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Women in Leadership: Examining Our History is Key To Support

women in leadership
(Image credit: Unsplash: Kiana Bosman)

Often, when I enter spaces, someone will ask me, “How did you get here?” Not literally how I got  there, but figuratively. In other words, “What was your path to leadership?” I usually pause and say something along the lines of, “I prioritize curiosity.” 

I have always been a curious person. Growing up in Prince George’s County, Maryland, my parents enrolled me in a book subscription service as a youngster in an effort to support my voracious curiosity for a wide variety of subjects. My experiences growing up also helped me understand the complexity of inequity and access. As a result, I lead unapologetically from the influences and experiences grounded in my education, my family, my community, and my history. I also understand that I have consumed ideas that are racist and biased, and I must do the hard work to interrogate those beliefs and behaviors. When leading, coaching, and serving others, I remain constantly curious.

This curiosity inevitably leads me to an exploration of individual and collective histories. Through my work in large and small organizations, I have found that the histories of the individuals and the histories of the organization serve as the foundation to decisions and structures. Said another way, individual and organizational histories serve as the soil from which concepts, decisions, policies, practices, rules, regulations, and discretion grow, and ensure that those individuals and systems continue to function in the way they were created. James Baldwin said it best when he commented in Ebony Magazine’s August 1965 article, The White Man’s Guilt: “On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” I believe it would be foolish to imagine that a problem being presented is new, novel and unique. It was forged in history.

I have spent more than 25 years of my life working in the education sector. Through my observations, one consistent problem of practice has been around the lack of women in senior leadership positions.  

It is important to note that education is not an outlier regarding this problem. Education is unique, however, when considering the number of women serving in teaching roles, for example, is not proportionate to the number of women in senior leadership roles. While 54% of public school principals identified as female in 2017-18, a 10% increase from 1999-2000, and the number of white principals decreased by 4% during those same years, this slow growth trajectory guarantees limited opportunities for women in general, and women of color in particular, into senior leadership positions.  

The solution to this problem of practice is not on the backs of the women seeking senior leadership roles. Organizations have to transform the way they seek, support, encourage, and amplify talent.  Evidence to support this type of transformation is grounded in their history. It all came from somewhere.  

When coaching individuals and organizations, I work with them to unpack their practices, identify where in their histories the problem began, and then systematically change the behavior. Through these actions, we are able to dismantle the inequitable elements and reimagine a new system that drives toward intended outcomes.  

This style of leadership and coaching is hard work. Some might say “staying curious” is time consuming. However, if we don’t do this hard, time-consuming work, we will surely replicate the systems and the thinking we are trying to disrupt.  

Dr. Brandy Nelson is Executive Director, Learning and Teaching, Secondary, for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, and the founder/CEO of Nelson Roots.