Gender Leadership Gap: Beyond the Bubble

I am writing this blog somewhere over the Midwest as I make my way to the CASE NAIS Conference in Austin, Texas. Today, as I am in the air, millions of women and men are gathering in cities across the globe to ensure that our country and the world understand that women’s rights are in fact human rights, and that women should have parity in all aspects of leadership and community. My Instagram feed shows a former advisee marching in Nairobi, Berwick parents in Washington, former and current colleagues in New York, Boston, Portland and Augusta, Maine. I am so proud to know all of these women (and men). While I don’t intend for this blog to be a political statement, it always strikes me that the bubble in which we live at our respective independent schools is so different than the reality that our students and colleagues will face out in the ‘real world.’ At Berwick we work tirelessly to ensure that we have female representation in our student leadership, on our Board, at our administrative table, and leading student learning. We encourage female student leadership through student groups like Femmes for STEM and Heart and Sole which is a confidence building running program for our Middle School girls. Our students for the most part report that they feel incredibly equal and safe, as they should, in our school environments.


This fall I had the great opportunity to attend the Babson Executive Center’s Women’s Leadership Program. I spent a week alongside 14 women in the for-profit sector thinking about and examining women in leadership, our own leadership strengths, and the need to create pods of support, or ‘tribes’, to help us to tackle the challenges that we as women face in our professional lives. My peers at the conference were highly successful executives and managers in the finance, construction, and corporate worlds. Admittedly, their experience for the most part has been incredibly different than the one that I have found in my career in the nonprofit world of Northern New England independent schools. Despite the success that these women enjoy in both their professional and personal lives, many talked about having to put on their ‘war face’ to go to work. They described feeling like they were not able to bring their full authentic selves to their professional lives for fear of backlash, either from their superiors or more often from their colleagues. I realized listening to these women that while I had some sense that there are inequity and challenges for women, I had somehow assumed that we had all made so much more progress.


The faculty at the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership presented a sobering case that there is still a significant leadership gap for women. They pointed out that still only 5% of US CEO’s are women; females are two times more unsuccessful as males when they ask for a promotion; men receive more critical assignments that lead to career advancement; men’s budgets are twice as big as women’s, and they have three times as many staffers. Other interesting statistics about the leadership gap for women can be found from the Center for American Progress here: These statistics may not surprise you, and this reality is not true of all women all of the time, but this knowledge serves as an important reminder that our female students don’t always face a professional future that will feel and be equitable.


The curriculum in my week at Babson only focused on these facts briefly. The point was not to wallow in or dwell on the reality of the women’s leadership gap. Rather, the week focused on understanding the issues and moving forward to create opportunities and take entrepreneurial action. There was a tremendous focus on recognizing, creating opportunities to utilize, and making visible our own leadership strengths. The other focus of the week was to understand the power in and importance of finding a tribe of support. This tribe is like our own mini board of directors. They are the people to whom we will turn when we need advice, assurance, hard realities, and collaborative problem solving.


As I bring this back to our schools, our colleagues, and our students, our goal should be to continue to hone their leadership skills and give them opportunities. We need to understand how we can help them to recognize and embrace their own unique skills that they will bring out into the world. These lessons, coupled with a tribe of teachers, coaches, and administrators to support them, will well equip our girls to go out and change the landscape of women in leadership.

About The Author

Amy Smucker

Amy serves on the ISANNE Board of Directors and is the Assistant Head of School for External Affairs at Berwick Academy. Amy joined the Berwick Community in July 2013 after serving as the Director of Admissions at the Kents Hill School. A graduate of the Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor Connecticut, Amy holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in American Studies from Colby College. She is currently pursuing a Masters Degree in Nonprofit Management with a focus on Leadership at Northeastern University.