The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) originally published this article in Summer 2014 — “Navigating the Labyrinth Examining the Career Pathways for Female Heads of School”— written by Dr. Tekakwitha M. Pernambuco-Wise, Head of School.
It was July 2013. While hot and humid outdoors, it was cool inside the Emory Conference Center in Atlanta. I looked around the room at the NAIS Institute for New Heads and wondered if anything had changed since I completed my leadership study 18 months earlier. It appeared not. Of the 59 brand new heads attending the 2013 institute, only 34 percent were female. My hunch was confirmed when I received the statistics from the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). The world of independent schools remains a female-dominated field — except at the topmost level.
At the time of my research, 72 percent of heads had been senior administrators in schools prior to attaining headship.(1) This suggests that most heads rise from these ranks. Most teachers are women — 66 percent in coeducational schools and 81 percent in all-girls schools (2) — and the majority of administrators on the traditional path to headship are female. Yet women comprise only 31 percent of independent school headships, with 50 percent of those women leading K – 8 schools. These numbers have remained static since 2002. Even though women fill most senior administrator positions, the percentage of applicants for headship also remains predominantly male (66 percent) and European American (86 percent).(3)
Curious about this phenomenon, I embarked on a journey to answer the following research question: “What factors are related to women attaining headships in NAIS schools and what sustained them in the job?” Performing a qualitative, grounded theory study, which sought to develop rather than test an existing theory, I interviewed 19 female heads of school and 12 search consultants.
Besides curiosity, the impetus for undertaking this study was my assumption that, by understanding how some women attained and were sustained in the position, other women may be encouraged to seek headship as a natural progression of their careers. Additionally, I assumed that the results would prove informative for boards of trustees and search firms, two predominant gatekeepers for headship ascension, thus providing a significant resource from a potentially rich applicant pool for filling the predicted shortage.
Navigating a Labyrinth
In a grounded theory study, a theory can be generated when a core category emerges from the data. In my study, an apt metaphor emerged. One female head of school I interviewed described her experience of attaining headship not as some variation of the traditional trajectory that most males took (teacher to department chair, department chair to dean, dean to assistant head, assistant head to head of school), but rather as negotiating a labyrinth. The core category that then emerged from the data in my study was what I call Navigating a Labyrinth — and I used this metaphor to frame the characteristics that helped women attain and be sustained in the position.
The denotation of the labyrinth in the study was that of a maze with headship being the treasure. This meant that if 10 men entered the labyrinth, seven emerged with the treasure; however, when 10 women entered, only three attained the treasure. When the women were asked about their experience of the labyrinth, they stated that numerous paths took them either to the core, away from the core, or to different treasures, or that, at some point, the way was blocked. When questioned about how they were able to negotiate the labyrinth and attain the treasure, each produced “master keys” that she had acquired or made that helped unlock huge, iron-girded doors to paths that led to the labyrinth’s core. The women did not all pass through the same doors. The keys, however, used singly or in combination, helped them to get through any door they faced.
For all the women candidates, four doors, some more powerful than others, blocked the path to headship: Unspoken Biases, Risky Candidate, Lifestyle vs. Job, and Loneliness. The six keys that opened the doors were: Foundation; Skills; Support; Opportunity; Voice; and Changing Times, Changing Position.
The article further explores the four doors and the six keys to open the doors. Click here to read the entire article on the NAIS website.
(1) National Association of Independent Schools, The State of Independent School Leadership, 2009. Washington, D.C., February 2010. Retrieved from www.nais.org.
(2) National Association of Independent Schools (2004-2005), NAIS StatsOnline Data Analysis. Staff Statistics in NAIS Member Schools Executive Summary, 2004-2005 School Year. Retrieved from www.nais.org.
(3) National Association of Independent Schools (February, 2010).