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Boosting female leadership

In the long march toward equality for women and girls, a lot has changed for the better in this part of the world. But there’s still a long way to go for economic equality and opportunities – including female representation in positions of leadership. Canadian women make $0.87 for every dollar a man makes for the same work. And the World Economic Forum ranked Canada number 16 in its Global Gender Gap Report 2017.

Yet we have a male Prime Minister proudly calling himself a feminist and insisting on a gender-equal Cabinet – with several females holding crucial portfolios, including foreign affairs. Not to mention the #metoo movement that’s driving the conversation about our culture.

Is something happening here? And will it bring lasting change?

Female leadership in schools

Katrina Samson, Head of School at Appleby College in Oakville, Ont., says the open discussion she’s witnessing is a first step.

At independent schools, the bulk of teachers are predominantly women,” she says. “Yet leadership at the most senior level at a number of schools is dominated by men. Where’s the leak in the pipeline?”

Samson says teachers are attracted to independent schools because of great professional development, engaged parents and students, positive working environments, and the chance to teach their specialty subjects. But there are challenges around retention in independent schools that impact women more – especially the transition to having a family. Independent schools have a smaller pool of people to draw on and tighter resource allocation than schools in public systems, so they don’t have the level of flexibility around things like leaves of absences and extended parental leave.

Samson says it takes progressive thinking to look ahead with regard to women’s careers in leadership, such as the potential of multiple maternity leaves.

“I think it’s important to not get caught up in what potentially could be an inconvenience,” she says. “You want to keep things as stable as possible. It’s a pitfall sometimes for leaders.”

Inequality – a disservice to everyone

At Alexander Academy, a small, co-educational school in Vancouver, the Head of School is Berenice Lewis. She agrees that the family piece is significant, and says she has personally contended with finding ways to integrate her responsibilities as a mother with aspirations of being a leader.

Have things improved over her career for women in school leadership? Lewis says yes, but it’s still happening slowly. “The underrepresentation of women in the past, people have seen it’s not good.”

Lewis says she believes the recent introduction of the International Baccalaureate program at her school will be key because it emphasizes open-minded thinking and innovation.

“The only way to have innovation is through collaboration. And you cannot leave half of the population out of the mix.”

What feminism really means

St. Mildred’s-Lightbourn is a girls’ school in Oakville, Ont. Its Head of School, Nancy Richards, started as a teacher but moved into school leadership more than 25 years ago. She says it’s a wonderful time to be a feminist, but many people misunderstand what that means.

“What it’s saying is that men and women need to work together for the same cause,” she says, “and every member of society has an opportunity to do what they need to do and flourish.”

Richards says she’s optimistic, but also believes it’s an urgent time because systemic inequality and injustice in the workplace keep underrepresented groups from reaching their potential. Modelling a more democratic, participatory decision-making style for 21st-century competency is what Richards says she and her female colleagues excel in doing.

How to change attitudes

You can’t legislate a change in attitudes, though. Studies have shown females and males don’t think of a woman when they think of a leader, and that women don’t get credit when they act like a leader. This is likely at least in part due to confirmational bias: when most of the leaders around you are men, you subconsciously associate men with the idea of leadership.

A recent study from Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project showed that even teen girls appear to be biased against female leaders. That’s why role models – more female leaders for people to see and work with – is one essential way to break the cycle of bias.

Another part of the puzzle is helping girls see themselves as future leaders, says Marilena Tesoro, Head of School at the girls only Holy Name of Mary College School in Mississauga, Ont. She says students are put in situations of leadership, taking charge of events and activities.

“We’re critical about the things we can’t do,” says Tesoro. “We work on the core, making them see they can do things. Little by little, confidence is nurtured, and they inspire other girls.”

Tesoro says in 2017, 65 percent of HNMCS graduates were pursuing fields traditionally seen as male – science, engineering, technology and math (STEM).

Richards agrees. She says her school fosters a growth mindset. “Girls need to find their voice, drive, passion and identity, the value of grit and self-awareness, to be open to possibilities and to learn to support one another.”

Tackling gender inequality in the classroom

You can’t discount the impact celebrity culture has – especially with teenagers, says Samson. She says that’s why teachers leading discourse on what’s going on in the political arena and popular culture is important. Teachers sharing their own personal experiences in the context of class discussions also helps.

Hope for the future

A real cultural change means the world for today’s female students, says Kathryn Anderson, Director of Schools at Holy Name.

“It means that every opportunity is there if they want it,” she says, “if they are willing to put in effort to get it.”

Alexander Academy’s Lewis dreams of a time when it’s not necessary to discuss female leadership.

“Hopefully we’ll come to a point where it’s not questioned
anymore, because it’s just normal.”

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