How Good Are You At Baking? Double Standards for Women in Leadership

This article first appeared in The International Educator

We’re probably all very aware of existing double standards based on gender. The expectations that, for example, women run the household and men manage the finances might feel easy to dismiss as outdated stereotypes when spelled out here, but when it comes to seeking leadership positions many of those traditional expectations are still prevalent in the international school circuit – not explicitly spelled out, but floating in the air, underneath the surface, or revealed in an offhand comment.

Almost all of the women I spoke to for Women Who Lead had at least one story to share – some of them are outright laughable and others are infuriating. If you are seeking a leadership position and you don’t fit the traditional “middle aged cis white male” stereotype of a leader, you might find you’ve come across many of these yourself.  Thankfully, our Women Who Lead have not only faced these obstacles, but they have a variety of strategies for dealing with them, that you can apply in your leadership journey too!

Today’s article will highlight some of the key stories that stood out to me while I was conducting over 70 interviews of successful women leaders – this isn’t an exhaustive list, and these aren’t the only stories. To find out more about what women are facing when pursuing a leadership journey, you can hear from the women themselves in our Women Who Lead Certificate program: 

Real World Double Standards Faced by Our Women Who Lead

Both Jennifer Tickle, Secondary Principal at Dresden International School in Germany, and her husband are school administrators, so they have both sat in the interviewee chair while the other was the supportive spouse. You might assume that their experiences as a spouse would be similar, but for Jennifer, she finds that when she’s been interviewed as the “wife” of her husband’s career, her CV is often ignored. In one particular instance, when asked what she can do to support her husband, she jokingly said “I bake very good cupcakes” and the interview team wrote it down as a serious answer. When she interviews for a leadership position with her husband in the room, no one asks her husband what he can do to support her – and we can imagine the response if he replied about his baking prowess. 

We hear all the time about women leaders being labeled bossy or aggressive in negative tones. Unfortunately even being the opposite of bossy and aggressive seems to work against them. Catriona Moran, Head of School at Saigon South International School in Vietnam, shared a number of stories of being perceived as being “too nice” in a leadership role. She shared a particularly fascinating story about being the lead administrator for the design of a construction project. “One meeting there were 20 people in the room (19 males, I was 8 months pregnant). Anytime a decision needed to be made, the others looked to my male colleague – even though I was making the decisions.” As she points out, there is a perception that women might not be able to step up and make, and then communicate, hard decisions.

Motherhood and parenting is yet another double standard that women face. While it is rarely a concern if a male leader is a parent (or soon to be a parent), judgements abound for pregnant women, or those with younger children. Carla Marschall, currently Director of Teaching & Learning at United World College, Southeast Asia, East Campus in Singapore,  shared her story (before working at UWC), about interviewing while pregnant. She notes that there was some questioning about being a parent and how the emotional state of being a parent could influence her role and therefore she ended up withdrawing her application for that position. She says: “The motherhood piece is probably something that many female leaders experience. Although I need to take care of my children at the end of the day, it doesn’t mean that I switch off when I get home. In reality a person can play both roles of parent & leader.”

Often depending on the host country culture, women can also face stereotypical male authority and expectations of women. Caroline Brokvam, Director of the American School Antananarivo, Madagascar, notes that she gets “challenged in a way that wouldn’t happen to a man.” Although she has found that it happens more in her current region of the world, Africa, then her previous, Europe, she finds it hard to pinpoint why. She has found that sometimes it’s cultural and particular to specific parents or teachers. “I feel like you get challenged and people assume that you will back down because you’re a woman. There is a perception that some people will get their way because you’re a woman.”  

Unfortunately this behavior is not exclusive to individual parents or teachers, it often finds its way into the executive board conversations as well. Jane Thompson, Head of School at the American School of Paris, shared that she has often found herself in executive board meetings with businessmen where her ideas are completely dismissed, only to be rephrased by a man and received with appreciation. Jane recommends that “we should call it out and laugh at it: the old boys club in international schools. They’re lovely people, but it does feel like a group. It does make you feel excluded and makes you draw back.” 

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5 Strategies to Manage Double Standards

Even though these double standards are not fading away as quickly as we might like them to, our Women Who Lead shared a variety of strategies that we can all employ to help growing and aspiring leaders manage these challenges.

1: Actively Seeking Out Leadership Qualities

As you might have noticed in previous articles in this series, many of our Women Who Lead have found that having someone else acknowledge and notice their growing leadership qualities was crucial in their professional journey. As Lynn Sawyer, of Sawyer Educational Consulting in Nevada USA, points out, “calling out qualities that they see in others can be an important turning point.” We should all be striving to notice those qualities in others, and sharing them. Recognizing your leadership potential often comes when another person points out something inside of you that you don’t even notice you have. 

2: Connecting With Others

When we recognize that we have developed double standards or stereotypes about others, we can try to seek out more opportunities to connect with people who are different from us. Chanel Johnson, District Math & Science Specialist in Texas, USA, points out that “It can’t be the same people who think like you, look like you feel like you. Connect with people different from you: looks, cultural, economics, backgrounds and overall a different mindset. We all think differently, we need to have cultural differences, we all have different experiences. Knowing and engaging with different people with different experiences is an important skill for us to have and seek.” As we are looking to better understand our perspectives and biases, engaging in conversations with those who don’t think like us will open our eyes to other potential possibilities and new ways of seeing things.

3: Be Bold

Grace McCallum, Elementary School Principal at Frankfurt International School in Germany, recommends that aspiring and growing female leaders “be bold”. Cultural expectations might dictate that women are less likely to articulate their goals, but changing that mindset to be direct and be bold enough to say “I want this” can be a game changer. As Grace says, “the answer is always no, unless you ask.” She notes that it can be hard to be so bold at first. Boldly advocating for yourself and standing up for what you believe in can be challenging when you are just getting started, so sometimes you have to “fake it till you make it”. 

Now that she is more confident in being bold, Grace talks about being honest & clear in her communication, and standing up for what she believes in. As a leader she is transparent about who she is, what she believes in and what she stands for. This may mean that not every potential future position is a match, and that’s OK. The last thing you want to do is accept a leadership position in an institution where your philosophy doesn’t align.

4: Find a Way to Be Seen

Often when women do not feel confident in their leadership skills, they will pull back from expressing themselves. When they are fighting with imposter syndrome, they may remain silent and not share their thinking, which makes them easy to overlook. Madeleine Heide, Head of School at Lincoln American School in Buenos Aires, recommends that aspiring and growing leaders “find a way to be seen and heard, because the world needs female leaders”.

5: Laugh At It

When recollecting her earlier experiences with double standards and microaggressions, Jane Thompson, Head of School at the American School of Paris, recognizes that at the time she was oblivious to it, and for her, that was really good because it didn’t get under her skin. Now, she recommends the importance of recognizing those behaviors and being aware of them, but “don’t waste time being angry about it, it’s not going to help you.” She notes that there is a lot more sensitivity to the issue among male colleagues, and they do want to help. Over time, the atmosphere is changing and becoming much more supportive and respectful. 

Leverage Your Leadership with Women Who Lead!

These realities are not going to change overnight. It’s likely that many scenarios similar to those shared here will arise in your journey to leadership, but that doesn’t mean we have to let them stop us! Recognizing the ways that you might face these kinds of challenges, and having specific strategies and tools to manage them, is a critical step in taking your leadership to the next level.

If this is something that you are ready to develop in your leadership practice, there are many more stories, skills and strategies shared in the Women Who Lead Certificate program – designed for aspiring and growing leaders. Learn from the stories of over 70 successful women leaders and build your professional learning network in our global cohorts once a year.

Find out more at:

May 11, 2022

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