People of Color and White Women in Headship

Spring 2017

By Amada Torres


In 2009, the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) published The State of Independent School Leadership. The study revealed that 31 percent of heads were female and 5 percent were people of color (male and female). Seven years have gone by and those numbers have not changed much. In fact, since 2000, the number of female heads has remained around a third of the total and while the number of heads of color has increased from 3 percent to 7 percent, it is clear there is plenty of room for improvement.

To understand the dynamics in the recruiting process that contribute to or hinder the hiring of people of color and white women, NAIS launched a new study in 2016. This study aimed to assess career aspirations, interest in a headship position, motivators and barriers to seeking the position, and perceptions of the hiring process among potential head candidates — people of color and white women who are current independent school administrators.

The study included two phases. In the first phase, we conducted 36 in-depth interviews with search firms, search committee chairs, and potential headship candidates who are people of color and white women. In the second phase, we asked more than 440 potential headship candidates who are people of color and white women to take an online survey.

When we asked these candidates to rank the qualifications they believe to be the most important to schools when hiring a new head, at the top of the list were:

• experience in faculty and staff management;

• academic leadership experience;

• financial management and budgeting experience; and

• fundraising and development experience.

However, when the candidates reported on their strongest qualifications for headship, they highlighted a different set of skills:

• experience working with parents;

• experience working with faculty, staff, and/or families with different demographic or cultural backgrounds;

• management experience; and

• holding a master’s degree or higher.

What the responses make clear is that there is a misalignment between the candidates’ perceived strengths and the skills they believe they need for the job. In particular, they say they need to gain more experience in financial management, fundraising, and academic leadership.

The survey asked a similar set of questions regarding the personal characteristics that heads should possess. Choosing from a longer list of characteristics, respondents believe that schools are primarily looking for strong communication skills, a commitment to the school’s mission, and an ability to make tough decisions. However, when it came to listing the personal characteristics that they felt best described them, they highlighted team players with strong communication skills and an ability to take charge and lead.

When comparing both sets of information, it’s clear that the ability to make tough decisions emerges as an area for improvement.

How do these perceptions match with the requirements set by search firms and search committees? The list of must-haves from search firms includes academic leadership experience, management experience, master’s degree, experience at similar schools, experience working with parents and faculty, and experience related to the school’s short- and long-term goals. Among the preferred qualifications and personal characteristics, they listed teaching background, fund-raising and development experience, financial management and budgeting, admissions and enrollment experience, empathy, strong communication skills, fit with the school culture, and team player.

Given these parallel lists of requirements, it is as if search committees and search firms are trying to hire a current head from another school to replace the head who is leaving. “Experience” is being viewed as a proxy for ability to perform the job.

When it comes to increasing the number of people of color in headship and white women, the problem with this approach is that there are not enough people of color or white women currently in the headship role. This may explain why search firms are constantly contacting current female heads and heads of color asking if they are interested in a head position at a different school.

Another challenge is that potential candidates ranked experience at similar schools as the least important qualification for candidates, but search firms indicated this item as a must-have.

Also, while search firms and committees did not require a specific list of personal experiences, they did note that they look for experiences that would set candidates apart. Candidates often consider these characteristics as “not necessary.”

When it comes to advancement into headship, the study also makes it clear that the current criteria tend to favor division leaders and assistant heads. They are viewed as the strongest candidates while business officers, admissions officers, diversity practitioners, and leaders from the operations and business side of the school are seen as having less relevant experience and, therefore, as less suitable candidates. This bias also hurts people of color and white women, who are more likely to come from nonacademic roles.

The study also uncovers some opportunities to support people of color and white women in moving into headship. For underrepresented groups, research has shown the importance of having a career mentor and, in particular, a career sponsor. White men generally have better connections, which enable them to have sponsors. While mentors offer their knowledge, wisdom, and advice to someone with less experience, sponsors actively advocate for candidates’ careers and help them secure job opportunities and promotions. About half of all women candidates and 66 percent of men of color have a career mentor to advise them. However, career sponsors are less common; only one-fifth of women and men of color and one-eighth of white women have one.

The study reveals that men of color feel more supported by their schools than white women and women of color in both their professional development goals and their desire to become a head. This may explain why 66 percent of men of color were highly confident in their ability to become heads compared with 43 percent of women. It also may explain why most of the candidates interviewed for this study have not applied to headships (less than a third of the men of color and around a fifth of the women), and that those who have applied have not applied to very many positions (60 percent applied to one to two positions).

Candidates who have applied for headship report mixed success in the hiring process; many have made it to a finalist round while others have stalled in early application stages. They indicated what hiring-specific professional development activities they found most helpful, including Q&A sessions with hiring committees and firms and discussions with recently hired school heads.

Additional opportunities around succession planning were also found. Only about a quarter of candidates expect their school to consider them for a headship position if one becomes available.

While more research is needed, this latest study makes it clear that we at NAIS need to continue working with candidates, schools, search committees, and search firms in providing training, guidance, and strategies to help schools diversify their head cadres. In the meantime, there are some steps for schools to consider:

• Discuss candidate diversity early in the recruitment process. Screen search firms and hire those with demonstrated cultural competency. Ask search firms about their methods and resources for recruiting and selecting candidates. Emphasize the need to see people of color and white women candidates from the beginning of the process, and set clear expectations and guidelines about the types of candidates you want to see, including diversity requirements.

• Provide training about implicit bias for all trustees and administrators responsible for hiring and supervision. Employ evidenced-based bias reduction practices throughout the hiring process (job description, desired skills, standardized procedures, postprocess evaluation, “blind” screening), including accountability measures that eliminate double standards for culturally diverse candidates.

• Consistently include individuals with diverse demographic and cultural backgrounds on search committees. Be conscious of implicit biases that affect the way the search committee and school community perceive candidates. Be thoughtful about how experience is evaluated, but also keep an open mind about candidates with experience that may not be familiar.

• Work with your own leaders of color and white women leaders at the school (including nonacademic officers) to assess their career aspirations and interest in pursuing a headship. Encourage aspiring people of color and white women leaders to have a career mentor and a career sponsor, and encourage veteran male and female leaders to sponsor candidates for the next level of leadership.

• Offer potential candidates more opportunities to develop the key skills they say they are lacking — experience in financial management, fund-raising, and academic leadership, and practice in making tough decisions.

• As part of the professional development process, consider training future leaders in order to retain them.

Our hope is that next time we report on the numbers of female heads and heads of color, we will see a clear improvement.

Amada Torres

Amada Torres is vice president for studies, insights, and research at NAIS.