Women in Leadership and Education – Renata Joseph

Renata Joseph, headteacher at Saint Cecilia’s Church of England School in Wandsworth, London, shared her reflections with us on the theme of women in leadership and education.

Inspiring the journey into leadership

Encouragement is the word that best captures what’s inspired my journey into leadership. It’s essential for motivating and inspiring women, especially women of colour, to progress.

My career began in 1997 as a geography teacher at a small, boys’ independent school in Surrey. My first leadership opportunity arose when I became second in charge of year 7. A brilliant female colleague saw my potential to blossom as a pastoral leader. I was the first person of colour to work at that school and take on a leadership role in a predominantly white male environment. The experience heightened my awareness of being different. At the age of 22 I did not have the skills to challenge some of the existing attitudes. Despite this, inspired by my colleagues’ encouragement I embraced the role.

Encouragement featured when I moved to a pastoral leader role at a girls’ school in west London focusing on inclusion and supporting EAL and more able learners. Encouraged and reassured that I had the capability by female leaders I expanded my leadership beyond the school working with schools across the local authority to organise debate competitions and other activities.

Challenges on the journey to headship

I dealt with disappointment and the frustration of not being clear about why I was not getting the senior leadership roles I applied for. I did about eight interviews and was always down to the last two. You just have to keep going. I speak to women leaders, particularly those of colour, who are so frustrated about being stuck at deputy head level and unable to progress.

Much of this concerns governance and the governing bodies who hire headteachers. Governing bodies often lack diversity and tend to be risk averse, favouring internal candidates. This makes the process harder for aspirant female leaders. I am blessed to have been recruited by what I would deem as a progressive governing body who wanted change and leadership reflective of the student body.

With my current chair of governors we have strived to diversify our governing body from primarily white, middle aged male to one of the most diverse in Wandsworth. It is challenging but we were intentional. We fished in the right pools which is critical. Governance often lacks intentionality. If you want a female leader of colour, be proactive. There are so few of us we’re not hard to find.

Perseverance and authenticity

Perseverance and authenticity are crucial. In one interview, they disliked my plaits. I stayed true to myself. The final headship interview question was about authenticity. Asked “have we seen the real you?” I answered, “I hope so or it’ll be exhausting keeping this up for the next ten years!”

Women in Leadership

My advice to aspiring female leaders is you have got to be real and the best version of yourself. Don’t change your appearance, approach, or values to fit what you think a governing body wants. Once you have met the criteria and secured the interview, stay true to yourself. I am female, I am black and I am Christian. None of those characteristics discount me from being an effective leader

Skills, qualities and attributes for successful leadership

Being able to lead and manage people well has got me to where I am. I try to be honest and fair, I apologise if I get things wrong. There is no shame in that. Emotional intelligence is vital. I am calm and measured and though it has been levelled at me once or twice, I reject the stereotype of the “angry black woman”. When there is conflict, I strive to disarm with a welcoming smile.

We should lead with compassion and care. Accountability can be ethical and empathetic. Upholding values and fostering clear communication promotes inclusion and collective success.

Role models

Role models have greatly influenced my journey. Jennie Lovett was a huge role model for me at the start of my pastoral career. My mother is my ultimate inspiration. Coming to the UK from Grenada she valued education. Despite limited opportunities, this intelligent woman became an accomplished nurse. She and my father instilled in me a strong work ethic and an understanding that I would have to work hard to achieve success.

Imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome is a common challenge for female leaders, even when you have access to support, encouragement and role models. As a new head I hesitated to put my picture on the website, fearing it would drive families away. I shared my worries with the leadership team. It hadn’t dawned on them that this would be a concern for me. I eventually put my picture up, it hasn’t emptied the school. In fact we’re even more oversubscribed than we’ve ever been.

As a woman and as a woman of colour you sometimes feel like people don’t trust you. Appointing someone to headship takes huge trust, on both parts. I go back to governing bodies. To what extent do they trust people that don’t look like them to do a critical job?

Experience, positive feedback and increasing confidence have helped me deal with imposter syndrome. Recognition from parents, positive feedback and backing from the governing body all contribute. Continuously seeking feedback from my team has helped me to grow.

Sustaining momentum and wellbeing for the long term

My sustenance comes from networks, particularly one for black leaders organised by my coach. Here, I can be real and find understanding without explanation, swiftly moving from challenges to solutions. We discuss education, leadership and personal hurdles. By actively engaging in initiatives like the Wandsworth shadowing programme I aim to make a lasting impact. Having completed NPQH and now doing NPQEL I believe that while these courses offer coaching and mentoring the approach needs to be much more intentional in terms of nurturing female leadership and women of colour.

The next generation of women in leadership

I mentor aspiring female leaders, staying connected, offering guidance on job applications and encouragement through setbacks so that they don’t give up. Many women face challenges balancing work and family. Some lack aspiration for us and doubt our ability to hold and sustain top jobs. Mentoring and coaching are vital for demystifying leadership roles, building confidence and taking away the fear factor. My mum was the only black person I grew up with who was a leader in her role as senior nurse. Visibility matters, you cannot be what you don’t see.

As female leaders we need to believe in ourselves and encourage the next generation to do the same. We have all of the attributes and the skills. If anything I think we bring an additionality. No one asks that question, what do you bring that’s additional?

My call to action is that we should be aspirational for young women in the sector. Provide opportunities for them to shine. Push them towards courses and taking the lead, even in a very small way. Give them opportunities to shine and grow confidence.

#Inspire Inclusion

Thinking about this year’s International Women’s Day theme #Inspire Inclusion, my hope would be that we would come together to consider creative ways that we can inspire more diverse leadership in schools. How can we be intentional? How can we create opportunities? How can we spot talent or give people a platform or a place to shine to be the best version of themselves?

What next?

I am at the start of my NPQEL programme and have recently joined the board of a large MAT in Surrey. I hope both will give me greater insight in executive leadership, but I do not limit myself to that. I believe in pushing doors of opportunity. You never know which door might swing open and where you might find the next space to inhabit and effect positive change.

Women in Leadership and Education

Leadership progression in education is not a level playing field. Whether deliberately or unwittingly, women, and particularly women from ethnic minorities are frequently disadvantaged.

Join us on 18 June 2024 and get ready to be inspired.

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