Scaling the mountain to principalship: Barriers and enablers in a female first-time principal’s journey to leadership

Samantha Mortimer and Dr Frances Edwards, University of Waikato

Although, in 2017, 59% of the total number of high school teachers in New Zealand were female, women held less than 33% of all NZ school principal positions. This leads to the question: Why are female teachers in New Zealand less likely to become principals than their male colleagues?

This question is especially pertinent as girls are now outpacing boys in high schools and universities around the world, and women are currently entering the general workforce at higher salaries. However, there have been minimal changes in the proportion of females in top executive positions in the last decade, despite changes in the law to create a more equitable practice. Consequently, leadership, and the power and influence for change that are associated with leadership, remain highly gendered. Sam decided to explore this issue for her recent Master of Educational Leadership thesis.

Introducing Janet, a female NZ European first-time principal

Working with supervisor Frances, Sam found a female first-time principal who was willing to share her experiences about entry into leadership of a school. Janet (pseudonym) is a New Zealand European first-time principal who is committed to making a difference for her students and who was appointed to principalship in her fifties. She was willing to share her story through a dialogical, ethnographic interview.

In this blog post, we tell Janet’s story while highlighting the main barriers and enablers on her journey to principalship.

Barriers Janet faced

Gender

Janet spoke about the impact of gender on her journey to principalship – the assumption that ‘women teach and men lead’. Janet experienced stereotypical attitudes about women in leadership. However, she said that she personally had been able to found ways to move dynamically and fluidly across binary gender norms:

“I can play the dumb female: ‘help me, help me, I don’t know what I am doing’”

but, at the same time,

“I am actually a woman and I have got to this position and I don’t need any of you men to help me. I can stand up in my own right.”

Janet said that she tries to find

a balance of those two [approaches]

because, as a female principal,

you need their [male principals’] support a lot of the time”.

Whānau/family

A second barrier related to whānau/family, especially at the time when Janet had a young family. Janet remarked,

“I could be a DP [deputy principal] standing on my head”

but, on balance, she felt it was more important to put time into her role as mother while her daughter was still living at home rather than pursuing the next step of principalship at that stage in her family life. Janet said that she

“would never recommend it [principalship] if you have little children”.

Janet is not alone

Both gender and family considerations have been identified elsewhere as negatively impacting women’s participation in leadership roles both within and beyond education. The 2012 NZ Census of Women’s Participation indicated that women had advanced in their careers in New Zealand society but that they had not yet secured equal opportunities in relation to employment, retention, promotion and status. (These national trends also concur with broader international research.) In 2015, the gender pay gap in New Zealand was at a six year high (at 11.8%, up from 9.9% in 2014). The Human Rights Commission of New Zealand has stated that this gap is a human rights issue and action needs to be taken.

Enablers that supported Janet

Janet identified a number of factors that had supported or enabled her as she moved into a principal’s role for the first time.

Her strong belief in social justice

Janet said on more than one occasion that society

“can’t have any more kids falling through the cracks and doing nothing.”

This conviction motivated Janet to continue working in demanding situations. A similar personal commitment to working for equity and positive outcomes for disadvantaged students has been reported for many other principals and leaders, both male and female.

Support systems

Janet had a range of support systems including her husband along with other female teachers who were in similar situations with small children. This finding aligned with research from the USA that also identified the importance of a husband’s support when a woman becomes a principal or takes on a similar leadership role such as becoming a superintendent or school administrator.

Mentors

Two mentors encouraged Janet and gave her confidence to apply for promotions on her rise to principalship. Although both these mentors were male, Janet did not find this detrimental. Other research has found that gender is not necessarily a factor in whether positive and understanding relationships can be built in mentoring settings.

Referring to one of her two mentors, Janet said:

“[Tim] believed in me. I didn’t believe in me, but he did. Whatever he saw in me, I don’t know to this day. He got me to go to the [university] course. I wouldn’t have gone myself; I wouldn’t have thought that I should go to something like that …”

Key prior professional development opportunities

Janet trained as a primary teacher, completed a Diploma in School Management and finally was given the opportunity to be an Acting Principal before she took on her first full principalship. Janet downplayed the Acting Principal role, and stated that

“It wasn’t a reality, I was only baby-sitting … I wasn’t carrying the can [responsible] for anything.”

Janet felt that in the Acting Principal role, she was just

“keeping the seat warm.”

However, other research indicates that taking on the role of acting principal can provide another avenue for professional learning and is therefore one of the most valuable ways to prepare for a principal’s position. In Janet’s case, despite her remarks, each of her prior professional development experiences enabled her to grow professionally in preparation for principalship.

A visual metaphor of Janet’s barriers and enablers

The figure below provides a visual depiction of the barriers and enablers described above that Janet experienced on her journey to principalship.

Janet's barriers & enablers
Samantha Mortimer’s visual metaphor of Janet’s barriers and enablers. Drawn by Jenni Baylis; used by permission.

Turning points

It became clear from Janet’s story that there had been some key turning points where identity and circumstance collided.

In terms of identity, before pursuing a principal’s position, there was a time when Janet could not equate her identity as a woman to her identity as a (potential) principal. She did not see herself as having the necessary characteristics to be able to handle such a position at that time. She said:

“I lost my confidence that I could actually be a principal, and one of the reasons for that was going to deputy principal conferences [which were] very heavily male.”

Janet also said that she was

“put off a little bit by being a principal. I don’t really know what put me off or why I changed my mind re being a principal, but I really wanted to keep in contact with the kids.”

Confidence is something that comes up time and again in discussions about women in leadership roles. The ‘confidence gap’ was something that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern talked about recently with Global Women CEO Miranda Burdon.

In terms of Janet’s circumstances, there was a particular collision of circumstances at the same time as she was wrestling with these identity considerations. Janet had just finished the Acting Principal role, her daughter was about to leave home, and a principal’s position became available in the hometown where Janet had

“taught both the parents and their children.”

Despite her prior identity concerns about whether she could be (or wanted to be) a principal, she knew that the time was now right:

“It was like, well, maybe I could do this”.

Decision made

Despite her doubts, the collision of circumstances led Janet to apply for the principal’s position. Her application was successful and she became a principal.

Janet still has days when she thinks:

“What the hell am I doing?”

and she is the first to admit that she’s

“made a couple of mistakes.”

However, she returns to her mantra that

“we can’t have any more kids falling through the cracks and doing nothing.”

Therefore, even when times are tough, Janet puts on her “stage face” and becomes

“the best actor there is, because no one can see that you are not coping, because if they see you are not coping everything else falls apart”.

Janet’s journey was like that of many woman principals, fraught with the challenges of developing a professional identity and a career trajectory while balancing other priorities in her life. However, from her position at the time of the research as a relatively new principal she gave the following advice to others following in her footsteps:

“A lot of people wouldn’t agree, but it [principalship] has huge implications on your time with your family – so wait until they [the children] are older. At least when they are already in high school, to be able to cope and do both [be a mother and be a principal].”

“Find yourself a good mentor when you are a DP”.

“Don’t ever be ashamed to say you don’t know. There is no such thing as a dumb question. I ask them all the time because I don’t know how you can find out if you don’t ask.”

“I have to be honest, I would say to anybody, yourself included, if you’re thinking about it, a principal’s position is not a job, it’s a life, you actually live it 24/7”.


Sam

Samantha Mortimer (@sammortimer70) is Assistant Principal at Te Aroha College, a small secondary school in rural New Zealand. She completed a BA at Radford University, Virginia, and an MA at the University of Exeter before becoming a high school teacher and an Advisory Health Education Teacher in Manchester, UK. Samantha then moved with her family back to NZ in 2007 and completed her Masters of Educational Leadership at the University of Waikato in 2015. She is currently a doctoral candidate there, investigating how schools support, or perhaps limit, the development of beginning teachers’ professional identities. Photo of Sam: University of Waikato.

Frances

Frances Edwards is currently a senior lecturer at the University of Waikato. She has a background in secondary teaching and leadership as well as educational consultancy in NZ and the Pacific region. Her current research interests include assessment, data literacy, teacher development, and Pacific education.

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