100 STORIES OF IMPACT

Exploring the Dynamics of Gender and Leadership

Illustration of a woman helping another woman scale mountain

The year was 2010. For three days in March, dozens of female education leaders from around the world gathered on Appian Way for the first-ever Women in Education Leadership institute. They were superintendents. Principals. Foundation CEOs. Nonprofit directors, and women working in higher education.


The Women in Education Leadership institute created an impactful space for senior-level women to rise.   


At the time, there was a female leadership problem in the country. Although the majority of classroom teachers were women, only 24% of superintendents were female. And while the number of female principals was high, most were working in elementary schools. Kathleen McCartney, then dean of the Ed School, knew that more needed to be done to build a pipeline of women leaders who could learn from, and rely on, one another.

“Some women value the opportunity to learn from other women leaders,” McCartney said in a 2013 interview. “We wanted to create a safe space for open discussions on issues pertaining to gender and leadership.”

Now a decade later, senior leaders continue to come to Appian Way for the Women in Education Leadership institute, which McCartney co-chaired until she left to become president of Smith College in 2013. They come to learn new skills, such as how to better negotiate and how to build supportive senior leadership teams. They also come to gain a better understanding of the role gender plays in the education sector and how women advance.

As McCartney pointed out, women are still often seen as “risky” choices for senior leadership roles, and behaviors such as assertiveness are seen as unattractive. As a result, she said, “There is still a persistent and unconscious belief that men make better leaders than women.”

Which is why, said Professor Deborah Jewell-Sherman, who co-chaired the program with McCartney and now oversees it, for many women in leadership positions, “Finding ways to demonstrate and calibrate their strength and voice as leaders is a challenge.”

It’s one of the challenges women take on within the supportive space of the leadership program. As one Boston Public Schools participant recently said, “The faculty skillfully guided and helped to leverage our ‘self-talk’ — the internal dialogue about our abilities, capacities, how we present ourselves, and how we lead — in ways that empowered us to be intentional and confident leaders.” – Lory Hough

Learn More and Connect

Learn more about the Women in Education Leadership program, as well as other offerings from Professional Education at HGSE.

Watch a conversation with Professor Deborah Jewell-Sherman and education leader Darienne Driver Hudson, Ed.M.'06, Ed.D.'14, on leading through a crisis.