A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
Empowered women empower women
Creating a Women in Leadership seminar at Walnut Valley Unified School District
By Amy Smith | September | October 2023
Women face a multitude of obstacles to their career advancement. These obstacles contribute to the idea of a “glass ceiling” in which career advancements are not as prevalent as they are for men. Women are often faced with career interruptions (maternity leave or taking care of their elderly parents) through their career paths (Amudha et al., 2016).
According to Wirth (2001), well-educated women with many years of experience are not promoted at the same rate as men within the same organization. Additionally, a 2018 survey showed that 48 percent of women respondents think they have to work twice as hard as a man to take home half the pay, and just 42 percent believe their opportunities on the job are the same as their male colleagues (C. Jones, 2018). Similarly, Eagly and Carli (2007) stated that some of the obstacles women face in the workplace are gender discrimination, work-life balance, lack of mentoring and conflicting roles. The notion of advancing employees based on uninterrupted commitment to work discriminates against women, considering that women are often the main caretakers for children and elders (C. Williams, 2013). Further, Williams suggested that masculine terms and characteristics are often used to create organizational charts and job descriptions. This barrier in career advancement for women supports the notion of the “glass ceiling,” while men are supported through the “glass escalator” (C. Williams, 2013).
With research and awareness, how do we empower women to take risks, overcome obstacles and support other women who are experiencing similar challenges? After completing my dissertation in 2018, I continued to research and learn about my topic of female leadership and the journey that my colleagues and mentors have taken in advancing their careers.
In 2021, I had the privilege to speak at the International Leadership Association Global Conference, where I discussed female leadership and the importance of empowering other women to know their worth and go after what they want. With a focus on self-confidence and gender bias, the message during the conference was that women do not lack the skills needed for advancement; however, they sometimes lack the confidence to take the leap forward. Additionally, women often struggle to find their “sister circle” of other women who support them and give them the confidence they lack.
During the 2021-22 school year, while working at Walnut Valley Unified School District, our superintendent, Dr. Robert Taylor, read my research and highlights of my dissertation. During an informal meeting, he brought up the idea of having me start a “Women in Leadership” group for the 2022-23 school year. Dr. Taylor was open to any ideas and suggestions I had on what this year-long seminar could look like. My initial thought was, “Who was I to take on this hugely important task?” Sadly, it was my lack of confidence in myself, not in my skill set and expertise, that gave me pause. Here I was, being asked by our superintendent to do a year-long seminar on a topic that is important, timely and my passion, yet I was unsure I could do it. So, as research suggests, I thought, what would a man do? Without question, a man would take the opportunity from their boss and run with it, which is exactly what I chose to do.
The first obstacle we encountered was deciding who would be in our “Women in Leadership” (WiL) group. We discussed the pros and cons for an all-female group or a mixed gender group. While arguments can be made for both sides, we ultimately decided that for our first year, we would only invite women to apply. The rationale behind this decision was that we wanted to have a safe space for women to have real, honest conversations. We knew that these conversations could be personal and vulnerable, and we wanted to create an environment that supported that. Prior to the end of the year, I stood up at a leadership team, along with Dr. Taylor, and pitched the idea of seminar. I shared that this was a completely voluntary group, with full-day meetings every six weeks where we would have guest speakers and do a deep dive into our personal stories and look at the journey of women who have broken the “glass ceiling.” The application was sent to the women in our district’s leadership team and my only real hope at that time was that someone besides me would apply.
Applications were in, dates were selected and a plan began to take shape. Our WiL group consisted of 20 women on our leadership team, with positions including assistant principals, principals, directors and assistant superintendents, to name a few. The goal of the year was to create an atmosphere of trust, learning and awareness to issues that women are experiencing in their careers. Our hope was also to provide networking opportunities through our guest speakers and conferences we would be attending. Working with Dr. Taylor, we wanted the women in the group to know they were part of something special, which meant wanting to provide an experience unlike anything we have done prior. Working closely with members of our district’s executive cabinet (two women in our WiL group), we brainstormed ideas, details and activities that would help create a strong bond within our group.
Now that things were falling into place, we chose to create an agenda that would be used for each meeting. While we would make slight changes, our outline remained the same:
  • Breakfast/coffee bar and lunch.
  • Opening and closing activities.
  • Book talks.
  • Guest speakers.
  • Unique experiences.
As the Irish proverb says, “Laughter is brightest in the place where food is.” While our group of women knew each other on a friendly basis, the mornings spent over breakfast and coffee were special times that allowed us to connect and take a pause from our traditional roles. Our group was fortunate to include our director of food and nutrition, who beautifully set up a coffee bar for each meeting. Her attention to detail helped start our meetings off in a special way. We also provided personalized Women in Leadership coffee mugs, hoping to create a warm, welcoming environment. Lunch was also provided for our group, allowing more time to bond and focus on building relationships with one another.
Each meeting consisted of a variety of intentional activities that not only gave personal reflection time but allowed us to connect with one another on our core values and beliefs. Throughout our six meetings, here are some of the activities we participated in:

Enneagram assessment and discussion: The Enneagram is a system of personality typing that describes patterns in how people interpret the world and manage their emotions. Our WiL members took the assessment and then our activity included triad discussions, where your “number” was shared, and a description of your personality was given. We had a series of questions for triads to respond to, including if you agreed or disagreed with your results, whether you read anything that surprised you or you are the number you expected to be prior to the test. If you have never taken this assessment, the results are very descriptive, and for most of our group, spot on. The fun part is the results also include famous people that share your number. The purpose of this activity was to show how important it is to understand that not everyone has the same experiences, perceptions or values. The key is to embrace our uniqueness and learn how to work with a diverse group of leaders.

Share circle:
During our second meeting, we participated in one of the best activities, which was led by our guest speaker, a retired superintendent. We were asked to bring in something meaningful to us, a picture, a piece of jewelry, a family heirloom, etc. We gathered in a circle and one at a time, shared the item and its significance. I am not sure if this happens in all share circles, but this one activity had us crying one minute and laughing hysterically the next. The trust and openness to share our stories created such a powerful moment that really shifted our group dynamic. The vulnerability that the group of women showed elevated our friendships and support for one another. Our stories resonated with our group and what came from them was empathy, connection and a better understanding of each other. As Morgan Harper Nicholas wrote, “Tell the story of the mountain you climbed. Your words could become a page in someone else’s survival guide.” After this amazing day, our group felt more connected than ever.

Sister circles and accountability partners: During ACSA’s Women in School Leadership Forum, I attended a session that focused on sister circles. By definition, a sister circle is a group of women who create a safe space to share their stories, seek advice when needed and be a support system to other women. These sister circles’ main goal is to empower rather than feed into stereotypes of the “queen bee” mentality. Christine Arylo wrote, “When a woman has sisterhood with other women, without comparison or competition, she gains the superpower to soar.” In a short time, our entire group of WiL had become our sister circle. We took the idea one step further and created accountability partners. This was a pair of women, randomly chosen, to become someone who we could meet with and have more personalized conversations, seek advice or just get to know better. During our meetings, we provided time for accountability partners to do activities, have lunch together, or just share things going on personally or professionally.

Brag board: The word “brag” typically has a negative connotation — however, in our Women in Leadership group, we wanted to change the narrative and give our friends and colleagues a stage to brag on how amazing they are. A “Women in Leadership Brag Board” was made and during meetings a card was given to each woman. We would write for five minutes and share anything we wanted to brag about, personal or professional. After the time was up, we would pick one or two things to share with the whole group. Every time we did this activity, I was blown away by how lucky I was to be surrounded by incredible, driven women. Women shared about successes in their careers, their families and so much more. As women, we often think that bragging makes us look full of ourselves or boastful, however, if we are not sharing our successes, who is? When it’s time to go for that interview and we are asked to discuss our contributions to the success of an organization, this is our time to brag away and be honest about our hard work and dedication

Throughout our nine months together, our group participated in several “book talks.” Prior to meetings, books were given out that aligned with specific themes to be addressed or the author who was going to be our guest speaker. Discussions centered around key points, connections, and how we learn and lead from our experiences. This year’s books included “Dare to Lead” by Brené Brown, “The Confidence Effect” by Grace Killelea, “How Women Rise” by Sally Helgeson and Marshall Goldsmith and “Leading While Female” by Delores B. Lindsey, Stacie L. Stanley and Trudy T. Arriaga. Each of these books was intentionally selected because their content supported our themes of women and confidence, barriers and challenges women face, and creating your “sister circle” of women who will support you instead of hinder your advancement.
Without question, a man would take the opportunity from their boss and run with it, which is exactly what I chose to do.
The saying “it’s who you know” took on a new meaning when we began thinking of who we would like to invite as guest speakers. I quickly learned how small the world of superintendents was when a simple call could be made, and invites were extended. We intentionally brought in diverse female leaders to reflect our existing group. We not only wanted successful women with a message, but we also wanted to learn their stories and hear how they navigated their journey.
While every story is unique, our guest speakers provided insight on their personal journeys, challenges along the way and advice for those of us who are looking for advancement in our careers. Our guest speakers included sitting and retired superintendents, authors (male and female) who wrote about challenges women face and practical ways to overcome them, and women who are trailblazers in the world of education. Every meeting included at least one guest speaker, who not only told their stories, but participated in our activities, brought activities of their own and allowed us an interactive dialog to ask questions, share our personal struggles and be inspired by amazing leaders.
My personal experience helping arrange our speakers was one that I will forever cherish. I was gifted the time with our presenters to share about our Women in Leadership group, our background, purpose and goals. I had the opportunity to meet one-on-one with our speakers, hear their stories and discuss possible ideas for our group. I was inspired during each conversation, and even more so when they stood in front of our group and were vulnerable, honest and thought-provoking.
In addition to meetings, our Women in Leadership group was able to create a few unique experiences to help strengthen our dynamic.

ACSA’s Leadership Summit: Our entire group had the opportunity to attend this conference together. Not only did we attend a variety of sessions, we had the time to enjoy meals together, do “walk and talks” and just spend quality time together.
Leading While Female Conference: After reading the book, we learned the co-authors of the book “Leading While Female” were hosting a 24-hour conference. A small group of us attended and were so overwhelmed to be in the presence of such empowering women. Women shared their stories, networked and left feeling empowered.
Celebrations: Spending a year with 20 women who are all making incredible things happen every day, deserves to be celebrated. During our time together we had professional celebrations of career advancement, taking a leap and accepting a professor position while also serving as a director in our district, finally having those courageous conversations, and much more. We also had personal celebrations, like weddings and babies!

With year one of Women in Leadership in the books, I can honestly say that this experience has been transformative. When you start something like this, you never know how it will be received or whether people will want to continue this journey with you. When asked about this experience, I was overwhelmed by the love and appreciation I have received from our WiL group. I am so blessed to have a superintendent who believes in this work and is eager to support us in year two. We opened our application process again and are excited to be welcoming another eight members next year. Serena Williams said it best with: “Every woman’s success should be an inspiration to another. We’re strongest when we cheer each other on.”
Amudha, R., Motha, L., Selvabaskar, S., Alamelu, R., & Surulivel, S. (2016). Glass ceiling and glass escalator: An ultimate gender divide in urban vicinity. Indian Journal of Science and Technology, 9(27), 1-9.
Eagly, A., & Carli, L. (2007, September). Women and the labyrinth of leadership. Harvard Business Review, 2-11.
Jones, C. (2018). Pay gap: 48% of women say they have to work twice as hard as men to take home half the pay. USA Today. https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2018/01/18/end-pay-gap-between-men-and-women-earns-notyet-majority-women-new-survey-finds/1042607001/
Williams, C. (2013). The glass escalator, revisited: Gender inequality in neoliberal times. Gender & Society, 27(5), 609-629.
Amy Smith, Ed.D., is principal of Suzanne Middle School in Walnut Valley Unified School District.