International Women's Day 2023 | Celebrating Outstanding Leaders in International Education | Part 3: Europe
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 to see the other content produced for International Women’s Day 2023.
Nancy Lhoest-Squicciarini, Lead Facilitator and Trainer; Country Network Leader, ECIS; WomenEdBeLux
Nicola Lambros, Director of European Education, Cognita
Maki Nishihara, Head of Early Years and Primary, AMADEUS International School Austria
Claire Nuttall, Primary Headteacher and Vice-Principal, St George's International School, Luxembourg
Liz Free, CEO and Director, International School Rheintal
Tor Del Federico, Principal, Southlands British International School, Rome
Nancy Lhoest-Squicciarini: #EmbraceEquity differentiates between equality and equity. These two concepts are often confused. While both aim to create a fair society, they approach the issue from different angles. Equality means treating everyone the same, regardless of their individual differences. However, this does not always result in fairness, as individuals have different needs and circumstances. Equity, on the other hand, acknowledges these differences and provides what is needed to create fairness. For example, giving a child with a learning disability extra support in school to help them succeed is an example of equity. This is something very close to my heart, as my son at an early age was diagnosed with a cognitive processing disorder. Although most teachers understood the concept of “modifications”, such as allowing for verbal responses, there was an attitude that these modifications provided an unfair advantage to my son. These modifications allowed my son to demonstrate what he knew without being impeded by their disability. Although I am reflecting on an experience from over 25 years ago, the concept of equity is applicable even more so today within communities of people of colour, LGBTQ+ individuals, and women. (On a personal note, recently, my son graduated from the University of Glasgow with a Masters, Second Class Honours Upper Division Classification.)
Nicola Lambros: Embracing equity is fundamental to creating inclusive and respectful communities where collective wellbeing flourishes. A purposeful focus on equity allows for everyone’s voice to be heard and supports cognitive diversity, which is crucial if we want to solve the important challenges we face today such as the climate crisis, the increase in mental health issues in our young people, and the widening disadvantage gap. Together we are most definitely stronger.
Maki Nishihara: The definition of equality and equity from International Women's Day is as follows:
- Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities.
- Equity recognises that each person has different circumstances, and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.
International Women’s Day is a celebration of all women who have achieved and are doing amazing things around the world. Embracing equity means meeting everyone where they are, as well as providing the resources and opportunities that are needed for each individual to be successful. In every situation, there are many different perspectives and opinions, especially when people see fairness as equality. The reality in this world is that the structures and systems do not allow people to have an equal advantage. The change needs to start with embracing equity so that every person has an equal advantage in society to contribute to this ever-changing world.
Liz Free: We have long seen a lack of equity globally for women in education. This sounds like a strange statement in a feminised global profession made up of almost 80% women. In 2017, I co-founded WomendEd Netherlands and subsequently became the global lead and founding trustee of the organisation. Through this work, I was able to research the data and look at markers, such as the pay gap in domestic settings, alongside the global data. What I discovered over five years ago is that the pay gap in international education exceeds that of most countries. Despite espousing equity in many of our guiding statements, this is not the lived experience of many international school leaders. Women of colour are particularly hit hard and so, on this day of embracing equity, I want to raise awareness of the need for equity to enable equality.
Tor Del Federico: International Women’s Day serves as a great opportunity to celebrate all things related to women; education, careers, and, of course, the associated challenges and opportunities that women face. The theme Embrace Equity elevates the discussion around rights and opportunities, and broadens the lens through which we are looking, to ensure that we try to be more inclusive in our thinking and behaviours. So, by combining these two ideas we are able to widen the discussion to highlight all the other issues that can be hidden beneath the 'Women’s Day umbrella'.
As a school leader, wife, and a mother to a teenage son and daughter, International Women's Day serves as a platform from which to launch debate, to recognise inequality and inequity and, most importantly, to talk through possible solutions and ways of redistributing the balance towards more equitable institutions, both culturally and professionally.
What is your leadership style?
Liz Free: I believe that great leaders inspire greatness in all those around them. My role is to empower all those around me. I try to be thoughtful, considerate, compassionate, clear and aspirational with students' wellbeing and success at the heart of all that we do. I know that the only way to really lead a school, a community, is to have faith, trust and respect for and from those around me.
Tor Del Federico: I always find this an interesting question: my leadership style is in many senses quite fluid and will adapt to the context that I find myself in. Day to day, in my role as Principal, I adopt a coaching and collaborative approach and focus on growing my team's confidence and capacity through providing them with opportunities and latitude to find their own leadership voice. However, when presented with a crisis: such as needing to expatriate and relocate a whole staff and move a school online all within a 48 hour time frame (thank you Covid!) then, by necessity, one adopts a strongly decisive approach and leads very much from the front and centre.
To be effective I need the emotional intelligence to 'read the room' and the agility to adapt my style accordingly. Inevitably though, some of my more 'fixed' characteristics are reflected in the way I work and live, and I suppose that these are the closest I would come to having a certain leadership 'style', i.e. being dynamic, decisive and keen to get things done!
Nicola Lambros: I realised in my first headship that no one leadership style is appropriate for every context. My leadership style depends on the people I am working with, the context, the situation, and the goal that is to be achieved. The most effective leaders are able to adapt their leadership style to their context. Key to this is the ability to effectively understand the perspectives of others. Effective leadership is empathetic leadership; that is, the leader being able to put themselves in the shoes of the people they are working with in order to understand the style of leadership that they will need to adopt to achieve the required outcome. My leadership style will change but my values of compassion, collaboration, empathy, respect, and kindness will always stay constant because I believe that no leadership style will facilitate sustainable change and positive impact without being human first.
Maki Nishihara: My leadership style is a mix of different styles depending on different situations. I am a transformational leader who believes in the growth and creativity of the people I work with is needed to change the organisation, but I also see myself as a servant leader who tries to support everyone in the areas of need, and a coach who tries to provide and navigate the professional development of each individual whom I work with. I try to have empathy, integrity, and transparency when leading a group of people. As Head of Early Years and Primary, what I do most is put myself back into being a teacher and ask myself, "What would I need, want, or appreciate in this situation as a teacher?"
Nancy Lhoest-Squicciarini: Building strong relationships is the foundation of my leadership style. I am an advocate for the investing in collaboration and elevating the collective wisdom of a team. In Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan’s book, Professional Capital, they advocate for three kinds of capital that comprise professional capital: human capital (the talent of individuals); social capital (the collaborative power of the group); and decisional capital (the wisdom and expertise to make sound judgments about learners that are cultivated over many years). My priority as a leader is to prioritise the human capital of my colleagues by highlighting their talents and skills as individuals. Developing and honing my facilitation skills is essential for the team to learn from one another, work towards a common goal, and increase productivity. George Couros stated, “The three most important words in education are: Relationship, Relationships, Relationships. Without them, we have noting.” (Couros G., The Innovator's Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity. Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc., 2015). I could not agree more.
What do you consider to be the key traits that a leader ought to possess and cultivate?
Nicola Lambros: A leader cannot lead if no one is following. Impactful and effective leadership is being able to effectively influence others to effect change and achieve a collective goal. A key part of this is nurturing collective efficacy in a team. Building and nurturing strong trusting relationships with others is at the heart of effective leadership. Being an effective communicator is a crucial component of this. I spend a lot of time reflecting on my leadership and how I can improve; being reflective, being humble, keeping an open mind, and appreciating how much you can learn from others is also very important.
Liz Free: Clarity of vision is fundamental to success. Knowing yourself well, and others knowing you well too, helps to build a unity of trust and endeavour. You need to be resilient, determined, kind and mindful of yourself and others. It is also essential to care for yourself and ensure that your well is full so that you can continue to serve your community with energy and commitment.
Maki Nishihara: I believe that a leader needs to have a vision and a goal that they are able to share with their team so that everyone can work together towards that vision and goal. A willingness to listen and receive feedback from the teams that they work with would also be a key trait when working with people. Trusting and valuing people are traits that a leader needs, as this connects to the creation of a positive environment and motivated teams. Lastly, having integrity and being honest are traits that I believe help teams respect and understand the decisions that are being made by leaders.
Nancy Lhoest-Squicciarini: Edutopia has an insightful article titled, “What Does Trust Look Like in a School?” written by Michelle Blanchet. There was one quote that resonated with me, “Education is a field built on relationships, but we are rarely taught how to nurture them. What does trust look like in practice? What concrete steps can leaders take to foster a culture of trust?” How true is this statement? Are leaders taught how to develop and promote trust? Within any organisation, building trust is crucial for school leaders as it lays the foundation for healthy relationships and effective communication among students, teachers, and parents. The key is intentionality and to recognise that trusting relationships are not created due to the position one has. Being explicit in terms of regular communication, be transparent in decision-making, leading by example and actively listening to all stakeholders will cultivate trust which is the foundational trait for all leaders to possess.
Tor Del Federico: Great relationships and communication lie at the heart of successful organisations, so it is very important for me to be open, accessible and visible to my colleagues, families and students. Leading inevitably brings challenges and difficult moments, and this is when the traits of courage and kindness come into play. Teaching is essentially, or at least should be, a caring profession, and we have so much opportunity and indeed responsibility to enable our students to flourish and bloom. As a leader, that responsibility extends to the staff body and beyond, to the wider community; we have to create the right conditions for our people to grow and thrive.
You cannot underestimate the importance of staying open to new ideas, of being self-aware and self-critical, of cultivating institutional habits of honest discussion and feedback rather than echo chambers or silences: this is vital to avoid falling into complacency traps or losing touch with the people or institutions you are leading.
One of the educational leaders I have found most inspiring is Steve Munby, who led a seminar as part of an excellent Aspiring Principals’ training course I completed. His belief in leading with integrity, being aware of your own strengths and equally acknowledging your imperfections, and addressing this by building a team which is stronger than the sum of its parts, seems to me an excellent philosophy for leadership.
What do you consider to be the greatest barriers women face when looking to ascend to leadership positions in the international education sector?
Tor Del Federico: I think there are two main barriers: the first is the challenge presented personally, whether that relates to finding a country in which as a woman, your civil and social liberties, safety and security are at a level, which you feel acceptable. For women in relationships, it can be difficult to manage the financial and emotional challenges of finding equitable career prospects for a partner, or, conversely, agreeing who will assume the role of lead earner if that distinction needs to be made. For women with or intending on having children, embracing the considerable domestic ramifications of moving away from family support networks or, in the case of older children, the disruption of uprooting them from their established school and social network in order to follow a promotion, are important issues.
The second is on a professional level whereby one may be working within cultures where women leaders are very much the exception rather than the norm. When I first moved to a school in SEA, on a number of occasions at out of school events, assumptions were made that the man who was with me was the Principal and I was his deputy, rather than the reverse! Likewise, when interacting with parents, I feel that female leaders often have a tougher time than men: certainly from my observations, our decisions are challenged more forcibly and there is a greater level of verbal aggression in written and face-to-face communication from some parents.
The need to lead with confidence and self-assurance whilst not appearing bossy, aggressive or domineering and to be warm and caring but not to be perceived as too emotional is not always an easy path to navigate.
Liz Free: The greatest barrier is Board understanding of what effective school leadership looks like. Many organisations are just beginning to work in this area in the international sector, and I continue to support these organisations and encourage them to provide strong Board training as well as accreditation requirements to ensure that Boards understand the role of DEIJ in recruitment of leadership for international communities.
Nancy Lhoest-Squicciarini: WomenEDThe Educational Collaboration for International Schools 'Women in Education'
Which individuals do you admire most in the international education sector, and how do they inspire you as a leader?
Maki Nishihara: I have so many, and I don’t think one person has inspired me more than others. As a person of colour and a member of the AIELOC community, I have met so many amazing and inspiring women leaders through AIELOC events. Some are leaders at international schools, and some are educators who have been leading the DEIJ work within their schools who have presented at conferences and have given workshops in different areas depending upon their strengths. Their knowledge, their commitment, their skills, and also their caring kindness towards everyone in the community have really inspired me to be more like them.
Tor Del Federico: As before, Steve Munby is a great source of inspiration: I can highly recommend his book Imperfect Leadership. Closer to home though - and I realise it will sound terribly clichéd - I am proud to say that I take a huge amount of inspiration from my colleagues and the students. I want to be the best leader that I can be for my staff: to help them grow and develop their careers, just as mentors supported me to get to where I am now. Ultimately though, I serve the students. Every decision that I take is prefaced by the following questions: Is this the best thing for our students? How will this impact upon our children’s experience and education? If I am happy with the answer then we will move forward, if not, the idea is rejected or needs further work.
Nicola Lambros: My inspiration comes from individuals who are working to make a positive difference to the lives of young people and this can come from many different sources. I am inspired daily by the people I have the privilege to work with; I have daily opportunities to engage with outstanding educators and this provides constant inspiration. Reading books, articles and research papers and listening to educational podcasts such as Ollie Lovell’s Education Research Reading Room Podcast and Dr James Mannion’s Rethinking Education are also a great source of reflection and inspiration. Being challenged in my thinking, being presented with new ideas, new perspectives and new approaches to education is a constant source of inspiration for me.
Nancy Lhoest-Squicciarini: Such a difficult question! There is not enough space on this page to mention the international educators who have left a lasting impact on my personal and professional life. I would rather mention organisations that have provided undeniable support and shaped my growth as an educator. Their unwavering support and care for my wellbeing have been a source of strength whilst also allowing me to be true to myself.
- International School of Luxembourg (ISL)
- The Educational Collaborative for International School (ECIS)
- The Principals' Training Center (PTC)
- Council for International Schools (CIS)
- WomenEd and WomenEdLux
Do you have any mentors or mentees who have helped you to grow as a leader?
Nancy Lhoest-Squicciarini: According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a mentor is a person who gives a younger or less experienced person help and advice over a period of time, especially at work or school. Throughout my 37 years in education, I am not sure if I had mentors or just caring and generous individuals who took the time and effort to share their insights, experiences and expertise. Maybe that exactly is a mentor. Without hesitation, I am appreciative to…
- Chris Bowman, former International School of Luxembourg Director: Chris saw the best in others and believed in their potential, even when others did not. His positive mindset was contagious and inspired me to work to my potential regardless of challenges and obstacles.
- Kam Chohan, Educational Collaborative for International School: Kam’s unwavering support for her team fosters a sense of belonging and creates an environment where everyone feels valued and respected.
- Nicki Crush, former International School of Luxembourg Principal/Director: As an Assistant Principal, Nicki provided me opportunities to thrive and contribute to the school's success. Leading projects and initiatives cultivated my skills and confidence to positively impact the professional learning of the staff.
- Chris Durbin, Council for International Schools: Chris exemplifies that collaboration, teamwork, and believing that a diverse range of perspectives leads to better outcomes.
- Patricia Handly, The Principals' Training Center: Patricia is an impactful facilitator and celebrated the learning of all who was around her. She taught me how to build rapport within a professional learning environment and her key ability was to listen providing supportive and challenging feedback.
- John Mikton, Ecolint: John encouraged me to reflect on my actions and decisions, and challenged me to consider alternative perspectives and solutions.
Nicola Lambros: My leadership journey has been supported by a number of people, but there are four individuals who have been particularly influential. My coach who has supported me on my leadership journey for over 13 years. Her work with me has enabled me to question, reflect, learn, unlearn and relearn to grow better and stronger in my roles. I also have two great friends and colleagues who are highly experienced leaders. Both of these leaders have provided me with brilliant, thoughtful and considered advice, inspiration, a listening ear, critical friendship and unwavering support for me on my leadership journey. And Dr Simon Camby, the Global Director of Education for Cognita schools has given me outstanding mentorship, every conversation we have enables me to learn, reflect and improve my leadership. I feel extremely lucky and very grateful to have these four individuals in my life.
Maki Nishihara: Yes, I have had a few mentors who have helped me grow as a leader. My former director in Estonia has encouraged me to see myself as a leader when I first started exploring my leadership path. Then, I met some wonderful facilitators through my literacy coaching cohort journey via ECIS-CEESA who taught me everything I needed to start being a leader. After that, I met a couple of women through the Women Who Lead course at Eduro Learning who are helping me become a better leader every time we have a chance to meet. Kim Cofino has been the person who has opened up this opportunity to connect to many women educational leaders around the world.
Liz Free: Yes, there have been so many! From Vivienne Porrit (WomenEd and Chartered College) to Andrew Jedras (my first director when I entered my first international headship in 2006) to those that I now mentor and learn so much from. Building a strong network of new ideas, experience and expertise around me has been instrumental in keeping me firmly in the profession.
Tor Del Federico: A formative experience in my leadership journey was working with a wonderful coach, Virginia Williams, who opened my eyes, mind and heart to different ways of framing my own narratives and those of others. I have also been fortunate to work for three amazing Heads from whom I learnt so much just by watching and listening. Kevin Foyle, who led College Alpin Beau Soleil, is a master of combining genuine interest in people, great charm and a razor sharp head for business: all of which are essential for successful international school leaders! Frances King, and John Franklin, (Roedean/ College Beau Soleil and Ardingly College, respectively) are incredibly erudite, sensitive and good-hearted leaders who are absolute models of integrity and passion for the power of education to transform lives.
If you could provide your younger self with one piece of advice, what would it be?
Nicola Lambros: A very wise coach (!) advised me in my early days of headship that E+R=O. That is, the event plus your reaction equals the outcome. This equation is very powerful; we have the power to turn challenge into opportunity and turn failure into the very best learning experiences. In order to really live and breathe this approach, it is important to be open to feedback, however hard the words are to hear. Feedback is a gift, being open to it can shape your reaction to an event so that the outcome becomes a transformational learning experience.
Maki Nishihara: When people give you an opportunity to step up, say, “Yes!”
Liz Free: Don't wait to be asked. If you have an interesting idea, talk with your head about it. You have a professional voice, and your voice matters.
Tor Del Federico: Trust your instincts: yes, do listen to other’s perspectives and sense check your ideas, but ultimately, trust your instincts; they are usually right.
Nancy Lhoest-Squicciarini: First and foremost, always be true to yourself and, without hesitation, never change who and what you are as an individual. Secondly, strive to cultivate meaningful relationships which are based on mutual appreciation that creates positive energy. Consequently, do not hesitate to seek assistance and lean on those who care about you. View vulnerability as a strength rather than a weakness. Lastly, regardless of the challenges and frustrations that you experience, recognise the best in others, which strengthens the bonds between colleagues, teams, and the school community. Simply stated, celebrate! Festive moments provide individuals with a means to deepen relationships and feel valued. Never underestimate the impact of a celebration in terms of building trust and loyalty. Sincere efforts to elevate others becomes a strength as one becomes a leader. Ensure that celebrations are authentic and come from the heart. Be cognisant that colleagues differ on how they wish to be recognised; not everyone needs streamers and balloons. Most importantly, never stop appreciating those around you.
What are your hopes and ambitions for the future of the international education sector?
Maki Nishihara: I hope that the international education sector will start embracing equity for all people and for it to be the leading change for education around the world. In a constantly changing world, authentic education centered around concept-based learning, project-based learning, and social and emotional learning should be the center of teaching in schools. In addition, teaching students to build the skills to apply, learn, adapt and be creative to think outside of a box are essential for schools in the twenty-first century.
Nancy Lhoest-Squicciarini: As an educator, my hope is that international education continues to develop diversity and multiculturalism by promoting a sense of responsibility for the wellbeing of others, regardless of their nationality or background. This leads to greater empathy, understanding, and collaboration across borders.
Yet with the current conflict, division, and negativity, please let us all focus on kindness to create a more compassionate and connected world.
Tor Del Federico: I hope that, firstly, we can all fully resume the kind of holistic education and school life that was commonplace pre-pandemic. We need to rejig the collective memory and reset so that once again choirs, clubs, sports fixtures, competitions, travel, exchanges and enrichment opportunities are normal and expected parts of every child and teacher’s daily experience of international school life.
Once this is in place, I think that there are so many incredible opportunities for greater collaboration within cities, countries and continents for teachers and children to learn with and from each other. The digital revolution prompted by Covid-19 has also created so many new platforms for interaction and collaboration. Linked to this, I would love to see international schools reaching out more to local schools in our cities and so build positive and productive relationships with our broader communities, whether through sharing facilities and friendship or developing joint service, cultural or academic initiatives.
Nicola Lambros: We are currently at an important inflection point in education. Covid-19 has placed a spotlight on the key issues we have been facing for a number of years: the disadvantage gap, mental health, teacher retention, the questions around the purpose of education, and the function of our examination systems. Within our international school community there are already a number of international schools that are looking into these challenges with creative and innovative solutions. We now need to face into these challenges together through effective collaboration to identify and share great practice in order to strengthen our education system. As a collective, we have the power to effectively address the issues we face and my hope is that we harness the power of our international school system to do this in order for our young people and our schools to flourish and thrive.
Liz Free: I love international education. The days of replicating domestic systems have long gone. International education is now at the cutting edge of global practice. I want to see our approach to organisational representation in leadership to be as dynamic as the learning spaces we are creating. We need equity to ensure we can truly be innovative and inclusive, and so that we can realise the global potential of the profession and international education for the benefit of all. If we fail to realise the potential of nearly 80% of the workforce, we will fail the very communities that we serve.
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.
Please note that all opinions expressed are the contributors' own and do not reflect those of their employers/organisations.
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.