Right At School Blog

When Women Lead: 9 Ways to Empower Women for Leadership (Part 1 of 2)

How do we clear a path for more women to become leaders in the educational system?
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By Dr. Dawn Bridges, Vice President of Educational Affairs

This summer, I attended Voice4Equity’s first annual When Women Lead (WWL) Summit in Vancouver, Washington. On the event website, Voice4Equity summarized the challenge we face:

“Across many sectors, women still do not have equitable access to chief executive leadership roles and influential boards. This often leads to more male leaning perspectives in decision-making that can create unintended biases in policies, services, and opportunities that impact our clients, customers, community and even employees.”

The national summit brought together leading women executives in the education field to discuss gender and racial equity, policy leadership, and educational technology equity.

During the WWL Summit, we explored an array of topics, such as:

  • How do we support and elevate women leaders?
  • How do we diversify the landscape of the superintendency and key district roles?
  • How do we change policy and who’s making policy in education?

After reflecting on the conference sessions and my conversations with presenters and participants — including superintendents, assistant superintendents, principals, and technology leaders — I left with several takeaways about how we can all help empower women for leadership.

Below are the first three. I’ll cover the remaining six in my next post.

Find — or become — a sponsor.

In education, many leaders are willing to be a mentor, but few are willing to be a sponsor. While mentors and sponsors have some similarities, they offer different kinds of assistance.

First, let’s look at the similarities. Both mentors and sponsors:

  • Have significant experience.
  • Can provide insights and advice on career paths.
  • Can help mentees build and grow their professional networks.

Now for the differences:



When I was a principal and decided to pursue a district leadership role, I had plenty of mentors but no sponsor. While I achieved my goal and went on to become an assistant superintendent, the path could have been smoother if I had an advocate like many of my male counterparts did.

Being a sponsor can make all the difference in the world for someone who is fighting against stereotypes and outdated ideas about what a leader looks or sounds like.

Overcome imposter syndrome.

In 1978, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Ament Imes published an article about the imposter phenomenon in high-achieving women. Subsequent research has shown that this phenomenon affects a wide range of people.

According to Psychology Today, research suggests that around:
  • 25-30% of high achievers may suffer from imposter syndrome.
  • 70% of adults may experience impostorism at least once in their lifetime.

The first step to overcoming imposter syndrome is to stop the negative self-talk. Be kind to yourself. Write a post-it that says, “I am enough,” and stick it on your mirror. Think about what your worth is, not what your flaws are. Focus on what you do that you know makes a difference.

Instead of worrying about proving your naysayers wrong, focus on proving your mentors and sponsors right.

(The children in our schools should also be taught to understand their worth, to appreciate who they are, and to realize that they are enough. But that’s a topic for another post!)

Break boundaries.

Playing within the boundaries of a rigged game doesn’t get us (or anyone) where we need to go. Sometimes we need to look at what’s truly important, stand tall, and do the difficult work required to change beliefs, traditions, and rules that hold us back.

To be continued in my next post …
Dr. Dawn Bridges
Dr. Dawn Bridges

Dr. Dawn Bridges has over 25 years of experience in the fields of education and professional learning, having held the roles of teacher, reading specialist, special education coordinator, principal, and assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. She has dedicated her career to ensuring that all students have the support they need to thrive in and out of school. You can follow Dr. Bridges on LinkedIn and Twitter and subscribe to the RAS blog to keep up with her work.

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