I was stunned. There she sat—an intelligent, energetic, Christcentered young faculty member—and her question to me, the (also female) assistant headmaster at her Christian school, was whether or not our leadership team values and supports women in leadership. We were having an in-depth conversation about our institution’s mission and vision, and she honestly wasn’t sure.
After I assured her of our commitment to seeing young women like her thrive, grow, and develop into leaders within our community, I wondered: Why did she even have to ask? Isn’t it self-evident by nature of my role and gender—not to mention those of nearly half of our cabinet level leaders—that female leadership is embraced here?
No News is Not Necessarily Good News
The answer is no and, upon reflection, it’s embarrassingly clear why. Would we expect our faculty to understand our commitment to Christcentered excellence just because our administrative team opens meetings in prayer and attends church? Would I assume my direct reports intuitively know that customer service is a key priority simply because they see me treating parents kindly? When it comes to other important principles and values, we are careful to articulate them often and well. Why do we approach affirmation of women in leadership differently?
My hunch is that many of us are making a “no news is good news” assumption. We’re imagining that young women—and men, for that matter—presume we value female leaders until we do or say something that indicates otherwise.
The unfortunate reality in the world of Christian education, however, is that this doesn’t ring true. Our history—“the way we’ve always done it”—has, in most cases, elevated and advantaged leaders who fit a certain mold. And though there are many preconceived notions about the ideal headmaster candidate of old, only one is so deeply ingrained that it’s literally woven into the title itself—namely, his gender.
That Was Then… But Also Now
I am grateful to say that my 18 years in Christian education have shown me that in many—if not most —cases, this perspective is historic and not a current reality. God has graced my career with leaders and peers who have invested in me and given me opportunities unimpeded by any consideration of my gender. In fact, I’ve known some who have come alongside me in meaningful and strategic ways in part because of their desire to proactively retire this old way of thinking and see it stomped out once and for all in our field of ministry.
But to say I haven’t seen it and, more accurately, felt it, would be disingenuous. It takes on many different forms. It’s the supervisor who, when discussing my career ambitions, refers to a decision of whether I’m “ready to wear slacks or business suits to work?” It’s the school leader who expresses sympathy when I clarify that I intend to return to my fulltime role after maternity leave. It’s the donor who, with all the best intentions, refers to my contribution to leadership alongside my male supervisor as “the pretty part of the package.”
These moments—and countless others like them—do more than make me uncomfortable. They send a message about how my worth as a leader is measured—in these examples, by how I dress and care for my children. My sense of God’s calling in my life, my level of expertise and experience, my commitment to the cause of Christian education—in those interactions, leadership traits like these are worth less than my appearance and my childcare arrangements.
At this point in my career, my concern is not so much how to interpret and deal with these incidents personally. By the grace of God and the mentorship of several gifted female leaders, I have a lens through which to view them that keeps them in perspective and minimizes their ability to distract me.
My concern is, rather, for the promising young women beginning their own paths of leadership within Christian education. What am I doing to not just lead by example, but to invest, to encourage, and to clearly articulate that women aren’t just allowed to lead within Christian education, but are needed? Without them, we’ll never fully realize our ultimate goal of educating all students—boys and girls alike—about what it means to both think with a Christcentered worldview and to lead with one.
Turn Up the Volume
Sitting in that room, talking with that teacher who wasn’t entirely clear how I felt about female leadership, I made a commitment to myself. The women on my team will watch me but also hear me affirm their leadership potential. They will be invited to put the tough topics on the table and we will wrestle with them together. They will not just be protected from discouragement, but proactively encouraged in their pursuit of Christian education leadership—for their sakes and for ours.
If each of us in positions of influence in our schools—men and women together—make a similar commitment, the implications will be profound. Though the old adage that actions speak louder than words holds true, the volume we can achieve when actions and words join together can be a powerful tool for building our schools and, ultimately, Christ’s kingdom.
This blog is one of a series on women’s leadership in Christian education that is co-published by the ACSI blog and the CACE blog, in an effort to bring innovative and relevant thinking in Christian education to our respective readerships.