What does IWD mean for our girls, young women and schools?

Source: Holly Mandarich via unsplash.com

Today is International Women’s Day. The 2023 Australian Government ‘Status of Women Report Card’ notes that Australia ranks 43rd in the world for gender equality (up from 50th last year). Its data include that women experience significantly more sexual harassment and sexual violence than men, that women spend on average nine hours per week more than men on unpaid work and five hours per week more on housework. The weekly pay gap is 13.3%, translating into $253.50 less every week, $13,182 every year, and women having 23.1% less superannuation than men of the same age. Alarmingly, the report states that in the last 10 years there has been a three-fold increase in intentional self-harm hospitalisations for young girls.

I have written about International Women’s Day before, but this year, in the role of Principal at a girls’ school, it feels different. The statistics feel starker. Now, I am surrounded every day by girls and young women showing strength, intellect, curiosity, and resilience, and staff who wrap around them, teach them, support them, champion them, and challenge them within an environment of care.

The UN Women Australia’s International Women’s Day theme for 2023 is ‘Cracking the Code: Innovation for a gender equal future’. This theme focuses on equity, inclusivity, access, education and innovation in technologies and in STEM pathways and careers for women. Students educated at girls’ schools are invited to the table, the stage, and the lectern. They have been found to enjoy higher academic achievement, higher engagement at school, better mental health, more confident sense of self, increased leadership opportunities, and greater participation and success in those subjects and pathways that might be considered non-traditional for women.

I have recently had the pleasure of meeting, hearing from, and talking to, a number of alumnae from my school. These women have spoken of their experience of the self-belief they feel was instilled in them through their schooling, the sense of sisterhood, the conviction to pursue their dreams, and the capacity for resilience when faced with setbacks. Students in girls’ schools are surrounded by strong female role models. As the saying goes: ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’. Girls’ schools ensure that their students see constant exemplars of women’s successes, leadership, entrepreneurship, and joy in living, learning, working and serving. Students at my school talk about the power of their connections with their peers, the commitment of their teachers, and the older girls and women to whom they look up within the school community.

I have been speaking with students about being brave and having a go, living with authenticity and integrity, and accepting and celebrating the uniqueness of themselves and each other. Vivienne Porritt, the founder of the global organisation WomenEd, says that ‘normal is the setting on a washing machine’, implying that ‘normal’ is not a label we should apply to people. We are best served when we can come as we are, and be accepted and celebrated for our unique gifts, talents and idiosyncrasies. Girls and young women in particular can be encouraged to grow, to take up space, and to be unapologetic in their desire to learn, live, and contribute positively to the world.

All of us are collectively responsible for doing what is right rather than what is normalised or what is comfortable, for pursuing equity in access to technologies, resources and pathways, for calling out bias when we see or hear it, and for creating inclusive, equitable and safe spaces for all.

Leadership in 2020

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It is becoming increasingly apparent that, while leadership is about service, in order to lead we need to look after self. Familiar analogies–of fitting our own oxygen masks before we can help others, and filling our own cup before we can pour from it into the cups of others–apply. Leading involves difficult, complex, human, relational work. Leaders need to build in their own mechanisms for wellbeing, such as pauses, support, breaks, and doing those things that nourish and replenish us.

I have been quiet on the blog this year. There are a few reasons. 2020 (probably enough said). A new job. An exciting behind-the-scenes project. Prioritising the important stuff (including family and self-care, as well as work, writing, and advocacy) over feelings of obligation or guilt. Working on saying ‘no’ sometimes.

This year has served up a squall line of disruption and distress. Since March, leaders in all industries have been responding at pace to relentless changes and uncertainty. We have had to reconnect with one another and reimagine our fields. We have had to reconsider the foundations of leadership. We have asked: How have we historically done things? How could we do things now? How might we do things differently? How do we want our world to be? How do we each want to be? What really matters and how do we enable and protect what is most precious and pressing?

Recently, as part of the WomenEd Australia network group, I participated (from afar) in the WomenEd global virtual unconference (a participant-driven meeting). WomenEd—a global grass roots association and 35,000-strong international community, based out of the UK and co-founded by Vivienne Porritt, Jules Daulby, and Keziah Featherstone—is a movement that aims to connect and support women in education, and to advocate for diversity and inclusion in the education sphere. It encourages diverse educators to be ‘10% braver’, to shift out of their comfort zone little by little.

The team of WomenEd Australia prepared a video presentation that explored what influences our leadership, available on YouTube.

In my video reflection for the unconference, I discussed that my own practices of leading are anchored in working towards a shared vision and moral purpose. I begin from a base of trusting in the capacity of those throughout the organisation, and in the importance of supporting and investing in teachers. Good leaders build good leaders.

In the video, I also explain that my leading practices are underpinned by frameworks for action. These include:

  • Consciously navigating tensions. Switching between the ‘dancefloor’ and the ‘balcony. Being strategic while also working to understand the lived experience of those in the school and community. Communicating with clarity and also empathy. ‘Leading fast and slow’ – at once able to respond quickly but also to work strategically at the long game; implementing gradual change with the aspirational end in mind.
  • Applying clear frameworks for decision making with consistency and transparency. One thing we are desperately missing during 2020 is predictability; knowing what to expect and what is likely to come next. I really hope that 2021 can bring more certainty and less anxiety.
  • Meaningful collaboration and consultation. Working at ‘we’, ‘alongside’ and ‘together’. Seeking out dissenting voices and seeking to understand multiple perspectives. Some of the most exciting and uplifting parts of my leadership role are working with a range of diverse stakeholders on productive, positive change.
  • Marrying clear policy and process with responsiveness and adaptability, qualities brought into sharp focus by the constantly changing circumstances of 2020.

Recently, the Year 12s at my school had their final Valedictory celebrations. In their yearbook, I pointed them towards Mariannne Williamson’s words, in which she encourages us to be our brave, unique selves.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. … Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine.”

Shining has often felt out of the realms of possibility this year. Surviving is more likely to describe how many are feeling, even those who others may say have shone and been part of significant or invaluable work. Part of leading may involve demonstrating strength or holding the line, but leading also encompasses empathy, vulnerability, and sitting with discomfort. We can be powerful beyond measure, especially when we give ourselves permission to take time and care for ourselves, when we support and energise one another, and when we work towards a common goal, one tiny nudge at a time.