Is Diversity in Leadership an Illusion in International Education?

The concept of diversity is being discussed in boardrooms and realised, to an extent, throughout offices worldwide. Inclusion and diversity roles are becoming more frequent and in-demand. Whether this is happening after carefully engineered appointments or genuine efforts to support hybridity[1], some notable companies[2] are realising that “diversity can drive innovation”[3], which can promote economic success and healthier work environments. Detractors may be fatigued with the term “diversity”, as it connotes ideas of political correctness. In turn those who are marginalised and endorsed by "diversity campaigns" can often feel singled-out and coerced into being the face of diversity in their workplaces: on show but silenced. Nevertheless, there is a surplus of evidence that supports diversity, particularly in areas where it is needed the most, such as in education. It is no illusion that diversity is important from a young age. Educational institutions need to set an example, so that young people can feel empowered and embrace the values of tolerance. Yet, it seems the international education sector has a lot of catching up to do.

Apparently, some parts the business world have discovered that inherent and acquired diversity[4] in leadership can promote positive gains. It has been revealed that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15 percent more likely to have financial returns and those in the top quartile for racial/ethnic diversity were 30 percent more likely to have financial success[5]. Although success in education is not measured via financial indicators this research can help us understand how motivation, respect, assessment targets and teamwork can be developed via championing diversity. These are all aspects that any organisation desires and as the world adapts to change, a school as its microcosm, should follow suit.

Leadership positions seem to be static within the international education sector with barely any recognition for diversity. Competency is obviously important in educational leadership and making hires due to diversity quotas or otherwise is a naïve step, but it is also misguided to assume there are not different kinds of people to fill these kinds of positions. Besides, nurturing an array of talent should always override any assumptions made on any new hire's token or assumed "diverseness". Additionally, stagnation in educational leadership is alarming because in spite of the multicultural and multilingual aspects of students and staff that compose these environments, the same faces and cultures are at the helm. You only have to look at the promotional materials of the top international schools to realise the inertia: plenty of difference in the student body, plenty homogeneity on the organogram, on the photos and in the biographies. There are hardly any leaders from multiple ethnicities, ages, genders or religions. Furthermore, representation of differently-abled people or those in the LGBTQ+ community in educational leadership is near non-existent. People from all walks of life are present in all work environments including international schools. Where is their representation in educational leadership? Slowly, other sectors of society and business are seeming to recognise that “diversity is an essential component of team composition”[6], but all too often final decisions seem to fall into the same hands.

There are many factors that could hinder diverse leadership appointments in international schools, such as pressure from stakeholders, tradition and unconscious or conscious bias[7]. The top international schools throughout the world follow virtually identical ethea and the leaders are predominantly cis-male, able-bodied, middle-aged and of European descent. It is hard to find an exception, yet research proves that equality and “equity amongst leadership of an educational organisation…is vital”[8] due to their propensity to display equality for learners and staff members. There needs to be more variance to encourage positive conflict, which can promote authentic sharing and a feeling of security amongst all members of the school community.

Arguably, some international schools have echoes of imperialism rattling throughout their corridors; doubling down on Western ideologies. To some extent this can be understood, sure the labour market that their students will face is still predominately “Western” but it does not mean they have to ignore their own cultures. The pedagogy, customs, language policies, gender-bias and dress codes of some schools can inhibit and deny the very people they are meant to serve. Moreover, private-international schools often exist within a bubble meaning they are not influenced by government policies, such as the “London Challenge”[9]that could help school improvement. Ironically, some rely on monochromatic, tried and tested ideas, which contradicts the ever-changing international school environment.

These factors can lower esteem in staff and students who do not ascribe to a particular mould, making them possibly feel that they cannot be influential nor progressive. It might even encourage certain members of the school community to reject educational systems, which could be the reason that there is a lack of specific demographic groups[10][11] that are seeking to work within the educational sector. Invisible glass ceilings can make these groups can feel muted, resulting in the same voices enforcing the same policies.

Embracing diversity in leadership can be highly beneficial to an international school environment for multiple reasons but one that is paramount is recognition. There are plenty of schools that are moving forward with inclusive student admissions policies, but this needs to be reflected in their personnel recruitment processes - less writing; more action. We have all seen the "we are an equal opportunities employer" spiel tagged onto the end of job applications, but it is often not the reality and some schools still demand résumés with photos. If parents, pupils and other stakeholders see people in leadership positions who have inherent or acquired diversity they may also see themselves. Diversity is not symbolic, it is empowering and liberating. It is a proven method for enhancement and productivity at schools and elsewhere. International schools ideally need to represent the world in their leadership not just in their student population. Educational leaders make decisions that go beyond the confines of a classroom and the decisions they make inform future leaders upon their moral, socio-ideological standpoints.

It is about time we practice what we teach.

[1] In Theory Bakhtin: Dialogism, Polyphony and Heteroglossia Andrew Robinson (July 2011)

[2] Google Diversity Annual Report Melonie Parker (2019)

[3] How Diversity Can Drive Innovation by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Melinda Marshall, and Laura Sherbin (December 2013)

[4] Diversity and Leadership in a Changing World, Eagly and Chin (April 2010)

[5] Diversity Matters, Vivian Hunt Dennis Layton Sara Prince (November 2014)

[6] Leadership Principles – Harvard Business School, Margolis and Mayo (2019)

[7] Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan (September 2004)

[8] Leadership and Diversity: Challenging Theory and Practice in Education Jacky Lumby, Marianne Coleman (2007)

[9] Understanding the success of London’s schools, Simon Burgess (2014)

[10] Discrimination in the Teacher Labor Market, DIANA D’AMICO (2017)

[11] Visible Minorities, Invisible Teachers – The Runnymede Trust, Dr Zubaida Haque (2016)

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