You hire people who have capacity; you help them build that capacity and you let them shine. And I get the residual effect of that all the time, but I no longer need to be in the limelight as ….the person who made all of this happen because that’s not what makes me feel successful. When I have other people who feel empowered, who have a feeling of purpose and desire and direction and want to make things happen with direction we set as a team, then I feel I’ve done my job.
Lorraine Darnell (Grogan, 1996, p. 143)
The western world is preoccupied with leadership. We want to understand what it means to be an effective leader, how to build capacity to lead and to lead in a manner that will effect long lasting change in our organisation. There are hundreds of books for purchase, articles to read online, e-courses to subscribe to all of which will help you be the leader you want to be. Much of this work focuses on traditional ‘executive’ leadership that emerged from the business world and relies on organisational authority and power.
Women and leadership has also captured our imagination. Women have fought hard for equal access and recognition in so many fields. There is now a body of literature that drills down into the issues facing women in leadership. But I would suggest that the discussion centred on leadership and gender, the role of women in particular has only just begun.
Women have long been underrepresented in the area of leadership. There has been talk of glass ceilings, barriers to women’s access to leadership and opportunity to progress their career. But now more than ever these glass ceilings are cracked. To state that they have been removed and that women now have the same opportunities has men would be foolish. However, what has emerged in some of the recent work on women and work, we find that women are in fact leading all the time. Women who lead take on the role differently to men. The research suggests that leadership for women is different; they embody and embellish their role in tangibly different ways. The way they structure organisations, communicate, relate and instruct all rely less on the hierarchical structures of their male counterparts. Women tend to deviate from the ‘command and control’ paradigm.
A focus then on women and educational leadership brings some more acute observations that affirm this distinct leadership style attributed to women. Grogan and Shakeshaft’s (2011) work on women and educational leadership uncovers some interesting observations. I wish to highlight a few key areas in the work of Grogan and Shakeshaft (2011) that I think will help us revise our own framework for considering issues of gender and leadership:
Women lead when given the chance.
Traditional (male) approaches to educational leadership have left hundreds of children behind in our schools.
Women lead purposefully.
Five approaches characterise women and educational leadership: leadership for learning, leadership for social justice, relational leadership, spiritual leadership and balanced leadership.
Collective leadership focuses on the intra and interorganisational relationships, events and activities
Relationships, networks and good communication define collective leadership.
There has been ongoing debate about whether leadership can ever be gender neutral. Should women lead like men? Or more importantly what would it look like to lead like a woman? Are women able to be honest enough to lead in a manner that is authentic to the person they are, their identity, values and vision? One of the issues that arise from this discussion is where does ‘motherhood’ belong in a discussion of women and educational leadership? And how do the maternal skills of mothering, such as organising, nurturing, listening and motivating inform the discussion. Motherhood has alienated many women who want to lead. The decision to have a family can also be the decision to take time out of one’s career, to multi task and juggle career and parenting responsibilities. Grogan and Shakeshaft (2011) note that women often adopt a metaphor of family to characterise their work (p. 85) and perhaps even their leadership style.
Whatever model of leadership we adopt for education, it needs to be sustainable. For women, collective leadership could be the key.