Moving beyond narrow images of school leadership

We are really conscious that our work shows exactly what we – the collective ‘we’ as a profession – risk losing as a result of the restrictive images of what a leader looks and acts like.

We hear from participants about the myriad ways the explicit and implicit expectations of ‘looking like a leader’ have presented blockers towards who feels like they can aspire to leadership, who is given opportunities to lead, and who is supported to take up those opportunities.

This, we think, is an incredibly important aspect of our project. When we started, Pat and I knew we had shared experiences of pressures associated with ‘looking’ like a principal and we suspected that this was a wider phenomenon. Our fieldwork has borne this out. We have heard from hundreds upon hundreds of women who have shared their experiences. Every now and then – rarely, but it has happened a couple of times over the last couple of years – someone has told me they don’t ‘get’ this project. Why wardrobes? Why women in particular? Why focus on this? This post is an example of a deeply complex and abiding problem with school leadership that is highlighted by discussions around expectations of appearance, wardrobe, identity, and opportunity. Wardrobes give us a way into exploring some really wicked problems associated with school leadership.

In our recent book chapter, we wrote about some of the ways we can come to understand the experiences of women leaders by using wardrobe as a starting point. You can read our publication here. We know that our own experiences as white Australian women leaders are naturally going to differ significantly from the experiences of women who are of a different cultural background to us, and who experience different barriers than we did or continue to do. We wrote about the importance of having an intersectional lens and understanding of participants’ experiences. (Read more about Professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and the development of the theory of intersectionality here.)

A colleague from the US, Dr Terri N. Watson, has written a forthcoming article in the Journal of Educational Administration and History where she talks about ‘performative wokeness’ and how we tend to use terms or phrases that make us feel like we’re calling out racist practices without actually naming those practices. Dr Watson’s work focuses on Black girls, education, and Black women leaders and you can access more information about her research here.

As I was reading Dr Watson’s article, it made me reflect on whether I was clear enough about what I was trying to get at in the original draft of this blog post. And I wasn’t. I was trying to discuss the fact that we know that there are systemic issues that still present blockers for us having a diverse principalship, but I didn’t name the issues. Racism, sexism, and ableism persist and they mean that the principalship remains largely homogenous, in Australia at least.

I wanted to share an article that highlights the need to have more open conversations about race and racism in educational leadership. It was written by Dr Edith Rusch and Associate Professor Sonya Horsford, and it’s openly accessible in the link below.

Rusch, E. A., & Horsford, S. D. (2009). Changing hearts and minds: The quest for open talk about race in educational leadership. International Journal of Educational Management.

I am writing this from Melbourne, Australia, where according to the latest TALIS data, Australia’s school leaders are largely white, and women continue to remain underrepresented in school leadership given the feminisation of the teaching profession.

If we continue to work with the idea that a leader has to look and behave a certain way, we are going to continue to perpetuate leadership that is largely white, middle-class, and denies opportunities to people who do not fit that mould. Pat, along with Jill Blackmore and Karin Barty has researched about this in the past– the ways selection panels continue to reproduce themselves (see Pat’s blog post about it here).

Those of us who are in positions of power – those who hire people, who promote people, who mentor people, who are part of the ‘tapping on the shoulder’ that still makes up so many of our school leadership hiring practices – have a responsibility to understand and acknowledge our own complicity in these systems and practices, and work to ensure we are not perpetuating the same cycles.

I wanted to share two articles: “When Feminism Is White Supremacy in Heels” written by Rachel Elizabeth Cargle as a starting point to think about “the type of behavior that rests under the guise of feminism only as long as it is comfortable, only as long it is personally rewarding, only as long as it keeps “on brand.” But if the history of this movement taught us anything, it is that intersectionality in feminism is vital.” 

And finally, I wanted to share this op-ed written by Dr Terri Watson, who pushes us further in “The Problem with Kindness” to think about how ‘kindness’ has been wrapped up in ‘glitzy’ easy to digest packages for educators.

We need to recognise and acknowledge the ways we benefit from current structures, and dismantle those structures. I finish with Flavia Dzodan’s famous essay “My feminism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit”.

If It Isn't Intersectional, It Isn't Feminism(Image: PopSugar)



We have decided to move to monthly blog posts where we examine some of the issues and findings related to our project in more depth. Our research project is ongoing and we are currently working on some new publications – stay tuned for more! 


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