This interview with Dr. Karen Edge appears as the fourth installment in a yearlong series on the public scholarship of women in education leadership.
Karen Edge is the Pro Vice Provost (International) at University College London (UCL) and Reader in Educational Leadership at the UCL Institute of Education in London, UK. Karen is an academic and advocate committed to asking new questions to shake up how policy and educational leaders think about educational opportunities and challenges. Karen’s latest international research project was funded by the ESRC (UK) and engaged 60+ Generation X school leaders in London, New York and Toronto in exploring their careers, leadership and future aspirations. She is a member of the six-person Advisory Panel for International School Leadership Principals and a visiting academic in Canada, Malaysia and Chile. Karen is Past Editor-in-Chief of Educational Assessment Evaluation and Accountability and sits on the Editorial Boards of School Leadership and Management and Leadership and Policy in Schools. Karen regularly gives talks and support organizations in relation to knowledge management, leadership, networks, talent spotting, retention and wellbeing. Karen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @drkarenedge
In this interview Dr. Edge shares how she developed an interest in education leadership, and how her current research has helped her to see the importance of role modeling and talent spotting for women in education. Edge believes that we are seeing a new willingness to make conversations around these and other topics more public, which can help us to move forward in a way that’s better for everybody.
On discovering an interest in leadership
I was a lifeguard at a very young age. When I was 16 got promoted and was responsible for two other lifeguards. I took my leadership role very seriously! I went to my dad and said, “I need some theory to go with my leadership practice.” My dad looked at me without laughing, thankfully, and handed me the rather massive Organizational Behaviour textbook (Hershey and Blanchard) and a Tom Peters leadership book. He said, “Read these.” So I read them very seriously and set about applying theory to my practice. The next year, I supervised 5 lifeguards and the next year 60 lifeguards. The next year, I was responsible for the professional development of 250+ lifeguards. I had to learn very quickly about professional development, about how adults learn and how you convince people to do something that they may not want to do. I had my first taste of leading but also leading learning and I was hooked!
When I went to university I almost studied opera and jazz voice. When realized that it was probably a difficult career path, I chose science because it would be the greatest challenge. Three years into my Biology and Environmental Science degree at Western University in Canada, I realized I didn’t want to do honors studies in science. So, I switched to educational psychology and looked at girls’ attitudes towards science. Before graduating I was offered a job within the office responsible for improving teaching across the university. I worked tutoring professors individually and delivering large training sessions on how to make your university classrooms instructionally exciting. I also developed initiatives to support new professors in learning about teaching.
After a year, I began my Masters in Higher Education Policy at the University of Toronto. As I was looking through the course book, thinking of all the different things I wanted to do, I found Ken Leithwood’s profile and a list of his courses and research projects. Ken’s work appeared to bring many of my core interests together and spoke to my interest in learning and leadership. I cold called Ken, who is one of the most significant scholars in education leadership, and said, “I know nothing about qualitative research. I’m a scientist. If I work for you for free, can you teach me things?” He very smartly said, “Yes,” and we started working together. We worked together for about four years on a book and a variety of research projects. My work with Ken sparked my transition from higher education into educational leadership. Before starting my PhD, I worked at the World Bank in Educational Reform Unit in Washington, DC and then returned to the University of Toronto to start my PhD. During my PhD I ran a small research/strategy consultancy and worked for a short time as the Senior Policy Advisor to the Minister of Education in Ontario. My current job at UCL Institute of Education was my first choice of a job–worldwide! I was very lucky to get the job within a month of finishing my PhD. I have been here for just ten years.
I currently work at the University College of London, Institute of Education. I am a Reader, which is an Associate Professor in North American terms. When I came here, I took over leadership of the Masters Program. I did a lot of teaching and a lot of international scholarship work. At the moment, I am just finishing up the writing of the study I’ve been leading called Young Global City Leaders, which was looking at under 40-year-old, Generation X, principals in London, New York, and Toronto. It was quite amazing because we got to spend probably a month, a year, in each of the cities to collect our data and spend time with leaders and policy makers.
On women in education leadership: Young Global City Leaders
At the moment, we’re sharing the findings from our GenX Global City Leaders study. We are running workshops and giving keynotes both in the UK and internationally. There is quite a lot of interest in the women in leadership findings from the study. We did not design the research to focus on woman leaders, but it became very clear across all three cities that there remain specific issues facing woman leaders. We were surprised that there remain several key challenges facing women leaders. These issues were enough for us to focus a bit more on the gender differences between our participants and ask more in-depth questions about women and leadership.
One of the things that was really interesting was we asked a lot of questions about some of what we were interested in—how they experience their careers, how they became interested in leadership, what their experience being leaders has been like, and what they wanted to be when they grew up. Across the three cities woman leaders had different kinds of experiences. For example, we asked questions about breadwinning. In New York, what is considered breadwinning is completely different than what is considered breadwinning in Ontario and in England.
One of the things we wanted to know more about was if women leaders were staying in their roles due to breadwinning duties for their families. Our conception of breadwinning, based in Canada and the UK was strictly tied to money. However, it turned out that in New York breadwinning was not related solely to money but jobs that provided health care and pensions. We found the pressures on women leaders are different in different countries with, for example, massive differences in maternity leave. In Ontario, you can get almost a year paid leave. Here in England, you get 16-weeks as a minimum paid with smaller minimal government subsidies for up to a year. In New York, maternity leave is often simply six weeks of unpaid illness leave. In terms of the influence of maternity leave means for women in the profession, there is a big difference. We don’t talk about those issues very often when we look at comparative studies of how different jurisdictions are performing on international tests. But, if you were to look at the maternity leave policies in the countries that did consistently well, I think you would see some stark similarities that you wouldn’t necessarily anticipate. It may very well be that in countries that are not performing as well, women are treated less equally or that parenthood is considered to be an illness or not requiring time off with family.
The second very interesting finding was that almost all leaders we spoke with said they had worked with great leadership role models. However, almost all participating leaders had never had great role models for being a person outside of work as well. Role modeling work-life balance is something that isn’t happening very often. We believe this may be one of the reasons why leaders are not stepping up to formal school leadership roles. It was more of an issue for the women leaders that we talked to. But, it was also more than just a lack of role models. For some women, their worry about being able to have a life beyond school was interfering with their own personal choices. For example, in London, there was a small handful of women who said to us, “I’m waiting until the inspectors come before I’m going to try and get pregnant because I don’t want to not be here when my school goes through inspection.”
In each city we worked in, a different level of the system is responsible for hiring and developing school leaders. In New York and Ontario, a school district is responsible for school-level staffing. In London, every school hires their own head teacher. So, if a London-based headteacher gets pregnant, the school governing body comprised of parents and community members has to hire a replacement. In London, there were quite a few women who said that they had been asked during interviews if they were going to have babies. It is illegal but it still happens during the breaks and coffees. These are examples of the kinds of issues that were very much women’s issues. We felt they deserved more attention.
What I think is really interesting is that there is the bigger set of complications. Conversations about women in leadership used to be about what women needed to do to be seen as the leaders. I think we are now entering an age where the conversation needs to shift to what are things that are happening in the system that may be institutionally getting in the way of woman being successful? But it’s not just women. We also need to consider how the experience of a white woman, a white straight woman, would be radically different than a woman who identifies as LGBT or a person of color. Not all experiences are the same and we need all leaders in our education systems for them to be successful. This is not happening, in my opinion, to the extent necessary at the moment.
On role modeling
We have learned a lot about role modeling. I’ve put a lot of my energy over the last couple of months is trying to refine our conversation of what a role model looks like. Quite often people talk about leaders they worked with ensuring their teachers had good work-life balance. Even if a leader was telling teachers, “You need to go home at 6:00,” they were not taking care of themselves OR demonstrating how it was possible to be a role model for leadership with a health work/life balance. We have learned that, for leaders, it’s not enough to encourage others to do it. You need to be very specific about your love of your job, you need to say it out load. You need to be explicit about how you have a life beyond work. If you look haggard, worried, upset and stressed out all the time, it’s problematic for the future of the profession….. because no one is going to want your job.
We’ve tried to flip discussions of retention and say to head teachers and principals that “if you do not make your job look attractive, no one’s going to want it”. Based on the conditions in many school systems, we are not surprised that leaders aren’t taking care of themselves and are saying the job is too much and not possible. However, our study has taught us that leaders with work/life balance have made individual choices to change their lives, be healthy and be a role model for others. We now talk to leaders about their own work/life balance being key to recruitment of future leaders. We say to leaders, “Individually, you all have a responsibility for being the kind of person that helps people stay in the system. If you love your job, say so. If you have a life, talk about it—at least sometimes.” Now, I get emails from principals that we’ve talked to saying, “Okay, I started going home. I started talking about the fact that I’m going to the gym. I started saying ‘I love my job.'” In our experience, leaders will never take care of themselves because their duty is to their teachers and students. However, if the future of the field is on the line…..there is enough incentive to possible get back on a more balanced track.
On talent spotting
Another interesting finding from the GenX study has been the role of talent spotting. Most leaders said that someone had tapped them on the shoulder to say you should be a leader. When we talk to our GEnX leaders about nurturing talent, almost all said, “Yes, I talent spot others.” But when we started to drill down about who they talent spot, many leaders spot people like them. Same behavior, same attitude, same background. The issue then remains that if you’re only talent spotting people like you, are you actually diversifying the system? No. So we developed some resources for leaders to start being quite critical about whose shoulders they are tapping and how to make sure that someone who is quieter and doesn’t behave the way that they may have is getting the same opportunity to shine as an educational leader. Again, we are really thrilled with the response and the evidence is making a difference on the ground!
Due to a lack of healthy work/life balance (which was not lost on me!), I came down with pneumonia about a year and a half ago. On the same time both of my laptops died—the kind of computer death where the screen looks like a lightning bolt screen across the screen. They just fizzled. And I thought, “Oh no! I’m stuck in the house for three weeks with no laptop.”
However, I did have an iPad so decided use my time wisely, messing about on and learning about Twitter. So, I came to Twitter through bad work/life balance, which is a good lesson in itself! In my observation, the conversation around gender and leadership started with a growing discussion about women academics and teaching evaluations where they will be judged more harshly by student evaluations than their male colleagues. The conversation probably then switched, in my eyes, when Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote her article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” It really made me start to think about what kind of roles I wanted both at work and at home with our young son. I also started to think about what kind of role model I wanted to be. For me, it’s not about people who choose to work at home or our of the home but the respect that everyone deserves for their choices. It’s not about whether you’re the “lead” parent. It’s more about people being able to have the choice.
More recently, I have been engaged in conversations on Twitter around women and educational leadership. We were funded by BELMAS, which is the British Education and Leadership Management Conference, to hold a conference on woman and leadership. We advertised that conference mostly on Twitter- just before the #womenED discussion started. We got involved, in some ways, by observing the bigger conversations around universities and work/life in general and then taking a step into the water ourselves by saying, “We have some really interesting evidence and we think by bringing unions, fast-track organizations, academics, and leaders themselves together.” We had 60 people who came to the conference that day. My goal was to form an alliance in the UK to bring together different organizations working to support leaders across the country. The Leading Women Alliance emerged formally that day and have also hosted a conference and are planning a new way forward.
I see a number of shared experiences among women in universities and schools and in policy communities. I think what’s changing is there’s a willingness to make some of those conversations that have historically been private, or that people worried about on their own, more public. It’s not to make anyone feel bad but it’s to try to move the systems forward in a way that’s better for everybody. I think that’s what Twitter has done. There are people who are amazing at bringing people together to deepen and widen the discussion. Many have been featured in Esteem interviews: Alma Harris, Carol Campbell, Andrea Stringer. Together, we are much stronger and can have a truly global reach and influence. It is an exciting time.