woman with children study

Indigenous Women In Educational Leadership

by Yelba Carrillo

Globalization and Internationalization have the potential and capability to produce inequalities in all types of settings, but especially with indigenous women in education. While Globalization calls for uniformity and conformity, it fails to acknowledge minorities and diversity. Globalization is the implementation of western values, practices, and privileges (Apple, 2001). The process of creating homogeneity and standardization through Globalization simultaneously segregates, stratifies, and marginalizes groups ( Fitzgerald, 2006). Schools function to serve the interests of dominant groups and those who benefit the least, occupy marginal positions (Apple, 2001 and Fitzgerald, 2006). Indigenous women face additional barriers as women in hierarchies dominated by white men and, as women in marginal positions due to the higher number of white, non-indigenous women (Fitzgerald, 2006). Consequently, women of color, especially Indigenous women, in leadership belong to a minority within a larger minority setting (Fitzgerald, 2003).

Indigenous women face a triple-bind within educational leadership. First, they work in a predominantly white environment. Second, they are women in a system that values patriarchal leadership. Third, they are subject to judgment from all males, white males, and white women (Fitzgerald, 2003). Indigenous women leaders are categorized as minority due to gender (women in a man-dominated world), ethnicity (indigenous women in a non-indigenous world), and as a woman of color in a white woman’s world (Fitzgerald, 2003). In addition to all of these barriers, they are expected to challenge and create change within their educational organizations that will simultaneously benefit their communities (Fitzgerald, 2003).

Often times, this leads Indigenous women to engage in, what has been termed, “mammy work”, in addition to being involved with the politics of identity and community (Fitzgerald, 2003). “Mammy work” refers to Indigenous women being held responsible and accountable for all children of color in a school while the same is not expected of non-Indigenous leaders. This further marginalizes Indigenous women leaders who are often times solely recruited by schools for the purpose of having them work mainly with Indigenous children and focus on Indigenous issues. This further excludes them from the majority, undermines their knowledge, talent, and ability, and limits their contribution to the entire school system (Fitzgerald, 2003). .

Indigenous Women’s Narratives

Fitzgerald (2010) conducted in depth interviews with women from three different countries and a wide range of Indigenous communities within: New Zealand (Maori), Australia (Aboriginal), and Canada (First Nations). During the years 2003-2006, the researcher collected narratives from 15 different women in which they discussed their roles in educational leadership as Indigenous women. Each served in different educational roles, for example, principal or teacher. Although each interviewee detailed different experiences, all reflected the extent to which each woman had to negotiate her professional work and activities within a dominant culture of “whiteness” (Fitzgerald, 2010). The 15 Indigenous women leaders voiced their concerns regarding the lack of work on Indigenous leadership in the majority of academic journals and professional publications.

One participant of Aboriginal descent served as principal at her school. She recounted how she had to fight the bureaucracy in order to secure her position as principal. Her belief was that the School Council preferred a male or a white female to fill the position. Every day was a “constant struggle fighting the bureaucracy and fighting for her mob” (indigenous people) (Fitzgerald, 2010), as she was quoted saying. During her time as principal at this particular site, she recalled feeling lonely, unable to be innovative in her work, and constantly turned down by administrators when exerting any kind of initiative:

“It was a token job really and I just kept fighting them, bureaucracy. I was sort of like the meat in a sandwich. I was fighting bureaucracy and trying to do something for my own mob, you know. Management doesn’t allow you to do things. I mean I had no room to be innovative or even if I wanted to use my own initiative it was usually—what do you want to do that for? So I moved out and left them to it (Fitzgerald, 2010). “

The participant’s experience is an example of how ideologies of oppression continue to impact Indigenous women. The School Council’s attempt at implementing Redistributive Justice, appointing non-white or non-male leaders, reinforced rather than alleviated the politics of difference (Fitzgerald, 2010). As evidenced in the aforementioned scenario, many times when institutions attempt to recruit persons from underrepresented, Indigenous groups, they are inadvertently isolating them. The interviewee in the previous scenario felt isolated due to the fact that she was 1) one of few indigenous women working within the school system and 2) took a higher ranking position, which further increased these feelings of loneliness. An additional risk of implementing such tactic is that the employer may benefit from adopting different cultural practices and skills learned from Indigenous employees without recognizing or acknowledging this reciprocal relationship (Fitzgerald, 2010). Furthermore, attempts to diversify workplaces often tend to reinforce and alienate rather than create an inclusive environment (Fitzgerald, 2010).

One recurring issue that came up in all of the interviews was the women’s constant inner struggle with their identity as leaders and as Indigenous women. Those who are a part of the Indigenous community work not only for their benefit, but for the benefit of their community as a whole. While Western culture is driven by individual successes and accomplishments, the Indigenous culture emphasizes collective success and change. A participant from Australia was quoted as saying,

“If you’re not an Indigenous person, you go to work and you go home and that’s fine. But with us, you go to work, what we do at work—especially if you work in like a place, organization, involved with Indigenous issues, you know—what we do here impacts on a community, and a community then feel they have a right to be involved, and rightly so, in a lot of issues. Like we’re doing things that—and part of the whole thing is, you know, we’re benefiting the community. We should be willing to hear what they’re saying and doing. So we’re doing a whole lot. (Fitzgerald, 2010)”.

Other participants discussed their unsuccessful attempts at disconnecting their leadership from cultural roles. Failing to incorporate their Indigenous culture in their daily professional lives brought on a sense of guilt. While they could easily take their work home, they could not exclude their culture from their workplace. A participant from New Zealand voiced that doing so would cause her to “abandon [herself] and those who have come before [her]” (Fitzgerald, 2010).

In regards to gender and ethnicity, one participant described working within two systems saying:

“I’m going to be judged on Western values. Therefore I’m trying to work within two systems I suppose. But it’s more than that you know. I am trying to work within two systems but I am also a woman in a white man’s world. It’s pretty lonely at times. It also means I am judged by Western values and the values placed on male leaders. Then again, I can be judged as a woman. Somehow that doesn’t seem fair. I feel that I am always walking between two worlds (Fitzgerald, 2013). “

Indigenous Women and Educational Leadership In Belize

While traveling through Belize, I learned a lot about the culture, particularly, the educational system, through discussions with principals, teachers, and presentations given by my colleagues. It is evident that school administrators, staff, and teachers, reinforce the double-bind theory. One particular presentation given on St. Alphonsus Primary School discussed how the students’ were in need of supplies, but the school and families could not afford them. One teacher, a woman, bought supplies for her students with her own money. She is a great example of the expectations Indigenous women are expected to uphold as leaders within an educational organization. Her actions would not only greatly benefit the children (community), but also have the potential of increasing student grades and attendance, which would then build a respectable reputation for the school.

Another group gave a presentation on Independence High School. The main issue at the high school was low student attendance. The source of the issue was that some students would miss class entirely if they did not have money for lunch that day. The principal took matters into his own has and developed a solution. He built a farm on campus with a few livestock and had students plant crops. Select students maintain the farm, care for the animals, and pick the produce. They then make lunch meals using all of their resources. This teaches students responsibility, work ethic, and also motivates them to attend school. Although the principal in the second example is a man, it is interesting to see that both he and the woman teacher from the first example, went beyond their duties as employees in order equal educational opportunity.

Developing Young Women Leaders In Education

Relational-Cultural Theory promotes the accomplishments women in developmental tasks within a relational context (Portman and Garrett, 2005). It challenges the core values of the Western psychological principles: self, autonomy, independence, individuation and competition (Portman and Garrett, 2005). Relational theorists view reciprocal connection in relationships as an essential human need; therefore, embracing the female sense of self as relational. The very core of Relational-Cultural Theory is the fostering of relationships within specific cultural contexts (Portman and Garrett, 2005). Mentors may experience fulfillment from the formed connections, personal empowerment, a heightened sense of personal and interpersonal insight, increased self-efficacy, and an aspiration for more connections beyond the mentoring relationship (Portman and Garrett, 2005). In contrast, those who lack these connections may experience feelings of loneliness during difficult situations, decreased self-knowledge or knowledge of others, low self-worth, and intentional isolation (Portman and Garrett, 2005).

Mentoring, used as an intervention, nurtures and connects professionals and students in an individualistic atmosphere. The goal of mentoring is to create change within an organization from an individualistic to a collectivistic atmosphere (Portman and Garrett, 2005). This concept applied to Indigenous women in education is relevant because most settings in education are nonrelational. Therefore, a mentoring relationship within nonrelational settings may lack agentic awareness (Portman and Garrett, 2005).

Young women benefit from mentorship provided by other women in an environment free of competition and more collectivistic. Evidence has show that women mentoring women creates a relational context that positively influences and expands career skills, salary, professional enjoyment, which then increases personal satisfaction and social connection (Portman and Garrett, 2005). A communal atmosphere supports mentorships and nurtures healthy, functioning young professionals. The opposite kind of atmosphere promotes a Westernized, masculinized and systemic institutional culture (Portmand and Garett, 2005).

Placencia Women In Education Network

Bridging information yielded by previous studies regarding barriers Indigenous women face in higher education and the benefits of women mentoring women; I believe that creating a mentoring network within the Placencia educational system would benefit the community greatly. First, creating a network comprised of women in different educational roles such as principals, teachers, and administrators would foster a support system among them. The women’s network would meet weekly and would serve as a time for women to come together to release stress, collaborate, and empower one another. Second, the women’s network would prepare members and provide the tools needed to be excellent mentors to the younger girls in the community. Third, the network could later expand to women working in other fields such as health, hospitality, or business. Challenging dominantly male fields will not be easy; however, establishing such a network would be a great stepping-stone for the village in order to combat Western values, practices, and marginalization.


Apple, M.W. (2001) ‘Comparing Neo-liberal Projects and Inequality in Education’, Comparative Education 37(4): 409–23.

Fitzgerald, T. (2006). Walking between Two Worlds: Indigenous Women and Educational Leadership. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 34(2), 201-213. doi:10.1177/1741143206062494

Fitzgerald, T. (2003) ‘Interrogating Orthodox Voices: Gender, Ethnicity & Educational Leadership’, School Leadership & Management 23(4): 431–44.

Fitzgerald, T. (January 01, 2010). Spaces In-Between: Indigenous Women Leaders Speak Back to Dominant Discourses and Practices in Educational Leadership. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 13, 1, 93-105.

Portman, T. A. A., & Garrett, M. T. (September 06, 2005). Beloved Women: Nurturing the Sacred Fire of Leadership from an American Indian Perspective. Journal of Counseling & Development, 83, 3, 284.