaw saying that “Black women cannot wait.” Exactly. Women need actionable strategies now to help them to chip away at a system that remains stacked against them.
Finally, Adams, Flaxman, and Odell equate “the pipeline” with systemic bias. That’s only part of the story. Female talent is indeed lost when women do not get into the leadership pipeline or when they enter the pipeline but then leave it before making it to the other end. Unwritten rules result in women being passed over for promotion. A “think-manager-think-male” phenomenon causes many women to leak from the pipeline. These are real-world manifestations of systemic bias. Yet we cannot ignore the inconvenient truth that the pipeline also leaks talent when women don’t apply, bow out of a search, or opt out of pursuing headship altogether. Let’s own that research, too.
Women need and deserve more credit. As future heads of school, they are sophisticated enough to know that recommendations don’t constitute blame. They are wise enough to understand the need for a calculating strategy. They are reflective enough to know they have room for growth. They are competitive enough to want to gain an edge. And they are savvy enough to use research to make a difference in outcomes for themselves, and all women, one headship at a time.
Kelley King, Ed.D.