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COVID-19 inspires women to leadership

Julia Smith
Assistant Professor, Simon Fraser University

The most surprising finding of my research with women teachers and school leaders, conducted for the ATA last year, was how many were determined to advance their careers and take on greater leadership opportunities, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

I led five focus groups and 10 semi-structured interviews with teachers and school leaders on themes around teaching in the context of COVID-19, impacts on unpaid care work at home and the effects on career advancement. Based on my previous research with the Gender and COVID- 19 Project, a study that has been documenting the impact of COVID-19 across 12 countries, I assumed that increased workload would combine with COVID-19–related child and elder care burdens to discourage women from taking on leadership roles. I was wrong.

When asked if COVID-19 had affected their career aspirations, half of focus group participants said it had inspired them, with many responding that they felt the new challenges created by the pandemic required a type of leadership that was willing to take on emotional labour and foster positive relationships — abilities that participants felt women teachers were particularly adept at.

“I see now, maybe more than ever, the need for us to really be focusing on relationship and classroom environment, and really taking care of one another,” explained one teacher. “And again, I want to be a part of those conversations. So I feel like I can maybe help in ways that we’re needing moving forward, and I think that is actually where we as women can step up, moving forward, in light of all the challenges that we face in this pandemic.”

A number of participants also noted that the increased online learning opportunities removed barriers they had previously faced to advancing their leadership credentials. For example, one teacher with a young family shared that, as result of Covid, she has been able to pursue her master’s degree online.

“Things are so available online, and I have a young family, and I have an office set up at home now — it’s a little bit more accessible for me, just because of the way that the world is right now. And it might not have been something that I would have been able to as actively pursue even a year ago.”

Not having to travel to major cities, like Calgary or Edmonton, and being able to learn from home reduced the barriers women teachers faced to pursuing further education themselves.

While this enthusiasm was inspiring, participants also recognized barriers to achieving their ambitions. Child-care burdens due to pandemic-related school and facility interruptions, and reduced time for professional development.

One relatively new teacher described originally having hoped to go into administration or starting her master’s, but with two young children and no consistent child care, she now felt she couldn’t manage it. Teachers also faced judgment when career and care responsibilities conflicted due to pandemic events.

A superintendent noted, “We have a few principals who are women who have young children. Sometimes they can’t be in their school. If their children are isolated, they have to be at home. And they feel like the perception among the rest of their colleagues and even within their school community is that they’re not doing their job.” Others expressed fears that such perceptions would negatively impact their career advancement.

The pandemic also greatly affected teacher and school leaders’ overall well-being, leading to concerns about burnout. The combined increased workload at home and at school left many exhausted and distressed. One teacher explained, “I think it’s always feeling like we’re letting someone down, and right now it’s either we’re letting students down, or biological children.”

Inability to meet both career and caregiving demands left some feeling powerless.

“I felt really defeated. I felt like I wasn’t doing a good enough job, I felt like a loser. I was at a loss — how was I supposed to help my kids — and I felt like I was losing every day.”

Thankfully, teachers and school leaders had multiple recommendations on how to overcome barriers and support well-being. These included continued online collaborations and meetings; activities to bring people together and connect in a safe way; continued flexibility to allow working from home where and when possible; reducing extracurricular activity demands; robust in-school mental health support for staff and students; a holistic approach to supporting teacher well-being, including paid care leave days, access to counselling and other supports; professional development days dedicated to COVID-19 recovery activities, such as mental wellness; resources to support women educators in pursuing career development, including support for care responsibilities that might restrict opportunities; and ensuring diverse voices in decision making, and developing equity policies to guard against discrimination based on gender, care responsibilities or leave taken due to COVID-19.

Acting on these recommendations can ensure that remarkable women teachers and school leaders are able to step up to leadership roles, to the full extent that they desire, in order to foster a positive and more equitable pandemic recovery.

Dr. Julia Smith is an interdisciplinary social scientist trained in policy analysis and political economy, with a focus on gender and health inequities.

Originally posted here:


Gender Working Group

We meet online every month to discuss key issues, activities, opportunities and ideas for collaboration. We have a long and growing list of resources on gender and public health emergencies.



Gender Working Group

We meet online every month to discuss key issues, activities, opportunities and ideas for collaboration. We have a long and growing list of resources on gender and public health emergencies.