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Celebrating Outstanding Women in Educational Leadership in the Middle East

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. 


Nilay Özral, Chief Executive Officer, Bloom Education 

Dr Carla Caviness, Founding Elementary Principal, Dubai Schools NAS, Taaleem Education 

Sandra Tichagwa, Director of Educational Technology, Liwa Education 

Dr Omolola Wright-Odusoga, International School Principal 

Tracy Moxley, Executive Principal, Citizens School 


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

Carla Caviness: International Women's Day and embracing equality means recognising and celebrating women's educational, social, cultural, and political achievements while acknowledging the ongoing struggles for gender equality in education, the workforce, and beyond. It is a call to action for accelerating gender parity and empowering women, girls, and minorities everywhere. 


Nilay Özral: The International Women's Day mission is to help forge a gender equal world. It is a day for us to remember our struggle for peace, justice and equality, as well as to reflect on the progress made to date, celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women around the world.  Also, it is a day to shed light on the ways in which many women in the world are still made to suffer because of their gender. Personally, the day brings into focus the opportunities available for women like me that did not exist in the past, which motivates me to strive for greater challenges every day.  

For me, embracing equity means valuing diversity and embracing true inclusion. Equity means addressing inequalities that limit the ability to access equal opportunities. Equity is more purposeful than equality, and it is a way in which true equality can be achieved.  It requires more effort, but it is more meaningful and effective. Basically, we need to consider diversity to ensure a level playing field for all and adjust for those who might need extra help by considering their different circumstances and various needs to support their path to success. In order to achieve equity for women, it is important for us to voice challenges that may not be so apparent to our male colleagues, such as juggling the demands of our family responsibilities with our work commitments. By being open, we can strive for equity in treatment which in turn leads to equality.      


Omolola Wright-Odusoga: Women are natural-born leaders. Women not only possess an uncommonly strong sense of community but also connect in the strongest possible terms with the community in whatever they do. Women also possess both a generosity of spirit and the emotional intelligence that affords them a high index of sensitivity to the needs of others. That is why, on this day that we are celebrating women worldwide – celebrating their achievements and their strides in making significant contributions to our world – we, as women, need to fully embrace equity, diversity and inclusivity within schools, and the larger community, with the hope that we can broaden our opportunities for both continual improvement and successful outcomes, for all those for whom we are burdened with the task of educating. That is the only way we can continue to obtain positive results. 


Sandra Tichagwa: Interestingly, Outstanding Schools chose to use the word equity and not equality! Equity implies there is still work to be done to level the playing field before we can speak of equality. By embracing equity we are saying that we are ready to do whatever it takes to address historical and social disadvantages that prevent women from thriving. What is worrying is that despite all the campaigns, marches, and hashtags we are not on track to achieving this by 2030 ( As women in leadership we need to do more; we need to start by making a difference in our sphere. We must commit to identifying the hurdles experienced by other women and put in place measured strategies so that we can monitor and track the actual change we are really making. Not achieving gender equality by 2023 is simply not acceptable. 


Tracy Moxley: International Women’s Day is a reminder that women still face inequality and inequity to a greater or lesser extent across the world, in every walk of life, every day. It is a day that forces us to stop and think about how far women have come and the many achievements that we have made. It is also a time to focus on the women and girls who struggle to access education; those forced into marriage; women who are the victims of gender violence as well as the fight to stop female genital mutilation. There is still a great deal to do, and the protection of women and girls should be our priority. We still deal with sexist attitudes and stereotypes that affect access to opportunities in the workplace – but it should not be the case that any girl is unable to claim her right to a quality education. This should not be a situation happening in any part of the world today. #EmbraceEquity highlights the need to ensure we have equity before we can enjoy equality! Our differences have created barriers and it means that access to opportunities is differentiated according to our differences, and those differences should be celebrated. 


What is your leadership style? 

Tracy Moxley: I aspire to be a transformational leader and a change agent. Being a leader in a learning community is a huge responsibility: it is about the actions that one takes rather than the title. I am collaborative and value the people around me – I believe that I am emotionally intelligent, and I use this skill both to grow my teams and connect them to our shared goals, which should always focus upon our students. I use educational research to drive improvements, collective ownership and accountability of educational priorities with a focus on continuous improvement in practice with a measurable positive impact on student outcomes.  


Omolola Wright-Odusoga: As an educational leader with a rich background in transformative instructional leadership – having spent over 18 years in educational instruction, leadership and administration – I utilise my expertise in effective conflict management and resolution strategies by supporting an organisation’s initiatives and by communicating goals and objectives in a direct, professional manner with honesty, respect, fairness, and dignity. I also commit to creating a cohesive and holistic supportive platform for all, to foster and nurture a productive learning and work environment that places a high premium on mutual respect between people. Additionally, I place a strong emphasis on high-quality, student-centered learning by keeping students actively engaged in a diverse learning environment, my goal being to continually strive for improvement through systemic planning. 


Sandra Tichagwa: As a leader, one often toggles between different styles of leadership that best suits a given context. I mostly toggle between transformational leadership and distributed leadership, but the one that resonates most with me is transformational leadership. I like how transformational leadership talks about influence as the sine qua non (‘essential condition’) of leadership. With influence comes motivational inspiration that enhances team spirit and encourages others to commit to a shared vision, which is absolutely necessary for any organisation or project. Transformational leaders not only motivate and inspire, but create an environment that fosters commitment and loyalty. As a leader you give a lot to your team but you also get a lot back, which, most importantly, centres upon that shared vision and desire to accomplish the team’s goals. With transformational leadership, you all thrive. 


Carla Caviness: I consider myself a visionary leader. My personal values include diversity, equity, and inclusion. So, I lead through a diverse lens. I understand the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, and how to create an environment where all employees feel valued, respected, and empowered through the promotion of a culture of respect and inclusivity that encourages diversity of thought and experiences. 


Nilay Özral: Honestly, I found this question uncomfortable to answer, so I thought instead of me blowing my own trumpet I would ask one of my team to give her opinion… 

“During my own career, I can honestly state that I have never worked with someone who is so driven to succeed, passionate about what she does and is genuinely interested in absolutely everyone she meets. Nilay is a true visionary, always thinking outside the box and recognising opportunities that may not be as obvious to others, whilst having the patience to thoroughly explain her ideas and needs to ensure everyone is on board and excited as her about the journey to success. What stands out for me is her genuine desire to see those around her succeed – she is generous (to a fault sometimes) with her time and mentors everyone around her, focusing on not just the how but the why. Nilay encourages people to look beyond the task and to the wider impact on the business so that they understand the value they are adding and how their success impacts the wider organisation – every conversation is a learning opportunity!  Her goal is to empower others by encouraging solution-focused thinking and risk taking and by celebrating others’ successes whilst ensuring that they take full accountability for their actions. People know that she will always have their backs. Nilay has an extraordinary memory and, along with her ability to foster and develop lasting relationships from all walks of life, her network is outstanding. People naturally gravitate towards her and seek her advice, not just on business matters, but personal too, because her judgments and thoughts are always delivered empathically and with fairness, even if these may not be what people wish to hear. I have worked alongside Nilay for over 9 years, and I have personally learned so much from her, but, more than that, she has also learned from me. I feel extraordinarily blessed to have her in my life and I know that our relationship will last a lifetime and that no day will ever be boring!” 


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

Tracy Moxley: I think that leaders should have a vision and want to articulate and implement that which they believe; be emotionally intelligent; have empathy; be progressive in their thinking, always looking for what is coming next and the impact that it might have on education; and use research and make decisions based on data. Inspirational leaders are unafraid to stand up for what they believe in and have a strong sense of social justice.   


Sandra Tichagwa: The recent challenges brought about by the pandemic have highlighted traits necessary for any leader, such as agility, resilience, flexibility and adaptability. Adaptability is arguably the most relevant when leading people in a changing or challenging environment in order to mobilise “people to tackle challenges and thrive” (Heifetz et al., 2009). Other necessary traits include; 

  • Being proactive instead of reactive – we were all caught off guard by the pandemic; it will be inexcusable if this were to happen again.   
  • This one seems quite obvious but maybe not as common as people think: boldness. Leaders must now be ready and able to make big decisions about how their institutions are run, what is working and what is not, what innovations to embrace etc.  
  • Commitment and a willingness to take on the process of change – not least because a lot of the decisions and changes we need to make in school take time. 


Carla Caviness: The key traits leaders should possess are good communication skills, empathy, and resilience. Excellent communication skills are essential for leaders as they help them clearly articulate their vision while effectively communicating with a diverse range of stakeholders. Empathy helps leaders to understand and relate to the needs, challenges, and perspectives of others, which fosters trust and enhances collaboration, thus cultivating a culture of collaboration and inclusion. Lastly, leaders should be resilient. Resilience will help leaders manage and overcome challenges, maintain their focus and commitment, and remain positive and optimistic in the face of adversity. These skills have helped me to effectively address complex challenges, build relationships, and inspire others to achieve their full potential, and they are key traits that will support aspiring leaders.  


Nilay Özral: For me, some of the most important leadership traits include being ethical, trustworthy, and having the ability to develop as well as empower others. Ultimately, leaders should hold themselves to the highest standards and lead by example. The ability to identify talent and, more importantly, potential, is key to building high-performing and happy teams where risk-taking and creativity is fostered, resulting in a forward-thinking and solution-focused culture that delivers results. 


Omolola Wright-Odusoga: My response will highlight those areas of personal strength that women can exploit in their varied leadership roles. I will define those areas of influence in terms of their 'power’. We need to harness the powers of a clear vision, creativity and competence. Exemplary leadership rides on the vehicle of an enabling vision. Leadership must be spiced with the flavor of creativity. Without competence, a leader is not worthy of that appellation. Next, we need the powers of versatility, resilience, purpose, focus and courage. Without these five key attributes, the vessel of leadership becomes an empty one. Then, we need the powers of compassion, charisma and intellect. Ultimately, the most powerful component of effective leadership, one that is totally reflective of the intrinsic spirit of feminine generosity, is the power of emotional intelligence that makes a leader genuinely sensitive to the needs of others. 


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

Nilay Özral: I am not sure that the education sector is very different to other industries in that gender biases and stereotyping can heavily influence and limit a professional woman’s aspirations.  Changing the mindset of women is fundamental, as self-doubt regarding ability and the natural tendency to be less assertive than male counterparts can often result in women being overlooked when opportunities present themselves. It also goes without saying that the stereotype of a woman’s responsibility being primarily to their family cannot be understated; even now the upkeep of the home and the family primarily falls on women’s shoulders, which either forces women to choose between their career and their family or results in them feeling guilty if they put their job first. The education sector is in a slightly better position than most industries, purely because there are significantly more female teachers (particularly in elementary settings) and therefore there is more female talent available and visible to hiring leaders. There are certainly plenty of opportunities!  


Carla Caviness: There are several barriers, including historical and societal biases, that women face when looking to ascend to a leadership position in the international sector. Structural barriers include limited access to professional development opportunities or a need for more transparent and equitable processes for promotion and advancement. To address these barriers and promote gender equity in the international education sector, it is important to promote diversity and inclusion, provide supportive networks and mentorship opportunities, and implement policies and programmes that support women and minorities in leadership positions. 


Tracy Moxley: It is certainly true that in recent years more women have held executive management and leadership positions, but even today only 15% of women are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and there are around 30% in CEO or MD positions across all businesses. I still believe that many of the same barriers exist for women as they did before; for instance, old stereotypes of women being ‘soft’ or not ‘strong’ or ‘tough’ enough to make the necessary business decisions. I do not feel that women have access to the same opportunities as men and there is usually a significant difference in salary for the same role and responsibilities. 

There are many inspirational women leading in the international education sector; however, there is often a man in ultimate control who is usually positioned hierarchically above them. 

I believe that education is more equitable than other employment areas, but women still must do more to become as successful as their male counterparts. 


Omolola Wright-Odusoga: In the international education sector, the challenge that immediately resonates with me is work-life balance. This is because the average woman with a family would seem to be working two shifts simultaneously. I will, however, draw on my own experience. The first barrier in the international sector is usually cultural. One must quickly adjust to new norms and nuances such as language, accent, inflection, and distinct ways of communicating. At another level, one is in a new environment where people do things differently. This will entail relating with people from different cultural backgrounds, such as school leaders, supervisory authorities, policy makers, parents, staff, and the students themselves.  


Sandra Tichagwa: The path to leadership is often linear and as such more suited to men. This points directly to the social disadvantages and expectations that women have to juggle which results in them missing out on opportunities. The leadership path for women is often non-linear; can the expected steps to leadership in education be disrupted so we can take this into account? The other big barrier is unpalatable and very much a part of the landscape: namely, the old boys’ club. Opportunities are given to a few and all too often are based on where you are from, your connections, and who you know. Self-efficacy and self-doubt are also issues for women in leadership. Fascinating research (Take a “Selfie”: Examining How Leaders Emerge from Leader Self-Awareness, Self-Leadership, and Self-Efficacy) has examined how a leader’s self- awareness and development process has a positive correlation on the follower’s emergence as a leader. As we grow as leaders, let’s keep an eye on who else is coming up with us. 


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

Sandra Tichagwa: I have been watching with interest the growth of High Performance Learning, an education system that supports just that: high performance for all its students. Though the concept seems quite obvious, it was and still remains quite radical for most. The idea that we do not categorise our students by ability but instead create an environment where they all perform. Professor Deborah Eyre is challenging the norm and asking all of us to rethink how we organize our curriculum and schools so we are not ‘rationing success’. From years of conducting extensive research and experience, Deborah Eyre identified something that was wrong with the system and had the courage to call it out.  


Omolola Wright-Odusoga: Generally, most women in the international education sector constantly strive to make a difference in their field. A few names come to mind, including Kam Chohan and Judith Drotar. I have drawn tremendous inspiration from these women who have had extensive exposure in the international education sector. As the world continually undergoes change, educators must stay relevant in order to prepare students for the rapidly expanding world and skills needed to be successful. As educators, we are no longer just distributors of information. Rather, we are now interpreters, decoders, and analysers of information, as these are the critical thinking skills needed in the twenty-first century classroom and beyond. 


Tracy Moxley: Let me first say that I admire every woman in an educational leadership position, and I am in awe of my female colleagues and everything that they do every day in their schools. Gloria Jean Watkins, better known as bell hooks, was a social activist who was Distinguished Professor in Residence at Berea College. I have always been inspired by her writing and insights on race, feminism and class. Veronica Boix-Mansilla is another phenomenal woman in international education for her work on global competence, PISA assessment and many pedagogical tools and frameworks to support educators. Her work on interdisciplinary pedagogy is ground-breaking. Angela Duckworth and her work on growth mindset, grit and resilience is exemplary. Sheikha Shamma bint Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan is an accomplished leader and a significant role model for young women and girls in the UAE. She is a pioneer in sustainability, philanthropy and gender equity in business. 


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

Nilay Özral: Actually, I have never had a formal mentor, but I have certainly learned a lot from my bosses in the past as I never failed to ask plenty of questions during my working career to make sure I fully understand the industries I have worked in and what success looks like. I have, however, formally mentored many colleagues and I am so proud of what they have achieved.  But I do not limit myself to formal arrangements as I see every interaction that I have with people as a learning or mentoring opportunity. Developing people is one of my greatest passions and seeing people grow in confidence and ability is truly satisfying – I don’t think I could stop even if I had to!  


Omolola Wright-Odusoga: Most people that I have worked with during a most remarkable career have contributed in many ways to my educational leadership journey. I have learnt so much from them, and it is my sincere belief that I will continue to learn from such wonderful individuals as they continue to cross my path on this leadership journey. Yet, I am sincerely compelled to single out one person for mention. That remarkable individual is my own mother. My mother was an educator of pre-eminent renown who ran her own school with such a combination of rare professionalism, sheer competence and uncommon devotion, that I was left with little choice than to toe her path by carving out a niche career in the education sector. 


Tracy Moxley: I do – too many to mention! Over the years, many colleagues have inspired me and helped me grow into leadership. I have learned so much from each of them. 


Carla Caviness: I have several experienced and knowledgeable individuals who have provided guidance, support, and advice to me throughout my career. They have offered insights and perspectives on leadership, shared experiences and lessons learned, and helped me to navigate challenges and identify opportunities for growth within my professional practice and personal life. In my first year of teaching, my principal took me under her wing to show me the ropes and how to navigate the workplace after college. She taught me the dos and don’ts, and supported me through mistakes, challenges, and difficult conversations. These experiences have shaped how I support others through coaching and being a mentee. As a mentee, I provide a safe and supportive environment for aspiring leaders to reflect on their leadership style, explore new ideas, and receive constructive feedback. Through this relationship, new leaders and aspiring leaders gain new perspectives, learn from my international experiences, and develop the skills and confidence needed to grow as leaders. Overall, the mentor-mentee/coaching relationship provides a valuable opportunity for growth, learning, and development as leaders and individuals. 


Sandra Tichagwa: I have grown immensely thanks to both my mentors and my mentees. Over the years I have been fortunate to have other leaders either working directly with me on initiatives who have guided me, and I have also had a brilliant mentor on one of the leadership courses that I took. My mentor gave valuable advice and were selfless when it came to their time and sharing freely, which is something that I try to emulate with my mentees. My mentors were mostly women and this was often done informally. I attribute all that I have achieved to these women. I now work with a few mentees who are all aspiring to be leaders in different capacities within international schools; this has been hugely beneficial as I continue to learn from their perspectives and gain a lot of personal satisfaction from seeing them grow. My current mentees are both women working in international schools with immense leadership potential; however, they are also facing the same challenges that I have encountered. 


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

Tracy Moxley: Follow your dreams – not somebody else’s. You can achieve anything if you have a singularity of mind. Keep at it when the going gets tough and do not listen to the nay-sayers of this world. There will always be haters; always believe in yourself and your own abilities. 


Sandra Tichagwa: Never lose sight of one’s capacity to grow one small step at a time. Never overlook any opportunity to learn. 


Omolola Wright-Odusoga: Subscribe to a proven process of personal and interpersonal growth that will have a lifetime impact, and such that you can define clear measures of your future success and create a plan to achieve them for both your life and work. Prioritise and achieve your most important goals, develop innovative solutions to challenges, and collaborate more effectively with others by building value-based relationships. 


Nilay Özral: I am fortunate enough to have always been extremely confident and I chased every opportunity presented to me but, in retrospect, this has impacted my own work-life balance, although I made extra effort to ensure the time that I spent with my family was meaningful and rewarding. 


Carla Caviness: Embrace and celebrate your unique identity, heritage, and culture, which includes recognising and valuing the distinct qualities that make you who you are. Celebrate your identity and culture by connecting with your community, learning about your history, and simply incorporating elements of your culture into your daily life. By embracing and celebrating your identity, you also create a sense of belonging and purpose. This will help to increase your self-esteem, resilience, and overall well-being. Always embrace and celebrate your unique identity and heritage, the value you bring to the world, and your unique contribution to society. 


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

Omolola Wright-Odusoga: It is my fervent hope that educators will sincerely consider our joint enterprise as rare, fulfilling, and certainly one of which we should all be proud, even as we continually strive to make our individual and collective contribution to best practices in the international education sector. Beyond all that, educators need to keep themselves informed to have a deeper understanding of the culture of their working environment. They need to be aware of all the facets and perspectives needed to make informed decisions in schools. Such key decisions include the choice of school curriculum, and, most importantly, issues attendant to the recruitment process. 


Carla Caviness: My hope for the future of the international education sector includes Innovation, Accessibility, Sustainability, and Equity. By integrating new technologies, pedagogical approaches, and learning models, the quality of education internationally will provide students with the skills they need to be innovative and ready for the future. I hope that there will be a continued focus on making education accessible and inclusive for all, regardless of gender, race, socio-economic status, or location, while promoting equity and reducing disparities in educational outcomes and opportunities. 


Sandra Tichagwa: In most parts of the world international schools are in a better position than most since they have better access to teachers, resources etc. I would love to see international schools partnering with less privileged schools to share best practices, offer coaching and mentoring, and to share or donate resources that are no longer required. Initiatives such as ISC Research offer an opportunity through the International Schools Awards for schools to showcase how school initiatives can be far reaching and have a tangible impact on their local community. An opportunity to ‘bring up’ another school, its staff and entire student body will have such a great impact for years to come. I guess my hope is to see all the amazing work being done in international schools have a wider impact, so that we can start to address the gaps in learning between the haves and the have-nots. 


Tracy Moxley: I would love to see a much more collaborative approach in the sector rather than a competitive one. I do think that educators can have a profound impact for good when they come together around a cause, a problem, or an issue, whether it is directly related to education or in a wider context. 


Nilay Özral: Of course, we all want to be confident that every school delivers an outstanding education to our children, but I would like to see greater focus on developing the whole child, teaching all our children how to succeed in the real world, and ensuring that gender no longer limits the aspirations of our female students. 

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.