Addressing the women’s leadership gap in educational planning: an interview with IIEP's Director

21 July 2017


IIEP's Director Suzanne Grant Lewis at the 2017 commencement ceremony for the ATP.
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IIEP's Director Suzanne Grant Lewis at the 2017 commencement ceremony for the ATP.

They’re the hidden actors behind the bustling school compounds, crowded classrooms and stacks of text books: educational planners and managers. These important figures help guide governments in making important policy choices that affect the future of students, and assist in deciding where often limited resources are needed most. But what happens when these important educational planning and management positions are mostly held by men? The expertise and insight of half the population is left untapped. This has far-reaching implications not only on education systems, but the status of women, and society at large.

IIEP’s Director Suzanne Grant Lewis shares her perspective on why it’s so important to normalize women as leaders, and reflects on her own professional journey.

IIEP is hosting a Summer School for female planners this year. Why has the Institute pursued this topic?

Suzanne Grant Lewis: Historically, we know there is a pipeline issue for women working in this field. While teaching is often seen as an entry point into the education sector, fewer women are given opportunities to rise in the technical and administrative ranks to work on planning and management. This Summer School is part of our response to promoting gender equality in educational decision-making, planning, and management. By strengthening the technical and leadership capacities of female planners, we hope to open new opportunities that will enable them to rise through the ranks and become leaders and change agents in their professional environments. By honing their technical skills, they will also be able to take on a more proactive role in implementing and monitoring the Sustainable Development Goal for education, SDG 4.

Who are the big figures in education today worldwide and how much are women part of this picture?  

SGL: Over the course of my lifetime, there has been considerable change, with women rising to leadership positions in education. I recall the founding of FAWE, the Forum for African Women Educationalists in 1992. At the time there were five African women ministers of education — the late Hon. Vida Yeboah of Ghana, Hon. Simone de Comarmond of Seychelles, Hon. Paulette Missambo of Gabon,  Hon. Dr Fay Chung of Zimbabwe, and Hon. Alice Tiendrebéogo of Burkina Faso. At its founding, FAWE focused on advocacy to put girls’ education on national and international policy agendas. Today it has 33 national chapters.

But at the global level, progress is quite uneven. UNESCO, the specialized UN agency charged with promoting peace and security in the world through education, elected its first female Director-General, Irina Bokova, only in 2009. And here in France, the first female Minister of Education in France was appointed only in 2014. I am glad that the first female Secretary of Education in my own country, the United States, was appointed in 1979 by President Carter.

Across the world, the influx of women into teaching has been key to educational expansion, allowing universal primary education and gender parity in many countries. However, this was accompanied often by men leaving teaching for higher paying jobs and men continuing to dominate higher status secondary school positions. The feminization of the primary school teaching force has contributed to the reduced status of the teaching force as societal perception of “women’s work” adjusted. This is most apparent in the early primary grades. It is also unfortunate that larger numbers of female teachers has not translated into higher proportions of school heads.

In its research, IIEP has used the term labyrinth to describe the paths women must navigate to reach senior leadership positions. What are the main hurdles encountered along this path today?

SGL: The labyrinth refers to a complex set of obstacles, formal and informal, which constrain women’s access to higher levels of the education system. These are within the workplace as well as outside. Within workplaces, factors include organizational structures and policies, which may promote or discourage women, informal processes for hiring and promotion, as well as behaviours and ways of working that an organizational culture values and rewards. Socially-defined gender roles exist outside the workplace of course are also influential. If a society values female domestic responsibilities over professional roles, the signals are clear to women. It is a difficult battle to reconcile society’s expectations with women’s professional ambitions.

In most of the world, women continue to have more responsibilities at home and the division of labour has not shifted. But it is also widely expected that it is the woman, rather than society or employers, who should figure out how to balance domestic and professional responsibilities. This does not make much sense, given the importance of working women for economic growth, their intellectual contributions and the unique role of women in the continuation of society. Instead of the workplace adjusting to allow women to rise to their potential and best serve an organization, it is women who are expected to sort it all out.

But research is showing what needs to be done. Anti-discrimination laws are critically important but so too are holding governments and organizations accountable for their enforcement. Ensuring more transparent recruitment and promotion procedures is important. Affirmative action can help in ensuring a critical mass of women so that an organization’s culture can change. Across generations, one can see progress in building more family-sensitive work environments.

As a woman in a leadership position, what was this journey like for yourself? How were you able to overcome the different obstacles encountered?

SGL: I am one of seven children of parents who valued education. The first five children are girls, the last two boys. My father was a feminist, teaching us that we could do anything we wanted but we would have to work hard. He guided us in public speaking, in caring about others, but also how to not be taken advantage of. I will always remember how he helped me prepare for early job interviews as a teenager. “Never admit you can type” he cautioned. “Look the person in the eye, give a firm handshake, and go into the meeting prepared.”

I have had many professional jobs in my career. And over time I have reflected on what I am good at, what I struggle with, and what brings me joy and fulfilment. It took me a long time to realize that I should follow the old adage, “follow your passion” and not have external expectations of success define what you do. This brought me from working in academia – where I loved the teaching aspects and working with graduate students – to directing the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, a joint initiative of seven private foundations in the United States to strengthen African universities. The foundations were the stars, and I was the coordinator, ensuring that there was learning across the foundations and leading from behind to move things forward. I realized I didn’t need to be in the limelight; what I needed to do was support the good work of others and that is what I see as the role of a manager.

What advice can you extract from this experience that could relate to other women trying to advance in their careers?

SGL: First, be an active listener and make sense of the perspectives of other people. Second, many women who become leaders are ambitious, but remember you can’t solve someone else’s problems. Rather, you can help them figure it out and that’s very important for a leader. Lastly, listen to your passions and if you find yourself in a situation where it is untenable, take time to reflect and then make a plan to change your situation.

When looking specifically at educational planning and management, why is it important that we have women in leadership positions?

SGL: Planning and management is fundamentally about choices and resource allocation and it’s important that both men and women hold these responsibilities. Although not as powerful as the minister in a country, educational planners and managers advise political leaders and play very critical roles in the translation of political decisions into action and implementation. Women should be tapped for their skills and insight in these decisions.

Does this have any sort of trickle-down effect – in other words, how does it affect gender equality in education?

SGL: It can help in the normalization of women as leaders. Having women in real leadership positions is important to help transform society into a more gender equitable one. It’s also important to note that while the campaign on girls’ education has been mostly led by women it is unfair to expect only women to represent women and girls in education. Although it’s everyone’s responsibility to promote gender equality, we do need advocates for girls and women because male interests are widely represented. Women advocates are powerful because they can speak from personal experience.

Click here for more information on IIEP’s Summer School: Policy, Planning, and Leadership for Sustainable Educational Development.