You Can’t Be What You Can’t See: Mentorship, Networks, and Women’s Leadership in Education

Women's Leadership Incubator Moving Mountains Graphic

Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” While many K-16 women educators do the physical and emotional work of leading, a disproportionately small number of them are recognized for it. Even though they comprise 80% of K-12 teachers, only 50% of public school principals and 31% of independent school heads are women. Less than one-third of university and college presidents are women.

Given this disparity, what can we do to elevate more women into formal positions of educational leadership? A recent study by Yang, Chalwa, and Uzzi at Northwestern University showed that access to an all-female network was the single most important factor in career success for women. If we want to get more women in leadership, networking and mentoring are essential components.

Sarah Odell is the co-founder of the Women’s Leadership Incubator, a year-long cohort experience in which women educators and their allies are empowered to leverage their own strengths in becoming transformative leaders.

“A mentor can be a key to unlocking the mystery behind positions and how people gain access to them as well as someone who encourages you to go after a position,” said Odell. “Mentors can demonstrate pathways that are often hidden.”

According to Odell, the Women’s Leadership Incubator challenges traditional, hierarchical mentorship relationships that center around a mentor bestowing advice upon a mentee. These models derive from male-dominated spaces.

“Women often need a listener as much as someone to tell them what to do,” said Odell.

Three Characteristics of a Good Mentor

  1. Trust: “You cannot have an effective mentor relationship without trust, and trust takes time. Networking will give you the opportunity to meet a lot of different people who care about the same thing that you do. But finding the right mentor won’t happen immediately.”
  2. Outsider’s Perspective: “I personally believe it’s important to have a mentor outside of your organization. That way, you can have more honest conversations with them without fear of professional fallout.”
  3. Reflective Listening: “You also want someone who listens and only offers advice when solicited. If a way forward worked for them, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for you. Good mentors are thought partners who can work through a problem with you and offer advice when you need it.”

When reaching out to a prospective mentor, Odell suggests asking in person, if possible. Email, social media, phone calls, and video conferencing platforms can also be useful tools.

“Let them know who you are and what you care about, explain why you are drawn to them as a mentor, and make your intentions clear as a way to show respect for their time,” advises Odell. “I think people are usually flattered when you ask if they will mentor you.”

One of the primary goals of the Women’s Leadership Incubator is to take away the opaqueness of how organizational structures work and how women can leverage their own strengths to move into leadership positions. A mentor can offer insights that are otherwise only discovered the hard way.

Learn more about mentorship at the Women’s Leadership Incubator—coming in July.