An important resource

Chintan Girish Modi

N. Mythili, Assistant Professor at the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, is an expert in school education with 18 years of professional experience.


When she found that women’s leadership in schools has not attracted the attention of many scholars and practitioners, she decided to pursue the subject on her own. Her interest in women who are headmistresses, head teachers, principals and vice principals led her to work on a book titled Women in School Leadership, which was published by SAGE India in 2019.

She writes, “Interestingly, several studies on women leaders are available in the context of Arab countries, Israel, Pakistan and Africa, which are also traditional societies, and most of them are developing countries like India. It was amply clear that women’s school leadership is an unexplored area in the Indian context…a category that is distinct from teachers.”


Dr. Mythili’s study is multi-disciplinary in nature. It draws on theoretical frameworks from economics, sociology, psychology, gender studies and education. While reading the available literature, she came across a lot of research on gender discrimination and barriers to women’s leadership but not much on what has enabled women to succeed as leaders in patriarchal contexts. This book is an attempt to fill in those gaps.


It opens with the author’s poem to honour her mother, who “does not know about gender or leadership/yet she is sensitive to gender and is a leader for us all.” Titled ‘To My Mother’, it shows readers that women in leadership roles need not follow any template or trajectory laid out by others. They may carve out their own unique path. Dr. Mythili’s mother, for example, “does not lead from the front/ but others look up to her, keeping in the front.”


This poem sets an appropriate tone for a book invested in the voices of women from the field. The author interviewed 20 school leaders, between the ages of 32 and 53, for her study – five from Delhi, four from Telangana, three from Madhya Pradesh, two from Rajasthan, two from Haryana, two from Uttar Pradesh, one from Sikkim and one from Himachal Pradesh. Most of them lived in nuclear families. 19 out of 20 were married. One was widowed.


At first, I wondered why Dr. Mythili mentions the marital status of the teachers, and also names the diverse occupations their husbands pursue. How is this information relevant to their success as school leaders? She explains, “In India, many women perceive that support from the husband is crucial for their career.” During interviews with her, they referred to “professional support, emotional support, cooperation and encouragement.”


The study reveals that this support included “identifying the strengths of their wives, taking personal interest to guide the wife to get the school head’s job, support by lending help in household chores and provide free time to prepare for the competitive examinations by accommodating for the demands of household work and also encourage the wife to take up a career after a certain level of stability is achieved in the family life as the children grow up.”


Reading this description made me uncomfortable. The words “lending help” seem to reinforce the idea that women are responsible for household chores and men who participate are to be appreciated because they are going beyond their job description as husbands. The words “provide free time” appear to suggest that the husband owns the woman’s time, and is doing her a favour by giving her time off for her career aspirations.


Later, I wondered if I was being too judgmental, seeing things from my ideological vantage point instead of hearing the women who saw their husbands as allies and not necessarily as agents of patriarchy. That helped me get off my high horse and notice the creative adjustments and negotiations that these school leaders make in their communities. They have to strike a delicate balance between family obligations and professional dreams.


Dr. Mythili writes, “Some women even attributed their success as leaders to their maid servants.” One of the Delhi-based principals that she interviewed for this book said, “We are able to perform well because of the support from family, husband and maid servants.” This statement about the availability of paid support from domestic workers for household chores made me wonder if these women came from privileged caste and class backgrounds.


The author does not use caste and class as analytical categories while discussing how women access school leadership opportunities but she provides crucial information about the “social and educational background” of the families they grew up in. Many of these school leaders were raised by parents with an advanced level of educational attainment and holding high positions in government departments or working as teachers in government schools.


Dr. Mythili writes, “The main source of inspiration for daughters are their educated and employed mothers who instilled the aspirations in the minds of their daughters to become professionals, seek a career, be employed and be self-reliant. With both parents pursuing professional careers, daughters learnt and developed skills to multi-task at home and outside.” They also acquired knowledge about the job market and various career options.


A belief in the importance of higher education to secure upward mobility, increased confidence and financial freedom made these parents support their daughters in pursuing university degrees and government jobs. Some parents who belong to agrarian families in rural areas did not go to school themselves but they encouraged their daughters to get a university education and paid employment. Some parents also support their daughters with childcare.


The women interviewed by Dr. Mythili emphasized school administration, resource management and academic leadership as the core functions of their work profile. Their job requires them to focus on student achievement, punctuality of teachers and their effectiveness in the classroom, building relationships with colleagues, resolving conflicts in the workplace, and exercising authority by making decisions in important matters.


The author writes, “Many of them also voiced that there is a critical difference in the functioning style between men and women school heads. Accordingly, they perceived that women spend more time on the in-school processes by being physically present in the school, whereas men spend more time lobbying and networking in block and district offices.”


It appears that distribution of power and division of labour in the school context is not too different from the home environment of several heterosexual couples. The man goes out, the woman is expected to stay in. The father gets recognition in the public sphere. The mother is rarely seen or heard, so her contribution may be acknowledged but usually in private spaces. The book shows that women school leaders often have to struggle to gain legitimacy at work.


Notions of success may vary across age groups. Dr. Mythili writes, “In the narratives we see older women school heads not agreeing with the younger school heads who were narrating their tales of gender discrimination.” It is clear that many women do not speak up in order to avoid being seen as disruptive and to win support from men higher up in the hierarchy. They are not doormats but they have to strategize well when the odds are stacked against them.


The author is not an armchair researcher. She taught mathematics and physics at a government-aided school for six years. Apart from writing about the current state of affairs, she also offers recommendations to improve them through policy reform. This includes addressing social inequalities, reducing structural barriers, bridging the gap between women school leaders and the community, and enhancing the legitimacy of women’s leadership.


The reviewer is a writer, educator and researcher who tweets @chintan_connect and he can be reached at [email protected].

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