“See It To Believe It”- THe Importance of Female Leadership in Education

Written by: Eve

Visual by: Mischka

In this time of uncertainty and isolation during the pandemic, we have relied heavily upon our leaders for guidance, direction and stability. In a recent email to faculty, students and parents, Mr Dickinson announced his resignation, saying,“It has been an absolute pleasure both serving you and working with you all, helping develop our wonderful school into a truly world class institution”. Mr Dickinson’s recent statement of resignation left me reflecting on his time at ISM as an influential leader and advocate, and considering the ways in which his successor could build from the foundations Mr Dickinson has helped to build, to lead the way for further growth and development at ISM, starting with representation. 

Gender Socialization is defined as, “the process through which individuals come to learn and adopt gender roles, which are embedded with culturally prescribed expectations for gender behaviors”(Fulton, 2017; Ryle, 2015), and instills itself at a young age in children. Gender socialization can “impact a girl’s belief in her ability, her view of what constitutes a leader (Haber-Curran & Sulpizio, 2017), her political aspirations (Lawless & Fox, 2013), her overall confidence and confidence as a leader, and which talents she cultivates and careers she pursues (Shapiro et al., 2015). The presence of female leaders in a girls life can positively influence their internalization of gender socialization, as it improves their perception of their own abilities and potential, and may, “mitigate the power of gendered messages”(Shapiro et al., 2015), and representations of female roles perpetuated through media and pop culture.

Ms Pekin, the middle school Vice Principal, and Coach Till, MS PE Program Leader, are important pillars of female leadership and representation at ISM. In order to gain important insight into the value of female leadership in education, and their personal experiences and views, I reached out for an interview. Here are their responses:

Q: What are the most important qualities in a leader?

Ms Pekin: Having a clear vision of student learning and success and keeping student success front and center in all that we do. Guiding by example; providing encouragement and clear communication to help others reach their full potential. A good leader is not always the most experienced or the smartest person in the room, but they need to be a good communicator, they need to listen, and help others find their strengths. Other important qualities are the ability to remain calm under pressure, solution focused, consistent, fair and transparent.

Coach Till: Someone who is brave enough to show vulnerability. We often put a focus on being a ‘role model’ and ‘setting the standard’ but with that also comes unachievable expectations, not only for the leader but also for those they are trying to inspire. We are constantly being told to do more, and if we see a leader who is taking on too much, even if they are taking work away from us it instills this idea that doing more is the right way forward. Giving time and headspace to be creative and create a vision is just as important as task completion. 

Q: What are the values of female leadership in education?  

Ms Pekin: The research tells us that girls need to see it to be it; females in leadership provide important role models for students. Additionally, diversity in gender, along with diversity in other domains, contributes to greater representation in all groups, opens up possibilities and takes into account various perspectives when making decisions. 

Coach Till: For me it comes back to the phrase if they can see it, then they can be it. I not only believe having more females in leadership will inspire others to step into the role, it also provides another voice in the conversation. Having diversity in any form in a leadership team is vital, whether that be gender, race, religion or otherwise.  Females are still underrepresented in many forms of research which impacts societies understanding of their needs. You do not need to be a female to advocate for them, but having more females at a leadership level will help them to be seen and heard in all facets of the school.

Q: What barriers have you faced in attaining a leadership position in education? 

Ms Pekin: Barriers come both internally and externally. A lack of role models in my own childhood probably held me back much longer before considering leadership options. This seems unbelievable now, but I do not recall ever seeing a female doctor, lawyer, politician, world leader, or school principal in my entire years of schooling. Most authors, innovators, scientists, world leaders represented in my school in posters, books, and guest speakers when I was growing up were all male.

Women are often their own worst critics and the research tells us that women tend to apply for a position when they believe they can 100% fulfil the role, whereas men tend to apply when they believe they can fulfil around 60% of the required skill sets. At ISM David Toze has been incredibly supportive of women in leadership and this has seen an increase in numbers in recent years compared to my first year as the only female on the leadership team. 

Coach Till: In my experience, I was pushed into leadership roles too early. Before I was in my 30’s I was working as a middle manager and experienced professional burnout, which then made me reluctant to step back into the role later on in my career. In fact it took over 6 months for me to decide to apply for PL at ISM. I was constantly told that I was an asset because I was a ‘strong female PE teacher’  and ‘there are not many female teachers who could take this on’ both are of course complimentary of my professional ability, however, it also makes me wonder, why are there not enough ‘strong’ female PE teachers?’ Also, upon reflection, being referred to as strong also affected my willingness to show vulnerability. You can of course be strong and vulnerable, but I don’t always think we are given that opportunity. Be strong, be assertive, don’t show too much emotion, but don’t be seen as intimidating.

Q: What is your leadership style? 

Ms Pekin: Collaborative, consultative, looking for ways to elevate others and promote increased involvement in decision making processes.

Coach Till: It has definitely evolved over the years, but working in a collaborative environment has always been vital. I learn more from those in my team than they can learn from me because there is just one of me. Going back to my first answer showing vulnerability has definitely become a part of my leadership, creating space and time for others to do the same has really helped build a positive working environment and helped team members feel heard and be seen.

Q: How can you support female teachers and students? 

Ms Pekin: We can support female teachers and students by encouraging females to apply for positions of responsibility and leadership within the school. Sometimes women are more than capable, but need a tap on the shoulder to apply for leadership roles. We also need to not disenfranchise boys along the way. They need to be part of the conversation and not feel shame when going up against a female competitor for a leadership role if unsuccessful. This is a really complex societal issue for many boys and is not talked about enough. 

Q: How do the female leaders (Ms Harrington, Mrs Pekin) support you as a leader and as a staff member?

Coach Till: Their approachability, I have always felt really comfortable reaching  out and speaking to them. This helps me feel valued as a staff member and again goes back to the idea of being seen and heard!

ISM has a rich history of female leadership, as the first whole school principal of ISM was Mrs. Lelah Craig Brown in 1920, and principal Lois Croft, lead ISM through internment during Japanese occupation with thirty four students graduating during internment. With a total of nine women in female leadership over the last century, it is clear that they have been an important part of ISMs history. The administration team at ISM are the most visible faces of the school and naturally, its representation must exemplify the school’s values. At school we learn about the institutional and structural powers that suppress women, people of colour and the LGBTQIA+ community, and the power that representation in leadership and decision making can make to advocate and empower suppressed groups. As an institution that promotes diverse narratives, critical race theory, and values of equality, inclusion and justice in education, and prides itself on its international community, we must reflect such values in leadership for them to be strengthened and reinforced in the minds of our students.