This article appeared as “Breaking Through” in the Summer 2022 issue of Independent School.
Gender equality in the workforce—and particularly in positions of senior leadership—continues to be an aspirational goal in the United States. Despite centuries of activism and decades of legislation, women make up 78% of the teaching force yet only 27% of public school superintendents and 33% of independent heads of school, according to U.S. Census data. Research into the barriers to headship that women face has focused largely on the perceptions of female heads of school. The perceptions of executive search consultants, on the other hand, have been largely ignored.
Search firms, which boards hire to manage the head of school search process, carry out many key functions that directly affect search outcomes. They cold-call potential candidates, paper-screen, interview, and ultimately determine which candidates move forward. Search consultants also have unique behind-the-scenes information about how search processes unfold. And they offer perspective about how candidates perform in interviews and how they could improve.
Hearing the perspectives of search consultants, coupled with those of current female heads, is essential for aspiring female heads who are beginning a head search. In 2021, I conducted one-on-one interviews with six female search consultants and six female heads of school to better understand the barriers to headship. The search consultant participants came from three different U.S.-based search firms, and all but one had participated in five or more head of school searches. The female heads of school were all working in K–12 coeducational day schools in three different regions of the U.S. All were within their first eight years as head of school. My study, “Barriers to the Hiring of Women for the Independent School Headship,” yielded three major findings.
The perceptions of both female heads of school and female search consultants led to two of the findings, while the third finding emerged just from the search consultants. Because this study is the first to explore consultants’ views, they are centered here.
Societal gender bias continues to play a significant role as a barrier to women’s advancement. Automatic associations of men as leaders can be intractable and difficult for female candidates to overcome. One consultant shared, “I think schools are reluctant to step away from the formula that has worked for generations, which is sort of the prep school model where there’s a male head…it’s what people are used to…it’s what parents look for, what schools expect.” Another consultant stated that school officials enter the hiring process with images in their minds of the perfect person for the job. She challenges school hiring teams to close their eyes and picture the person they see sitting at the head of the table. In her experience, most will think of someone like the person who is already in that role: “And chances are, it’s a white man.”
Additionally, participants shared ways in which biased assumptions about social roles penalize women—for example, motherhood interferes with a woman’s ability to do the job; women lack skills in key areas; and women are less likable when they exert authority. Commenting on motherhood, one consultant said, “I do think that there are questions about women that still linger, particularly women who may have families or young children.” Conversely, consultants perceived that men who are fathers of young children are not similarly penalized for being a parent. Gendered assumptions about women’s ability to handle governance, finance, advancement, and facilities also emerged as a barrier. One search consultant said, “The perception of trustees is that we, as women, have difficulty raising money. It’s difficult for us to do reconstruction and capital campaigns and manage money.” In regard to a female candidate’s likability, one search consultant commented, “The embedded bias is that nobody thinks we’re going to be tough enough. And if you’re too tough they think ‘Oh, that’s not right.’ So, in a way you have to balance something that men don’t have to balance.”
Women place limitations on themselves that delay or halt their own advancement. Consultants discussed women’s reluctance to apply if they feel that they do not “check all the boxes.” One search consultant shared, “I reach out to individuals that should be thinking about headships. They will say, ‘I’m not ready, I need another job.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, what is it that you think you need to learn still?’ ” Women are also far more likely to be timid, even apologetic, in discussing their qualifications. One consultant described a recruitment call in which the potential candidate didn’t want to be a bother or waste the consultant’s time. Another search consultant said that women are very hard on themselves and that “they pay for it dearly.”
Being a mother of young children also causes women to opt out of applying. They perceive that the demands of parenthood and the headship are incompatible. One consultant who had been actively recruiting women said, “They all have capacity, and all would be amazing heads of school. And they’ve opted out because they look at the job and say, ‘That’s not for me.’ ” Women also choose to delay the headship until their children are grown, as evidenced by the age difference in the NAIS Aspiring Heads program, as one of the consultants observed: “Most of the men are in their 30s while the women are in their 50s.”
Women are underrepresented as hiring decision-makers. Consultants perceived that male-dominated teams—boards of trustees, search committees, or search consultant teams—serve to reinforce and replicate the status quo of male heads of school. One consultant pointed out that there is a greater likelihood of a woman getting the job if there is a woman chairing the search committee or serving as the board president. Other consultants discussed how they, as women, can nurture female talent. One participant said, “I think because I’m a female search consultant, I tend to really encourage the women to apply.”
Breaking Down Barriers
It is critical for women to acknowledge the existence of these barriers and to be strategic in thinking about how to preempt and navigate them to their advantage. Boards and search firms can also help. Recommendations based on this research include the following:
Future female candidates
Be confident. With a big wave of head of school retirements—called a “tsunami” by one of the search consultants—the demand is growing for quality and diverse head of school candidates. Ride that wave. Apply, even if you aren’t 100% sure you are ready.
Network. Reach out to search consultants and inquire about openings. Early in your career, seek out consultants’ help in planning your path to the headship and honing your interview skills.
Find mentors. Look to other female heads of school who can give you advice on all aspects of the job, including how to balance work and home life. Seek out colleagues or a supervisor who will teach you about any areas in which you lack the skills or experience.
Look to upper school. If you hope to secure a K–12 headship, it is very advantageous to gain experience in upper school leadership roles, such as the upper school division head. Candidates who have only lower or middle experience are often judged as not having the knowledge or authority to run a high school.
Be you. Be authentic and confident during interviews, and don’t try to be someone you’re not. What you present will be what people will respond to.
Boards of trustees
Self-assess. Look at the historic role of women in your school. Has the school ever had a female head? How many women serve on the board? How many female board chairs has the school had? Is the search committee balanced for gender?
Be resolute. Consultants reported that, despite a stated commitment to inclusive hiring, boards sometimes retreat to making the “safe choice” when it comes down to the final pick. Be aware that this can happen and, if it does, stop and explore how unconscious gender bias may be influencing decisions.
Executive search firms
Hire women. If search firms hire only (or almost only) retired heads of school to join their team, they risk contributing to the problem. Consider consultants who came through pathways other than the headship.
Balance teams. Whenever possible, make sure that two-person consultant teams include a woman. Female consultants can be helpful in coaching, recruiting, and drawing out passive female candidates.
Question further. Despite the old adage “The customer is always right,” consultants should be ready to support the school in seeing and addressing unconscious bias when it bubbles up during the search process.
The experience of female candidates is not universally the same, and I recommend further study into the barriers for women of color. Additionally, an exploration of the perceptions of male search consultants regarding the barriers that women face in reaching the headship could be informative, especially when compared to the perceptions of female search consultants.
Although societal gender bias persists and the headship remains male-dominated, signs of change are on the horizon. As head of school vacancies grow and schools demand greater diversity in the slate of candidates presented, search firms are working hard to identify and build relationships with talented female leaders. There is no better time for women to access resources, step confidently forward, and take that well-deserved seat at the head of the table.