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School & District Management Opinion

The Lonely Road for Women Administrators

Three strategies for avoiding unfair stereotypes about female school leaders
By Erica Walters — January 17, 2023 3 min read
Walters Principal is IN Female Administrators
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My 11-year-old son came to me one day a few months ago and said, “Mom, how come more teachers do not look like me?” This struck a chord in more than one way. First, my son is half Jamaican and half white. Second, stating the obvious, my son was referring to how he is a boy and all his teachers are female.

As a female assistant principal, I have often echoed my son’s question: How come more of my fellow administrators do not look like me? I have come to realize that the higher one moves up the ranks of educational leadership, the clearer it becomes that is a male-dominated environment. Where are all the females in educational leadership?

What I also believe to be true is that the higher you go up the educational leadership ranks, the lonelier it is. And—as many of my fellow female education leaders have been learning for decades—it is an especially lonely road for female administrators.

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In this biweekly column, principals and other authorities on school leadership—including researchers, education professors, district administrators, and assistant principals—offer timely and timeless advice for their peers.

I often run into situations where I am seen as stubborn and aggressive for expressing the same demeanor that would be read as authoritative and strong-willed in a man.

Throughout my past seven years as an administrator, it has taken hard work not to seem pushy, aggressive, or emotional while still standing strong for my guiding principles to do what is best for students regardless of their backgrounds, help teachers become the best educators they can be, and be a champion for our community.

In that time, I have been able to gather some tips and strategies to ensure that I am seen for what I stand for as an advocate for all students to be successful.

  • Be empathetic: I wear my heart on my sleeve in my profession, even when people may write that empathy off as being “too emotional.” You must show the community, your teachers, and students that you are a human being, too, and that you have their best interests at heart. It’s OK to come across as passionate; I would rather be passionate than a pushover.
  • Be assertive but calm: The word “aggressive” has become a trigger word for me. While my male counterpart is viewed as assertive, I am aggressive when I speak the truth. But I have learned that I can’t allow that perception to stop me from standing up for myself or someone else. There will always be times that a leader needs to go against the consensus. The trick is to be assertive while not allowing inflammatory statements or emotions to get the best of you. A former principal I worked with, Mr. Meechin, once advised me to wait 24 hours before responding to any inflammatory emails and to reread my response with a clearer head before hitting that send button. I also try to bring that same principle of allowing for a cool-off period ahead of my in-person interactions when they have the potential to become heated. How many times have we wanted to really put that person in their place but thought better?
  • Find a mentor or a “rubber band friend”: We all need that person off whom we can bounce ideas like a rubber band, whether they are in our field of educational leadership or a personal friend. I have found one or two fellow female administrators who I can trust. I can vent my frustrations and discuss ideas with them confidentially and without judgment. This has helped me in many situations where I have needed advice and felt that only a professional peer could understand my feelings, where I am coming from, and be able to provide rational solutions.

Whether you are in your first year as an administrator or are in your 15th year, it is never easy. We have to allow ourselves the same grace that we give our students and our staff. I know this, though: I will never sacrifice who I am as a person and an educational leader to please someone else. I am a leader who is determined to see her teachers and students succeed. I just happen to be a woman.

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 2023 edition of Education Week as The Lonely Road for Women Administrators

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