With International Women’s Day on Sunday, the Leadership Team at the United Nations International School of Hanoi (UNIS Hanoi) is calling for schools and industries to follow in their footsteps and ensure equal gender representation on their Leadership Teams.
At UNIS Hanoi, both the Head of School, Jane Mc Gee and the Board Chair, Dr Amie Pollack are women. Jane is part of a leadership team that’s over 50 percent women, serving alongside a Board that sees women occupying seven of the nine available positions.
What may be considered groundbreaking to others in the education sector is seen as a natural evolution for a United Nations school long committed to Sustainable Development Goal number 5 – Gender Equality. The School believes this is a dynamic that better represents the world. Megan Brazil, UNIS Hanoi’s Elementary School Principal said, “Women make up 50 percent of the world’s population, it only stands to reason that we should be well represented in leadership positions.”
Megan’s colleague, Emma Silva, Director of Advancement agrees and goes further to state that strong representation of women in leadership roles at the School is ‘essential to every child’s learning’. A former journalist and broadcast executive, Emma explained, “Diversity doesn’t just make for strong decision making with multiple perspectives, it also ensures that our young people grow up with what we model at our School as the ‘norm’. This is essential while they construct their view of the world, of what is possible and imagine their place in it.”
However, the School’s clear commitment to gender equality remains an outlier in the field of education. “Having so many women leaders makes our school fairly unique” admits Nitasha Crishna, Deputy Principal of the Lower Elementary School. “In the four elementary schools I have worked in before, there would be the odd one or two women in leadership roles. At UNIS Hanoi, we’re in an enviable position.”
Nitasha’s previous experiences mirror the experiences of her fellow female colleagues. TK Ostrom, UNIS Hanoi’s Director of Enrolment Management and Marketing and a former executive at the Bank of America, says, “There are more women working in schools mainly because it’s an environment that attracts nurturers, and women tend to be nurturers. However, and this is particularly true for international schools, men tend to take the seats at the table.”
A look at the hard data from the Council of International Schools (CIS) supports this view. According to their figures, only 27 percent of CIS member schools are headed up by women, the numbers pitifully lower among schools considered to be ‘top tier’.
UNIS Hanoi’s Head of School Jane McGee has worked in the international schools field for more than 25 years. She reveals that in that stretch of time, although she’s been ‘incredibly privileged to work with a number of women leaders’, she’s only worked for one female Head of School. The multicultural global society we are a part of, she says, is reason enough to amplify the mix and ensure UNIS Hanoi has the best people – men and women. Though Jane concedes there are personal biases and work-life balance complexities to overcome for women more so than men.
Add to the challenge for many, is the recruitment process itself, which Glenda Baker, UNIS Hanoi’s High School Deputy Principal believes in some ways could favour men. She explained “I have often wondered if we see more men in key leadership positions in international schools because the hiring and application process that schools typically follow plays more to some people’s strengths than others – gender aside. For example, I think a person has to have a pretty robust ego to go through the hiring process which includes ‘tests’ of leadership and several rounds of public vetting that schools follow when looking for a new head. There are lots of women (and men) who have the skills, capacity, and desire to take on leadership roles but may need a little support to overcome a lack of confidence.”
Emma says perception and language heighten the barriers faced by women in the workplace. She shared, “Our choice of words speak volumes and often illustrate deep seated prejudice. Strong men are described as ‘change agents’ that ‘revolutionise’ programmes and institutions, whereas women taking on similar roles can be seen as ‘strident’ or ‘single-minded’ with a touch of ‘bulldozer’ added to the mix of labels! Collaboration, perspective-seeking and compromise are often seen as weak, indecisive and lacking the very masculine ‘steel’ that is needed for tough decisions. Though, maybe a little less steel and a bit more flexibility is exactly what the world needs right now.”
Misty Shipley, UNIS Hanoi’s Director of Finance and Operations heads up a team of more than 150 people, made up mostly of men not used to a woman occupying what to some, is considered a ‘man’s role’. She says she’s faced both age discrimination and gender discrimination during her career but she’s thankful she now works in an environment that values her skills and experience foremost. “At UNIS Hanoi, we’ve always hired the best people for the job; it so happens that many of those people are women” she stated.
At the Board Level
Dr Amie Pollack stepped into the Board Chair role in 2018, after serving on the Board as a member for three consecutive years. She says traditionally there are more women on educational boards compared to corporate boards because women tend to be more involved in education. However, men still hold the majority of board seats. She added, “The percentage of women on our Board is unusually high, and this is good for the School, as there is evidence that a diverse Board, offering different perspectives and approaches to leadership makes better decisions.”
In the academic year 2016-2017, Amie chaired the Head of School Search Taskforce, which facilitated efforts that led to the appointment of Jane as UNIS Hanoi’s Head of School. Amie shared, “When we launched our search for a new Head of School, we made it clear to our recruitment consultants that we wanted to see qualified women candidates. This was important to us not only because it aligns with our values as a United Nations school, it’s also important because otherwise you’re only looking at 50 percent of the applicant pool, which means you’re missing out on qualified leaders.”
Turning desire into reality, Amie confessed, proved challenging at times as the number of women applying for key leadership roles is still incredibly low. However, she revealed, “In our experience, the women candidates we did have were excellent.”
To challenge the status quo, TK believes that women in positions of seniority have a responsibility to mentor women with potential and ‘groom them to take over’. And as someone with responsibility for recruitment, Megan is dedicated to doing her part in building a diverse team. She revealed,”Gender representation is an important element of my team’s recruitment strategy, and something we frequently keep in mind.”
Still much work to be done
Glenda believes the existence of groups such as the Diversity Collaborative which aim to ensure more qualified educators from under-represented groups are considered for leadership roles is encouraging. Joining such a community, she says, helps build a wider understanding of some of the challenges people face in education leadership. Nitasha, who finds she’s often the only woman of colour at the top, says there’s still much work to be done. She explained, “If you’re a woman striving for a leadership role, especially in a well regarded and sought after school, you start out pitted against a demographic of white men. For many women applying, that is still a pretty hard barrier to overcome.”
Forging a future that’s equal
Megan added, “If we truly wish to see the UN’s fifth Sustainable Development Goal realised, men and women must ensure we champion and encourage girls to find and use their voices from an early age, so that they become strong women who are willing and able to lead.”
Jane Mc Gee is confident that with passion, everything is possible and schools are the perfect environment to make a real impact. She said, “International schools can take a strong stand in ensuring diversity and gender balance are not just embraced and celebrated but are no longer considered unusual or something to even mention. There is the dream… and schools are our best shot at future fixing!”