Women in leadership – A McDowell research project

Sask Bulletin
October 10, 2020
By Amy Orth, Principal, Aberdeen Composite and Amy Korver, Vice-Principal, Delisle Elementary

For the past year, we have been immersed in a McDowell research project focused on the experiences of female educational leaders in Saskatchewan.

As two administrators midway through our careers, we have had several common experiences and wonderings that led us to explore this topic more thoroughly. Over six months we interviewed nine current female school and division-based administrators and focused on the following questions:

  • What are the experiences of female educational leaders in Prairie Spirit School Division and Prairie South School Division? 
  • What challenges or barriers have they encountered in their leadership journeys?
  • How do they perceive their impact on school culture?

Our work surfaced several important ideas about women’s experiences. Most of the women did not aim to become administrators early in their career but were shoulder tapped many times before moving into formal administrative positions. The women had been learning leaders; they had held learning support roles, been involved in committee work and had often acted as mentors to others.

All participants indicated the importance of key relationships with mentors early in their career. Additionally, family considerations, including when to enter administration roles; whether or not they could parent and principal concurrently; and the need to care for aging parents played significantly into women’s career choices.

Throughout their careers, the women faced explicit and implicit gender discrimination from colleagues, parents and students. In some cases, this included sexual and aggressive language directed towards them. Additionally, the women identified their perception of networks focused around sports that they benefited from early in their career (such as coaching leading to leadership experience). However, they felt that this experience did not translate as easily to specific jobs as it did for others. One participant aptly stated, “It didn’t feel like an old boys’ club until I wanted in.”

With regard to school culture, many women felt that they were able to lead schools and organizations through significant changes related to realigning policy and procedures when it required difficult conversations and challenging staff and community expectations.

It was clear that the women we interviewed used intentional strategies to build relationships with their colleagues, which often led to relational trust with staff. Many women described a keen awareness of the big picture in their schools knowing who needed what in order to orchestrate a larger goal. The women’s leadership style seemed to be matriarchal in nature. They all mentioned the need to look after students and make them feel known; they described a seemingly primal need to fight for students who they felt were mistreated in the educational system.

As leaders, the women were comfortable being vulnerable in their work knowing that answers and solutions came through collaboration. At the same time, a consistent theme was the necessity of providing tough feedback but doing so in a way that maintained dignity and moved the organization forward. Finally, all the women described a focus on continuous learning improvement; they focused on making their schools or divisions better and not necessarily on their own career trajectory.

Our study concludes with three recommendations. First, organizations should take steps to determine if there are specific informal networks in their organization that are perceived to have influence and power. Second, organizations should seek to facilitate informal and formal mentorship opportunities that lead to growth for young women. Third, all teachers need to recognize that education has roots in patriarchy and we need to be proactive in dismantling traditional norms and expectations.

While our study is not representative of all female leaders, it does highlight the experiences and challenges of nine women. We hope that it starts a conversation that encourages more women to pursue leadership in our province.