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School & District Management Opinion

When Women Hold Each Other Back: A Call to Action for Female Principals

Six ways to move past the damaging mentalities that plague leadership roles
By Crystal Thorpe — April 09, 2024 4 min read
A mean female leader with crossed arms stands in front of a group of people.
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At a recent national networking event I attended for secondary school principals, the facilitator asked the room packed full of excited female principals to share one of the greatest challenges we faced in our leadership journeys. One of the top responses? Other women.

When you look at the ratio of female teachers to men in leadership roles, the math ain’t mathin’! Currently, 74 percent of teachers are women, but when it comes to school leadership, women comprise 69 percent of elementary school principals, 44 percentage of middle school principals, and 36 percentage of high school principals. This number shrinks further for superintendents, approximately 26 percentage of whom are women.

According to researchers, there are a variety of reasons why more women are not in leadership positions, including biased cultural preferences for male leadership, disproportionate family responsibilities placed on women, and the outdated belief that women cannot discipline older students.

About This Series

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.

But as I listened to my peers share their heart-wrenching stories at the women-leadership networking event, I was reminded of another barrier to add to the list: women who pull the ladder up after them as they climb education’s ranks.

In my years of teaching and leading a school, I’ve learned that mean girls often grow into mean women. I’ve observed three distinct mentalities of mean-girl leadership. Have you met any of these women before?

The Queen of Mean: She establishes herself as the “leader” in the group and wants to be always front and center. She uses intimidation tactics to make you feel inferior. She expects you to go along with her ideas because her ideas are always the best ideas. She makes you feel inadequate, and any proposal you share is met with resistance. If you ever have an innovative suggestion, she pokes holes in it and loves to share why it will not work. She is condescending and dismissive. There is a constant battle of you finding your voice and the Queen silencing you at every turn by reminding everyone that she is in charge and YOU are not!

The Competitor: She is the one who views other women as rivals. She will smile in your face, pretend to be a friend, and then speak negatively about you behind your back. She has a “pick me” mentality, and her mission is to be the best at all costs. She constantly wants to know what you are doing, not because she is genuinely interested but because she wants to figure out how to beat you. The competitor’s mode of operation is to win no matter what, even if that means losing a colleague and a friend.

The Just-One-of-the-Guys Girl: She considers herself an honorary member of the good ole boys’ network. She typically takes on traditionally ascribed masculine leadership characteristics, such as being domineering, aggressive, and blunt. These women put other women down in favor of men to make themselves “fit in.” She perpetuates a good ole boys mentality and is more concerned about advancing men to upper levels of administration over women. She will often make it difficult for women to ascend into leadership roles because she devalues characteristics traditionally associated with female leadership, such as being democratic, empathetic, and nurturing.

Ladies, we need to support and empower each other! The common characteristic of these types of women is insecurity. With so many barriers already facing women seeking administrative roles, we should not be fighting each other, tearing each other down, or dimming each other’s lights. So how can we move past these damaging mentalities?

Be a mentor. Be the woman who cultivates relationships with other women to help guide and support them in their career.

Be an advocate. When opportunities occur in your district, share those prospects with others. When there is an open position, encourage women to seek out those positions and coach them along the way.

Be supportive. When you attend conferences/events and notice a woman sitting by herself, talk to her and network. These types of events can be some of the loneliest and isolating places. A cheerful hello and a warm smile can absolutely make someone’s day.

Be an encourager. If you know a female teacher who has leadership potential, talk to her about becoming an administrator. Provide her with leadership opportunities in the building so that she can develop and broaden her skills.

Be a collaborator. If you have a leadership or instructional strength, find another woman with those same passions and teach others through professional development and presentations.

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Be a promoter. Speak up for women in the spaces where their names might not be shared or spoken by others. Find your sister circle, squad, or tribe of women you can call on when you need a helping hand, a listening ear, or a sounding board. These women will also be your greatest champions and fiercest supporters.

Confidence is one of the most important traits for a female leader. You are supposed to be here. You are in your role because you have the credentials, skills, and dispositions to lead. It is not by accident or by luck. It is what you have earned and what you deserve.

Mean girls don’t have to grow up to be mean women. It is a choice. Choose to be better. Choose to uplift women.

A friend once told me to never dim my light so that others could shine. So, I say to always keep the light inside you shining. Don’t ever dim it, especially when others think it is too bright and work hard to blow it out. More importantly, be the spark that makes those lights around you shine even brighter! My flame is blazing and ready to set the world on fire. Ladies, are you with me?

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