The power of reaching back to bring women forward

Article by Karen Spiller OAM CF
14 March 2023

Karen Spiller OAM CF spoke at the Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia’s International Women’s Day lunch in Brisbane.

“Some here today will be familiar with my journey as an educator and leader.

I have been privileged to share the years with many of you in different school contexts; united by our common desire to make a difference in the lives of young people, their families and in the lives of the people we worked with.

I have a passion to reach back and bring others forward as leaders and of some of the work I have done in this space especially so with the leadership aspirations and development of women.

This was born in 2005; I remember the moment as clearly as if it was yesterday.

I had just completed a cycle of annual performance reviews with two female Heads of Faculty.

I had identified that each was an A player; some of the best teachers and leaders in the school and so I had asked them the logical question; what’s next for you in your career, and what about being a Principal?

Both declared themselves as being aspirational but neither saw themselves as Principal for the reasons which I have now become all too familiar; “I don’t know enough, I wouldn’t be good enough, it might impact my family” and so the frequently expounded responses go.

I had also heard of the work of Marie Wilson in the United States; who was working to encourage more women and especially women of diversity, to stand for political office.

She described the importance of reaching back and bringing other women forward.

In collaboration with my friend and colleague Ros Curtis; we acted on this dilemma to create the enduring and evolving Aspiring Women’s Leaders Conference first delivered in 2006 and many times since then.

My Churchill research and subsequent report from 2012 allowed me the luxury of engaging with women in the US and UK to further understand what programs and support structures were in place to encourage female leaders in schools and organisations generally.

The premise of this continues to be, both women and men have important leadership traits and skills to offer to leadership in our schools and we need the best leaders possible to navigate the challenges that beset education now and into the future.

We have a critical issue with leadership in our schools as we do in organisations generally across Australia.

The Queensland College of Teachers 2020 reports our teaching workforce as 77% female. Australia wide, the ABS reports the 2021 census with 73% of the teaching workforce being women.

When we consider Principals- 55% of primary principals are women (despite the workforce being 80% women) while in secondary schools, we see 40% women principals against a 60% female workforce.

Now I acknowledge that this is better than in some industries, however if we consider OECD countries, the statistics remain much the same with the Global Education Monitoring report advising that 45% of Principals in OECD countries are women.

The 2023 International Women’s Day campaign theme is Embrace Equity; noting that everyone can help forge an equal world.

Well sadly not much has changed to improve, let alone embrace Equity, in the ten years since my Churchill research and report.

Now I don’t mean to say that I expected my report to make changes on an international or even country wide scale; but what is so frustrating, is that the same impediments that I wrote of (together with a myriad of other researchers) remain as intractably in place as they have been year after year in the past.

We must be so much more concerted in our efforts to change these and support all aspirants and women, to come forward and prepare for leadership in our organisations.

The National Excellence in School Leadership Initiative  in their 2018 Year of Women in School Leadership white paper, identified some key areas of difference between women and men in their leadership journey which I believe apply in all organisations.


  1. Women are more likely to experience a career interruption

According to ACER statistics, 73% of male teachers enjoy unbroken longevity in their career, while only 46% of female teachers have the same. A career break often proves to be a barrier in gaining the requisite experience to advance to a leadership position.

  1. Women are less likely to put their hand up for a leadership role

In the same ACER survey, 24% of male primary teachers said they’d be keen to apply for a leadership position in the next three years, with only 6% of female primary teachers saying the same. The reasons for this are multi-faceted, but the statistics are nonetheless a big reality check. And we know that women are less likely to apply for a role unless they feel they can do every aspect of the job.

Additionally, data from the Working Mother Research Institute finds that, while 48% of men say they have received detailed information on career paths in the past 24 months, just 15% of women report the same. And, while 54% of men had a career discussion with a mentor or sponsor in the past 24 months, only 39% of women did.

  1. There just aren’t enough female mentors and role models

The very best leaders all have someone to look up to and identify with as they work towards greater career heights. But with the current lack of equity of women in significant leadership roles, it can be difficult for females to find mentors to help them advance.

  1. Women are less likely to receive recognition and rewards that assist with them in gaining promotion:

Academic Dr Deborah Towns, Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne, notes that not only are women less often selected as school principals, they are also less likely to be invited as representatives on state and national organisations while receiving fewer professional and public awards than men.

 Let’s consider what can be done by schools and other organisations to address this issue?

There are some general directions and principles that schools and other organisations , might implement to address the problems raised above.

Let’s raise awareness of the value, needs and challenges of women leaders and aspiring leaders through advocacy, promotion, education and networking.

Let’s build the leadership capability of women leaders and aspiring leaders by giving them opportunities for shadowing, acting promotional roles and career mentoring.

Let’s address the barriers faced by women leaders and aspiring leaders in the recruitment, selection, and promotion of school leaders and where we can school boards, and let’s build the evidence base about the needs and challenges faced by women leaders and aspiring women leaders by developing a strategic research agenda and commissioning targeted research to expose the issue and lead to more solutions!

Let’s ensure that we actively ensure that male leaders become male champions of change who act as sponsors of and for women.

Why is this necessary? Because leaders, the majority of whom are male and white, don’t adequately sponsor or mentor people who don’t look like them. Research from the Centre for Talent Innovation reported in the Harvard Business Review article, “What Men can do to be better mentors and sponsors to women” that a full 71% of executives have protégés whose gender and race match their own.

That means that women and minorities don’t benefit from sponsorship like their male colleagues do, and organisations lose out by not gaining the full potential of diverse talent.

Confusion about the #MeToo movement may have unintentionally exacerbated the situation. Two 2018 surveys by Lean In and Bloomberg Media found that, in the wake of those high-profile workplace sexual harassment and assault allegations, some men began to avoid professional work relationships with women. It was even a topic at a recent World Economic Forum: senior male executives talked about avoiding one-on-one mentoring relationships as a risk management strategy.

This response is not productive. There are plenty of men who want to do what’s best for their businesses and employees. Sponsorship and advocacy make the biggest difference.

Sponsors, by definition, use their position and power to achieve business objectives by advancing a protégé’s career. They are not benevolent benefactors. They are influential leaders who intentionally invest in, and rely on, the skills and contributions of their protégés to achieve their own goals and their protégé’s highest potential. A sponsor needs to know the skills and capabilities of their protégés, see their potential, and be able to orchestrate their advancement.

I don’t think it matters how experienced each of us is as a leader; we can all sponsor and encourage those who are behind us in experience; just as I was privileged to have been when I was an early career teacher.

We all need someone professionally in our corner.

Sponsors also assist in developing the confidence of their protege.

According to one study I read, 75% of women in leadership positions have experienced Imposter Syndrome across their professional journeys.

I don’t know about you all; but I still do from time to time.

I met Kathryn Kolbert, past Director of the Athena Centre for Leadership at Barnard College in New York, during my Churchill research. She advises that women need to overcome our discomfort with the Four Taboos. These are Money, Power, Ambition and Failure.

Let me say these again; Money, Power, Ambition and Failure.

In my experience, it is so powerful to talk with women about these and I usually witness a growing awakening and understanding that as individuals, they come to realise that others feel these insecurities as well.

That they are not alone in feeling like an imposter or concerned about being viewed as ambitious and so on.

Naming these inhibiters, in many ways, makes them easier to be managed.

As I close, some advice about your career if this is pertinent to you

You are the only person who cares about your career; no matter how supportive a partner, family or friends you might have; this is a truism;

You are the only person who cares about your career

Care for it, spend time in and on it and nurture it.

Some advice about leadership

Leaders get wounded; lean on your friends and colleagues for support

Care deeply but not too deeply. Take issues seriously, but not too seriously

You can’t please all of the people all of the time and sometimes it can seem like none of the people at any time are pleased

And of course; reach back and bring other people forward. Please be a champion of change and especially to our male colleagues, we need your support.