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The diversity factor in leadership searches

| March 8, 2012 | 0 Comments

By Patrick F. Bassett

Independent schools in the United States have come part of the way on the journey to becoming inclusive institutions where the staff, students and leadership reflect the mosaic that is our country.

One element of the journey where we seem to have hit a speed bump is manifest in a key industry challenge: the under-representation of women and people of colour in independent school headships and in some of the other senior leadership roles in these schools. While virtually all searches advertise and seek a ‘diverse pool of qualified candidates’ and increasing numbers of women and people of colour are represented in the ‘finalists’ stage, too frequently, they end up being the ‘close second’, especially for headships. That reality is illustrated by the data the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) collects on senior leadership team members in independent schools, collated by gender and race, where Heads are disproportionately white and male in comparison to the general population and in contrast to some of the other senior leadership roles in the school.

Context According to a recent study produced by Georgetown University1, persistent and systemic undervaluing of women and people of colour occurs at all levels in the economy. In terms of lifetime earnings at the top end, college-educated (related, of course, to promotion into higher-level positions) women and people of colour employees must have to have at least one degree higher of educational attainment to earn comparable pay to white males: e.g., a master’s degree to a white male’s bachelor’s degree; a doctoral degree to a white male’s master’s degree; etc. So prima facie evidence #1 is that the glass ceiling continues to exist, and independent schools that one would hope would shatter such a barrier have yet, as a sector, to do so – especially at the Head, Associate/Assistant Head and upper School Director levels.

Prima facie evidence #2 emerges in ‘Unlocking the Full Potential of Women in the US Economy’, another recent analysis known as the McKinsay report, that opens with the observation that…

Women have been a growing factor in the success of the U.S. economy since the 1970s. Indeed, the additional productive power of women entering the workforce from 1970 until today accounts for about a quarter of current GDP. Still, the full potential of women in the workforce has yet to be tapped. As the U.S. struggles to sustain historic GDP growth rates, it is critically important to bring more women into the workforce and fully deploy high-skill women to drive productivity improvement.2

Paralleling the NAIS data in the table above, the McKinsey Report findings about leadership by women in the United States economy is matched by significant under-representation of women in most upper level leadership roles (and not surprisingly, by extension, our data reflects what other studies show in the larger economy, that the same conditions exist documenting the unrealised potential for leadership from people of colour in our schools).

Factors the same in the corporate world and in independent schools in the United States

Many of the same factors identified by the McKinsey Report for such under-representation in the United States corporate and business world also applies, of course, to independent schools. Key themes from the McKinsey Report include the following:

  • At a corporate level, where many high-skill women are
    employed, the opportunity exists to advance women into
    leadership positions where they can make the greatest
    contributions. Yet, despite the sincere efforts of major
    corporations, the proportion of women falls quickly as one
    looks higher in the corporate hierarchy. Overall, this
    picture has not improved for years.
  • The reasons why women choose to remain at their current
    level or move on to another organisation – despite their
    unflagging confidence and desire to advance – include
    specific barriers they cite: lack of role models, exclusion
    from the informal networks, and lacking a sponsor in
    upper management to create opportunities.
  • Another phenomenon that limits diversity at the top:
    women often elect to remain in jobs if they derive a deep
    sense of meaning professionally. More than men, women
    prize the opportunity to pour their energies into making a
    difference and working closely with colleagues. Women
    don’t want to trade that joy for what they fear will be
    energy-draining meetings and corporate politics at the
    next management echelon. (Or, I would add, in the case of
    independent schools, taking on roles in such areas as fundraising
    and finance in which they may have little or no
  • Managers – male and female – continue to take viable
    female candidates out of the running; often on the
    assumptions that women can’t handle certain jobs and that
    they discharge family obligations. In its Centred
    Leadership research, McKinsey found that many women,
    too, hold limiting beliefs that stand in their own way –
    such as waiting to acquire more skills or just waiting to be
  • These imbedded mindsets are often institutional as well as
    individual – and difficult to eradicate. A CEO’s personal
    crusade to change behaviour does not scale. A diversity
    programme by itself, no matter how comprehensive, is no
    match for entrenched beliefs. Targeting behavioural
    change without mindset shifts generally leads to an early
    burst of achievement followed by reversion to old ways.
    McKinsey’s evidence points to the need for systemic,
    organisational change. Companies that aspire to achieve
    sustained diversity balance must choose to transform their
    cultures. Management needs a powerful reason to believe
    in the benefits of this transformation, such as the potential
    competitive and economic advantage derived from
    retaining the best talent.

‘Still Aspiring: An Examination of Why Women and People of Colour are Less Likely to Attain Head of School Positions Following Completion of the Aspiring Heads Fellowship’ (a study commissioned by NAIS and produced by Belden Russonello & Stewart, July 2011) echoes in many ways the McKinsey Report’s findings. NAIS commissioned the study to help us understand the complex issues involved in the underrepresentation of women and people of colour in school headship appointments.

The study’s researchers interviewed five cohorts of the NAIS Aspiring Heads programme – the classes of 2004–2008 – to determine from these potential heads and those who had been appointed heads where differences in attitudes and experience might account for the differences in results for white males vs women and people of colour in terms of success in being appointed Head of School.

The findings revealed that while a high majority of women and candidates of colour felt that gender or race was either not a factor or was actually an advantage in their searches, there emerged some significant differences between NAIS Aspiring Heads programme candidates successful in landing a headship and those ‘still aspiring’ to become Heads of independent schools.

Key factors for under-representation of women in Head appointments

Women in the fellowship do share some of the characteristics of successful male candidates for Heads’ positions: They have comparable maturity and experience, but they are also:

  • less likely than the men to have risen to the rank of Assistant
    Head or upper school Division Head (that important
    precursor to securing the job as a Head)
  • less confident in their connections and interviewing skills,
    and less confident of the reputation of schools where they
    have worked, and their ability to fit into a new school’s
  • less urgent about finding a position, looking at a desired time
    frame of five years or longer
  • less likely than men to pursue headships vigorously,
    foregoing such efforts as registering with multiple search
    firms and applying for multiple positions
  • more doubtful about undertaking a position as a Head and
    sacrificing their home or personal life
  • more likely than men to say that the time commitment
    associated with the Head of School position is unappealing
  • more apt than men to say that staying in their local area is
    an important factor, often due to children and working

Key factors for under-representation of people of colour in Head appointments

Candidates of colour apply for more positions than their white counterparts and are interviewed and considered finalists in roughly the same proportion, but they are often disappointed to be the bridesmaid rather than the bride. Compared to successful candidates who are selected to be Heads, candidates of colour are:

  • younger (most candidates who are selected are over 40,
    whereas many aspiring leaders of colour tend to pursue
    Heads positions actively at a younger age)
  • less experienced than current Heads and successful
  • less often in Assistant Head or Division Head roles (the
    typical launch positions for headship) in their current jobs.

All of which leads one to wonder, “What’s the path forward from here to achieve the equity we seek at all levels in our schools?” The McKinsey Report offered some promising rays of light:

  • Many major corporations recruit their ‘fair share’ or more
    of women into the leadership track (as do NAIS schools).
  • Many companies have introduced structural mechanisms –
    such as parental leave, part-time policies and travelreducing
    technologies – to alleviate work-life constraints
    (as have many NAIS schools).
  • While the many barriers that remain are substantial,
    interventions by organisational leaders at critical career
    points can have outsized impact (a reality current school
    Heads have recognised for generations as they mentor
    ‘rising stars’ for headships at other schools).
  • Many ‘rising stars’ in the corporate world are younger
    women with relatively light work/family concerns who, if
    companies can win their loyalty at this stage of their
    careers, will be more likely to stay the course. “These
    women are ours to lose,” McKinsey notes, for the
    corporations they study. (Ironically, in our industry, we
    promote our rising stars into headship at other
    ‘companies’, not to be our successors at our own school.)

So, dear readers, there remain three questions:

1. What must candidates who are female and/or people of
colour do to increase their likelihood of being appointed to

2. What must search firms do to help candidates and schools
see women and people of colour as equally appealing as
white male candidates?

3. What must boards do (since boards ultimately make the
Head selection) to make it more likely that women and
candidates of colour are more proportionately, not just
included in the pool, but also seen as the right


1. ‘The College Payoff ’, available at:

2. ‘Unlocking the Full Potential of Women in the US Economy’,
available at:
Latest_thinking/Unlocking_the_full_potential. aspx.

Category: Autumn 2012

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