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International Women's Day 2023 | Celebrating Outstanding Leaders in International Education | Part 2: Asia

The 2021 report titled ‘Determining the Diversity Baseline in International Schools’ – conducted by the Council of International Schools (CIS) in association with the Diversity Collaborative, International School Services (ISS), and George Mason University – shone a spotlight on the extent to which the international education sector continues to provide inequitable leadership opportunities for women and educators of colour. 

The report’s findings, which were based upon the 175 survey responses received, highlighted that, despite women being overrepresented within the teaching faculty at international schools, men are nevertheless three times more likely to be heads of international schools than their female counterparts and women are substantially underrepresented in school boards. Furthermore, heads of international schools are eight times more likely to be from a Western country and five times more likely to be white.  

Clearly, there is much work to be done to ensure a more equitable future within the sector by confronting conscious and unconscious biases, and by actively promoting equal leadership opportunities for both women and educators of colour. 

To quote Professor Dr Ger Graus OBE’s adage on inclusion, “children can only aspire to what they know exists.” The same is also true for the adults those children become. That is why this International Women’s Day, we are taking the opportunity to highlight inspirational female leaders within the international education sector in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe, to ask them what International Women’s Day means to them, and what their hopes are for the future of the sector. It is our hope that these leaders' reflections will inspire existing and future leaders in international education. Check the Outstanding Schools Blog throughout the week as we post more content for International Women’s Day 2023. 



Vanita Uppal OBE, Director, The British School New Delhi

Lural Ramírez, Head of School, United World College Thailand

Katie Tomlinson, Head of Primary, The British School Manila


What does International Women's Day and this year's theme of #EmbraceEquity mean to you?  

Vanita Uppal: The celebration of International Women’s Day, hitherto viewed as a symbolic statement, has fortunately grown into a day to genuinely celebrate womanhood in all its dimensions. To me, the recognition and validation of what women bring to the table (both in their personal and professional lives) is absolutely critical for any sustainable, genuine, and long-lasting progress to take place. Be it in their ability to view situations and issues in an intuitive and multi-dimensional manner, or in their innate propensity to work hard and not give up, the inclusion of women in decision making processes has been proven to be essential in the success of teams worldwide.

This year’s theme of #EmbraceEquity is a welcome initiative as it very deliberately and intentionally presents an aspiration and a challenge to global work places.


Lural Ramírez: This year’s theme is a powerful one! When we commit to equity, we stay consistent to our progressive values. We live in a society, no matter where we are in the world, built upon systemic inequity. Generations of time under that reality require us to take a hard look at the practices we have in place and the ways in which we can live our values through our actions. From a youth development lens, I am motivated to shift students into a space of policy-making influence and big idea thinking, with the explicit objective of pedagogical alignment for a more equitable present and future.


Katie Tomlinson: I love this year’s theme because embracing equity I see as a call to action. Equity is everyone’s responsibility with the ultimate goal of success, opportunities and empowerment for all. We all need to grasp opportunities to embrace equity and have a duty to play our part within our own sphere of influence.


What is your leadership style? 

Lural Ramírez: At my heart, I am committed first and foremost to the ideals of Servant Leadership. The role of a leader is not to stand above or in front, but to assume the responsibility of leadership with a commitment to serve others, to make difficult decisions and to commit to values-driven leadership. Personally, I endeavour to be consistently principled and brave, and to work within the communities I serve to empower, involve and distribute leadership whenever and wherever possible. We truly are stronger together, and the approach of a leader requires a good heart and then a situational approach in order to best ensure forward momentum and processes that bring all stakeholders along together.


Katie Tomlinson: I pride myself on being a person centred leader and putting staff first.  I believe that if we get things right for the staff then we get things right for the children.  Staff want to do a great job; many of them will say they came into teaching to make a difference.  I see that one of the priorities of my role needs to be to support staff in remaining  focused and in helping to remove any barriers which prevent them from meeting the children’s needs and providing the best educational experiences.


Vanita Uppal: My leadership style is people-centric, non-hierarchical, inclusive, and, I am told, inspirational and visionary! I lead from the front, role model my expectations, and I am able to articulate a shared vision and set the pace for growth. I am intuitive and passionate, able to anticipate challenges and plan and prepare for them. Equally, I am adept at dealing with ambiguity and often fall back on my innate values and guiding principles to deal with extremely challenging situations. I am accessible and hands-on and encourage colleagues regardless of rank or designation to share innovative ideas which have the potential to positively impact student learning. I am empathetic, I listen actively, I build positive and trusting relationships, and I am able to successfully carry my team with me no matter how tough the ask. I am able to envision medium and long term goals for the organization, articulate that vision, and work hard to deliver it.


What do you consider to be the key traits that a leader ought to possess and cultivate?  

Katie Tomlinson: The capacity to see the best in, and potential of all is hugely important.  Ensuring staff believe they have the skills, ability and potential can be a game changer in terms of school development and innovation.

Aside from that, I feel the very best school leaders are great communicators and demonstrate authenticity. They are clear about your personal beliefs as well as being articulate about the school’s vision, mission and core values; helping people understand what this looks like in our daily actions as well as prioritising in line with these is so important. 


Vanita Uppal: In a world where leadership, especially international school leadership, continues to evolve and become more demanding, there are certain traits which are essential:

  • The ability to anticipate, plan and be prepared to navigate ambiguity;
  • Clarity of thought and communication;
  • The ability to inspire, role model, and walk the talk;
  • Love and passion for the work that you do, who you do it with, and who you do it for;
  • The ability to establish a culture of credible leadership based on mutual respect and trust;
  • Staying true to your values and never forgetting the moral purpose of leadership;
  • The ability to recruit and retain the best talent; and,
  • Always ensuring that all decisions are measured by one single yardstick – that they are made in the best interests of the students in your care.


Lural Ramírez: The longer I am fortunate enough to serve in leadership roles, the more I am reminded of the importance of leadership that is grounded in relationships, heart, and a commitment to do what is right - no matter what. We have a responsibility to lead from a space of genuine care and with a commitment to support our teams in their ongoing growth and development, understanding our roles as coaches and mentors to our team as they make their way as professionals throughout their careers. As a leader, all eyes are on you at all times and so, by default, you are modelling at all times. We must be patient, consistent, kind and fair, and we must model those values in big moments and in small, seemingly inconsequential moments.


What do you consider to be the greatest barriers women face when looking to ascend to leadership positions in the international education sector? 

Vanita Uppal: There are quite a few, but I will list down a few I have encountered in my forty years’ experience:

  • A lack of self belief;
  • Being in a work environment that is not conducive to motivating and encouraging women to put themselves forward;
  • Societal and cultural constraints which perpetuate the myth that women cannot be successful both at work and home;
  • A lack of opportunity which operates in tandem with the role of women as homemakers, mothers etc.;
  • Questions of mobility – in this part of the world, men very rarely accompany women to her dream job which has implications for them to change their jobs and relocate; and,
  • The old boys’ clubs – it is a reality! Women have to work harder and display interests in fields that their male colleagues are interested to be ‘accepted’ into the inner circle!


Lural Ramírez: Leadership is heavily relationship based and, very often, self-perpetuated through those existing relationships. As women, we continue to face the barrier of getting through the door and into the room where we can demonstrate our unparalleled value to the schools that we serve. Female leaders in education benefit from mentors and sponsors already in spaces of leadership in international education and their support needs to come before and during an educational leadership post. When these mentors and sponsors are also female then that is fantastic, and there is also incredible benefit to the countless male allies in our industry who support women in their leadership journeys. As a woman, even when you get that post you have so desired, you have to prepare yourself for the reality that society unjustly holds women to a tougher standard than their male counterparts. Facing that inequity in expectation daily can be demoralising and requires incredible strength and fortitude.


Katie Tomlinson: I feel that in many international recruitment processes for senior positions, women may be disadvantaged. I’d like to see more women as part of School Boards in order to ensure equity when appointing to leadership positions.  I’d also like to see unconscious bias support for anyone involved in appointing staff, including the HR teams who are often responsible for filtering applications at the long list stage.

As well as this I also believe we, as women, can sometimes be our own barrier and most limiting factor.  Often female senior leaders are trying to ‘have it all’ and be the ‘superwoman’ and we put pressure on ourselves to perform in every aspect of our life in a sometimes unrealistic way. Women also tend to filter more than men in terms of the jobs they feel able to apply for. A woman applying for a promotional role would look at the job description for criteria they don’t meet. Men tend to look for what they can do.  Women have a tendency to wait until they are ready - but sometimes you’re not ready but you’ve done enough to travel well into the next stage and learn on the job.

Which individuals do you admire most in the international education sector, and how do they inspire you as a leader?   

Lural Ramírez: Three inspiring, female leaders immediately come to mind!

Nicola Upham and Sonya Danchik, are both School Board Chairs at their respective schools and I am fortunate to be working alongside currently, in the case of Nicola, and to have previously worked with, in the case of Sonya, each of them. I am in awe at the commitment and strength of School Board Chairs who volunteer their time to the school communities they serve. Both Nicola and Sonya emulate the strength of character and courageous leadership a Chair position demands and they both do so with incredible grace, humility and good humour. They also do so whilst being deeply committed to their respective professional careers as well as to their families and children. Both are incredible examples to follow!

Musimbi Kanyoro, UWC International Board Chair, is another inspiring leader whom I admire. Musimbi holds space like no other - with a strength of character, knowledge of self and wisdom of experience to come to any table with the ability to frame the conversation, move the narrative forward and inspire those with whom she works.


Katie Tomlinson:  It’s really hard to pin this down to one person but perhaps someone I would aspire to be like would be Vivienne Porritt who is the co-founder and strategic lead for WomenEd.  I love the WomenEd motto of "10% Braver" and it’s something which has driven me to step out of my comfort zone personally and professionally. Whilst Vivienne hasn’t worked internationally, the international Women Ed movements are growing rapidly and offer much needed support, guidance and development opportunities to international school aspiring and current leaders.  It would be great to follow in Vivienne’s footsteps and be a trailblazer making a difference globally.


Vanita Uppal: Rather than naming individuals, I would like to focus on what they represent and why I find them inspirational. These are women who have championed difficult causes, headed organisations that have tended to be male dominated, have mentored and groomed leaders, have been humble and willing to share their wisdom and experience for others to grow. They are respectful, non-judgmental and wear their successes lightly. They do not scream to to be in the limelight but still shine through dint of their merit and hard work.


Do you have any mentors or mentees who have helped you to grow as a leader?  

Katie Tomlinson: I have been fortunate to have a number of mentors and friends who have been hugely influential in my leadership journey. Today I’m sharing 4…

Peter Keegan – the first Headteacher who saw my potential as a leader in my early years of teaching and trusted and supported me to first lead the English Curriculum, and then to push into Deputy Headship sooner than I may have done otherwise. Peter is the reason I focus on recognising the strengths and potential of my own staff. Sadly Peter died in service in 2004.

Maggie Rafee – the most inspirational leader I have ever met. Now retired but a teacher of 43 years and a Head of School for 18 of those.  There’s no-one quite like Maggie – she’s a great listener with the insightful ability to ask the right questions at the right time.  She taught me the power of curious leadership.

Rebecca Findlay – friend and peer.  Rebecca is a fellow Head of Primary and invited me to help her with forming WomenEd Malaysia in 2019.  She introduced me to the power and potential of networks.  She encouraged me to write articles, build networks and is one of my influences behind WISE (Women in International School Empowerment) which is an initiative being developed in my current school (British School Manila).

My mum – who is never surprised by what I achieve because she always knew I could do it.


Vanita Uppal: To begin with, unknowingly but definitely my father who, in his quiet way, taught me the value of having a good heart along with a good mind. He taught me to never settle for mediocrity and thrive for more than what I thought I was capable of. My mentors at work have been colleagues who have helped me to clarify and correct my own thinking at times; my students (a couple definitely come to mind) who encouraged me to always keep some time for being in the classroom, as that is something that continues to drive me; a couple of Board chairs, who inspired me by their quiet wisdom and faith in me; mentees whom I have groomed and grown along their professional journeys, and who are now outstanding leaders in their own right.


Lural Ramírez: Norma Hudson is a Senior Consultant at Search Associates and I worked with her when I was transitioning into my current role as Head of School at UWC Thailand. Norma demonstrates the passion and courage that I aspire to as a leader and she cares deeply for the leaders with whom she works. She is that ally you need in the transition points of your career.

Every day I learn from my female mentees in my school context - I often think I learn much more from them than they ever could from me! Current inspiration comes daily from Raquel Silva, Amrita Singh, Tapiwa Chikungwa, Nicki Robertson, Kerstin Bender, Kim Young, Saowalak Cheng and Aleka Bilan. They are all passionate, smart, motivated and they have an incredible sense of humour. It is an honour to serve and support each of them!


If you could provide your younger self with one piece of advice, what would it be? 

Vanita Uppal: Believe in yourself. The world does not rest on your shoulders. It is okay to forgive yourself when you make a mistake, be kind to yourself, and start putting yourself on your priority list because if you don’t no one else will. Be more patient and accept that everyone around you beats to a different drum.


Katie Tomlinson: Every situation is valuable and a learning opportunity, even the hard ones - especially the hard ones. 


Lural Ramírez: “You are enough” - would have served me very well in the early days when, as my husband would lovingly joke, “I am not sure what race you are in, but I am pretty sure you are winning!”. My journey into leadership has never been an easy road, and it has required bravery and resilience to persevere down this path. Especially in my younger years, I do not think that I fully internalised that the expectations for me were different than for my male counterparts. If I had only known earlier on that my best was good enough, I might have saved myself an incredible amount of self-doubt and self-criticism.


What are your hopes and ambitions for the future of the international education sector?  

Katie Tomlinson: In October 2021, the Council of International Schools (CIS) found that a Head of School is three times more likely to be male. I would love for this data to change. My ambition is to do all I can in raising awareness and providing platforms and opportunities within my sphere of influence to make it happen.


Lural Ramírez: I am encouraged daily by our students who bring an open-mindedness and an optimism that is to be emulated by those of us currently in leadership roles. Our youth are demanding more inclusive environments and a culture of belonging in the workplace that inspires daily - and these are reasonable expectations to hold. What can we do as a collective to support forward momentum in these areas? How can we empower those in our communities who are currently not advocated sufficiently for? And, how can we work together as independent schools to push forward a vision for education that more effectively transitions us into the demands and calls to action of the 21st century and beyond? We have unparalleled levels of freedom in independent international schools and we should better hold ourselves accountable to engaging with that innovative space in order to do what is right and what is needed, now and in the future, for the betterment of our children.


Vanita Uppal: The ambitions are many but probably the most important ones are:

  • Increase access to students across ability ranges;
  • Become a vehicle for developing cultural competencies and nurture global citizens;
  • Be seen as centres of innovation, collaboration and equity; and,
  • Collectively work towards a more sustainable, peaceful and equitable world.


We would like to take this opportunity to all of the contributors to this blog post for their sharing the insights, personal experiences and expertise.

If you would like to hear from other inspirational women leaders in the sector, then we encourage you to explore the work of two of our keynote speakers at the upcoming Outstanding Schools Middle East 2023 Conference, which will take place on the 4th and 5th of October in Dubai.

Safiya Ibn Garba is the Senior Director of Global Programmes and Learning for Generations For Peace, a Jordan-based, global non-profit peacebuilding organisation founded by HRH Prince Feisal Al Hussein of Jordan. Safiya is also the Founder and Programme Director of the Empowering Women for Excellence Initiative, a non-governmental organisation in Nigeria that seeks to empower women and girls in the region.

Diana Osagie is the Founder and CEO of The Academy of Women's Leadership and Author of the recently published book titled Women in Leadership: One hour to fix the 5 mistakes you are making.