What’s the Status of Women as Ed Leaders Worldwide?

Women who have become leaders have somehow successfully navigated cultural constraints in order to get there.

When a group of women in educational leadership looked for a source that addressed the status of their peers in the profession around the world, they were unable to find one. So they organized an international conference, which will become a book and the very resource that they had sought.

The conference and future book began as a project of a special interest group of the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA). Women from around the globe gathered in July at Duquesne University’s Italian campus in Rome for “Sharing the Spirit, Fanning the Flame: Women Leading Education Across the Continents.” The weeklong living-and-learning community was the first step in identifying best practices and ways for women leaders across the world to use them.

Five of the more than 40 women who participated in the Rome seminar reported on their experiences in the keynote address at the University of Nebraska conference on Women in Educational Leadership held in Lincoln in October.

Dr. Helen Sobehart, associate provost/academic VP at Duquesne University PA, led the group. Others were Dr. Jill Sperandio, assistant professor in educational leadership at Lehigh University PA; Bettie Bertram, supervisor of special education/ESL for the Upper Adams School District in Pennsylvania; Dr. Marilyn Grady, professor of educational administration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Dr. Katherine Houghton, campus director of the Salter School in Massachusetts and former dean of academic administration at Ross University, Island of Dominica.

UCEA represents some 60 universities that offer doctorates in educational leadership. Each participant brought her book chapter on the status of women in the country or countries she studied to Nebraska.

Slow progress

Despite years of incremental advances, the news was not good. “Women from virtually every country who came to the conference brought a story of slow progress of women in educational leadership,” said Sperandio. Developing countries had priorities that did not include advancing women in the profession. Their emphasis was on getting children into school. But the picture wasn’t much better among developed countries.

The ways in which women confronted barriers was very similar across the world, since women seem to have a strong sense of what leadership should be. The conference addressed the barrier of work-life balance issues, including conversations on the continuing denial of and distancing from problems. Suggestions were made on how to confront those with the power to change it.

It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in leadership roles worldwide. But why that happens differs from country to country. In Pakistan, for example, reinforcing the social norms of Muslim traditionalists means women have limited access to education. In Melanesia, where education isn’t compulsory, boys’ education was considered privileged but women were ignored.

A key question emerged from the papers. What strategies and processes both sustain and improve the status for women worldwide? Before presuming to pass on best practices, they first must be identified as such.

Culture and context

Houghton, who had lived and worked on the island of Dominica in the West Indies, addressed the issues of culture and context, switching from voice to visual and chronicling the issues with her camera. Her photos provided a way of interpreting the lived experiences of the people.

Looking at the complexities women face beyond poverty and health, Bertram noted that 85% of Fortune 500 CEOs are white men who are 6 foot 3 inches or taller. That statistic is similar for leaders in other countries.

Bertram identified other common barriers including a lack of invitation or respect for women. “How many decisions are made on the golf course?” she asked. As long as decisions are still being made in traditionally male environments, women have their work cut out for them if they are to be taken seriously.

The myth of gender equity means that the status quo is unlikely to change. Salary inequity is still present; women earn only 80% of what their male peers make. The characteristics we use to fit into the workplace simply make men more comfortable, but they don’t leverage our leadership style. Unless we address sexual innuendo, it will continue, resulting in lower standards and disintegrating ethics.

Opportunities and barriers

Grady addressed opportunities and barriers in her presentation. Reviewing the research of her international colleagues, she discovered a wide variety of factors. For instance, the German approach to gender mainstreaming is countrywide. “It washes through the institution from administration to faculty to the students,” she said. Both women and men recognize that they are all family members, workers and citizens.

In other countries junior scholars do their first study about gender, but they never return to the topic. One way of moving forward, said Grady, is to refrain from repeating the same studies over and over. “It doesn’t offer success and practices that we can build on,” she said. “All it does is repeat the dismal statistics.” Junior scholars who are replacing retiring senior faculty should consider starting their research from where the senior person left off, rather than from the beginning.

Requiring studies to be gender neutral doesn’t work. It only serves to make women authors invisible.

Sobehart tackled the research questions and methods for identifying what women’s leadership should look like, as well as how to further it. One factor to consider is how life experiences have influenced professional and leadership decisions. It’s no secret that social regularities frame conceptions of leadership in different countries. Women who have become leaders have somehow successfully navigated cultural constraints in order to get there. But in some of the third world countries, before we can begin to think about grooming women leaders, girls must first gain access to basic education.

Leadership training programs should identify ways in which they forward or hinder diversity and gender equity. There must be a way of identifying the relationship between research results and effective strategies that facilitate change. And once the changes are identified, we must determine how they can become institutionalized.

Germany as a model

Germany was once again held up as the model. All students are required to take specific gender-related courses. For women, it’s learning how to be concrete decision-makers. For men, it’s learning how to nurture children. Germany offers maternity and paternity leave; both parents can take three years off to care for their children. Everyone in the universities believes that education at all levels is important to everybody. “The Germans didn’t understand the concept of mentoring,” said Sobehart. They were so far ahead of it in policies and practices that the concept didn’t resonate.

Despite Germany’s progress, women who rise to power in countries like India and Pakistan are not as free as they seem. “When a woman is put up as a leader, discussions take place (behind the scenes) about what the woman can do in public,” said Sperandio. Some may be allowed to shake hands with men and appear in public without a head scarf. But most are “just a puppet for the political situation she’s in,” she explained. Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto can be only head of government, not head of state, for example.

There was much to be given and taken at the conference, some tangible and some intangible.

The conference logo, an illustration of a flame with a woman inside superimposed upon an image of the globe, sums up the experience first proposed by Hildegarde of Bingen, a 12th century nun and mystic. She pointed out that women are not consumed by the flame, but use it so that the flame becomes part of them.


Dr. Helen Sobehart at sobehart@duq.edu  or 412.396.4525

Dr. Jill Sperandio at jis204@lehigh.edu  or 610.758.3392

Bettie Bertram at bettie_bertram@uasd.k12.pa.us  or 717.677.7191

Dr. Marilyn Grady at mgrady1@unl.edu  or 402.472.0974

Dr. Katherine Houghton at khoughton@salterschool.com  or 978.934.9300

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