Advice for Women Leaders from a Former Principal

09.03.13 | Change Agents: People Making a Difference | 0 Comments

By Melissa Nixon

When I started on the path of school leadership with the goal of becoming a school principal, I took all the required classes, read all the “right” books, and listened to experts in the field. I wanted to make sure I had all the necessary tools to succeed during my first few years on the job.

Not one of my professors or mentors and not a single book or research paper prepared me for one the biggest, real-life challenges of being a principal—bias against women leaders. My first few months on the job made me realize that there were incredible obstacles I would have to overcome. Though many people were ready to accept me as school leader, there were others who doubted that I, as a woman, could lead the school.

I did go on to effectively lead my school —and I did so for ten years. I also successfully challenged several of those negative stereotypes along the way. Here are just a few of the biases I encountered and how I worked to overcome them.

Stereotype #1: Women make decisions based mostly on emotion

Caring, empathy, and concern are all important attributes in an effective leader, and they are emotions that I showed to staff and the community during my principalship. Some wrongly assumed that because I was empathetic, I also relied solely on emotions to make administrative decisions. I challenged this stereotype by sharing the hard data that I used to guide my decisions, and by explaining how my decisions would serve the best interest of students. This helped people develop trust in my leadership skills.

Stereotype #2: Women are micromanagers

Many times when participating in meetings with teachers and staff about data, lesson-planning and best practices, teachers would often say they were frustrated with my being involved with “everything”. I was being perceived as a micromanager—a common stereotype about women principals. I countered this stereotype by explaining that, as a principal, I was also the instructional leader of the school who guides the staff team towards the common goal of improving student achievement. Parents and staff then began to see me as an inclusive team member, rather than an intrusive outsider.

Stereotype #3: Women pick favorites

Some believe that women principals choose favorites, and that they only keep their office doors open to a select group. I challenged this stereotype by always maintaining an “open door policy”.  All of my staff knew they could come and talk with me about teaching strategies, performance-based issues, or personal matters. By keeping my door open to all, the staff realized I was there to support everyone and this stereotype began to disappear.

Stereotype #4 Women leaders have to dress like men to succeed

I enjoy wearing feminine attire such as skirts and blouses and heels. My first few months on the job, I received several disapproving looks that seemed to say: “How can you run this school? You can’t even run after students, with those heels on!” The assumption was that because I dressed “soft” I was likely to be a “soft” leader– a pushover. This stereotype was probably the most difficult one to overcome. In fact, I still contend with it, more than ten years into my education career. I challenge this bias by putting on my heels, stepping into the workday, and leading with confidence.

Being a school leader is tough work. It’s even tougher when you are scrutinized simply because of your gender. The sooner we get to work dispelling these stereotypes, the sooner we can show our true capabilities.


About Melissa Nixon: Nixon was an elementary school principal for ten years in Greensboro, North Carolina. She now works as Title I Director for Guilford County Schools.

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