If one discovered an untapped source of gifted leadership for schools and organizations, it would be inexcusable not to share that with the educational community. Yet there is such a source: gifted women leaders. Currently, there is a scarcity of female leadership in Christian education. All leadership is costly—and tough, especially for women who believe God has called and gifted them to be leaders. A female colleague at one organization experiencing a leadership shortage observed that potential, gifted leaders simply feel, “It’s not worth it.” There are certainly challenges, especially for women in leadership.
There are strategic leadership responsibilities that are needed in order to lead a school well. Those leadership qualities include:
- being a visionary;
- analyzing trends, needs, and resources;
- understanding board governance and administrative management;
- making the difficult decisions;
- enabling faculty and staff to accomplish the mission of the school; and
- impacting the lives of students, their families, and the community for eternity.
Skilled, qualified, professional women have the ability to lead a school forward in every way. Yet they face different challenges than men. Let’s take a look at some challenges that women face in educational leadership.
The Paradox of School Head as Pastor
Longtime established schools seldom consider female applicants. Why? Some Christians believe that males are to be the leaders in the church, the home, the school, in life. Christian schools often view the school as an extension of the church. Since many evangelicals believe women should not be head of a church, by extension they should not be head of a school. Some Christian school boards prefer placing a married couple as leaders to reflect family values. The wife of the male school head is expected to support the school. Together, the couple models a Christian marriage and family to the entire school community. Obviously, this is a fine model, but is it the only good model?
Whether male or female, a school head needs to be a godly example, to be able to lead through the grid of the truth of God’s Word, and to lead in prayer and staff devotions. The role of spiritual leadership as an aspect of school headship is often confused with the pastoral role. School search committees conduct searches using the same criteria as that of a pastor. One school’s list of desired characteristics for their school head prompted one board member to comment, “Jesus would not have been able to be all that.”
Spiritual leadership in a school is different than that of a pastorate. A school is not a church. The purpose of a school is primarily educational. Additionally, women can have leadership gifts. Even conservative thinkers acknowledge that women can have the gifts of teaching, administration, and spiritual care of others. Regardless of one’s view of women as pastors, women lead and use their leadership gifts in a variety of settings—including schools.
Temperament analyzers, such as Myers-Briggs, clarify that personality traits are not gender related, though certain traits are socialized differently for males and females. Cultural socialization often expects females to be soft, gentle, and submissive. The same leadership behaviors considered acceptable for males are considered inappropriate for females. Things overlooked in male leaders become serious concerns for female leaders. For example, decisiveness in a male leader is respected, while the same quality in a woman can be judged as controlling. When male leaders make objective decisions they are considered logical, while women who do the same may be seen as unfeeling.
Cultural bias assumes that men and women act in certain ways. However, research shows that the innate differences between men and women are related to such areas as physical strength and spatial judgment—none of which is pertinent to school leadership. Women leaders such as Deborah, Priscilla, and the women Paul identifies (Phoebe, Priscilla) provide clear examples of successful women’s leadership in the Bible. These examples are affirmations of women’s leadership capacities and calling in God’s Word, during a time and culture when women’s leadership would have been largely unthinkable. And in today’s time, we have innumerable examples from the fields of education, business, medicine, Christian ministry, and many other fields of women leaders who demonstrate successful leadership traits, capacities, and behaviors.
Lower Pay and Less Leadership Opportunities for Women
The Peter principle states that men rise to the level of their incompetence. Yet women leaders often work at a much lower level than their training and skills. Even in cultures where women have bridged the gender gap, they are consistently paid less than their male counterparts (Littleford 2001). Female leaders must be highly competent to even be involved in leadership, but at times their colleagues can see this as a threat. People are often intimidated by strong women leaders in ways they would never be if the leader were male. One male Christian education leader stated that there is prejudice simply because some men have low self-esteem, and they are very threatened by competent administrators. It is easy for this to take the form of spiritual conviction. One man, a complementarian regarding church pastoral leadership, put it this way, “The truth is that Christian schools are more willing to put up with incompetent male leadership than accept competent professional female leadership.”
We need to find ways to “flip the script” and learn how to appreciate strengths and weaknesses, learn from each other, celebrate differences, and grow together. In 1 Peter 4:10–11 (NASB), Paul writes, “As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever.” Both men and women can glorify God through serving others, and appreciate each other as good stewards of that to which God has entrusted them.
Supporting Gifted Leaders Regardless of Gender
In light of these challenges, it takes courage for a woman to lead. Beyond the normal complexity of educational leadership, at times cultural assumptions, disagreement regarding female leadership, and modern-day prejudice among evangelicals inhibit women from leading well. How can school boards and community leaders lessen these distracting challenges? Here are three suggestions:
- Promote Impartiality: Address prejudice whenever and wherever it is heard. Jokes and stereotypes (whether positive or negative) about women should be treated the same as jokes or stereotypes about any other group. A simple statement that this school or organization does not tolerate prejudice against women can be made.
- Recognize Contributions: At times, acknowledgment of the contributions of women administrators needs to be temporarily highlighted to help teach that women are competent as leaders.
- Focus on Leadership Strengths: Just as the weaknesses of leaders are often accepted due to the counterbalance of that leader’s strengths, the same can be encouraged regarding female leadership. At times, teaching regarding cultural expectations related to gender (e.g., how assertiveness in leadership is perceived positively for men, but often negatively for women) may be needed.
A Challenge for Christian Schools
Romans 12:6 (NASB) advises: “Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly.” I look forward to the day when all the leadership gifts God has given to the body of Christ will be welcomed and fulfilled by His followers. To encourage all leaders, Christian schools can:
- take the lead to accept, affirm, and benefit from women in leadership;
- consider accomplishments and leadership skills first and only; and
- set the example for the world (give equal respect and equal pay for equal work).
Like Paul, let us consider all men and women that God provides as leaders as fellow workers in Christ Jesus. If we do, we will be more effective in impacting education and our children.
Littleford, John. 2001. Workshop for School Heads, IASH. San Diego, CA, June, 2001.
[Editor’s Note: This blog is one of a five-post series on women’s leadership in Christian education. This series 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].
About the Author
Martha Macomber, MEd, is the U.S. Representative and former executive director of Asia Education Resource Consortium, an organization that provides educational support for Christian families working in Asia. Formerly the interim superintendent at Faith Academy, Philippines, she has taught at the secondary and college levels and presented seminars in schools, churches, and educational conferences throughout Asia. She recently served as chair of the Steering Committee of IMKEC (Inter-mission MK Education Consultation) for six years and does presentations at the Educational Planning Seminar hosted by Interaction International. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.