Female Educational Leaders amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Project overview

The current study explored the concepts and enactment of leadership and crisis management from the female leader’s perspective since very few studies, if any, have explored whether inclusive leadership can help educational institutions when they must face unprecedented challenges in terms of crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Through assisted thematic analyses of 40 female educational leaders’ oral responses to questions regarding how they have led during the COVID-19 crisis, the current study investigated whether they relied on inclusive leadership to help their universities exit this unprecedented crisis.

The study revealed that these women exercised inclusive transformational leadership and provided considerable support to their followers during the COVID-19 crisis leading them through the crisis as well as managing the response.

The study provided recommendations for Higher Education Institutions, Human Resources (HR) professionals and leadership teams to support female educational leaders and foster diversity and inclusion.

More information

The current study reports on how female educational leaders in Higher Education institutions (HEI) in the UK perceive themselves as leaders during major crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

It aimed to explore whether they confirm previous studies claiming that women are effective leaders in crises and unfold how female educational leaders in HEI in the UK have faced the COVID-19 pandemic.

It also examined whether they are inclusive leaders, as very few studies have explored female educational leaders’ crisis management and leadership skills in HEI (Stefani and Blessinger, 2017).

Based on the findings of this study, significant recommendations will be provided as to how all relevant stakeholders can promote gender equity, help female educational leaders enhance their crisis management skills and become more inclusive leaders.

To explore female educational leaders’ crisis management skills and reactions to the COVID-19 crisis and examine how inclusive leaders they were, 40 leaders from four publicly funded HEI in London, UK were interviewed.

Using opportunity and snowball sampling methods (Sharma, 2017), a small sample was deemed as sufficient for the current qualitative study (Vasileiou et al, 2018). Interviewees were found by tapping into the researcher’s professional network.

The collection of data started as soon as the COVID-19 crisis emerged. Using a qualitative research design, the researcher conducted semi-structured interviews with educational leaders (senior lecturers, heads of division, Vice-chancellors, and Chancellors) through Microsoft Teams.

Each interview lasted approximately fifty minutes. The aim of the current study was to address the following research questions:

  • How inclusive leaders are female educational leader in HEI in the UK?
  • How have female educational leaders in HEI in the UK reacted to the COVID-19 crisis?


The findings of this study revealed that most female educational leaders emphasized the importance of having a personal relationship with their followers showing respect and consideration which aligns perfectly with the core characteristics of inclusive leaders as these were described in the literature (Gartzia et al., 2012; Nembhard and Edmondson, 2006).

They offered support during the crisis when needed, as they were facing similar challenges, i.e., caring responsibilities.

This confirms previous research findings and supports the critical gender theory which discusses the gendered inequalities women often face (Cundiflr and Stockdale, 2013; Kolb, 2000).

They had to change the mode of delivery at a very short notice promoting a proactive, crisis-prepared organizational culture (Elsubbaugh et al., 2004).

They also supported their members of staff, especially those who had caring responsibilities minimizing the side-effects of the COVID-19 trauma (see theory of shattered assumptions – Janoff-Bulman, 2010).

Other leaders stressed the fact that they tried to find alternative ways to protect and support their team members although some of them were particularly difficult to manage at times (DuBrin, 2013), increasing their anxiety as leaders (Choi et al., 2015).

  • Conference presentations (London Metropolitan University Student and Staff Research Conference 2022, Business and Management Conference 2023, Learning, Teaching and Student Experience Conference 2023)
  • Paper (in preparation) 

Human Resources practitioners and senior leadership teams in Higher Education institutions need to educate leaders on protocols for crisis response (Miser and Cherrey, 2009), promote gender awareness, fully grasp gender implications of crises, and take them into consideration while planning for the different stages of crisis management.

They should also monitor gender bias and avoid assigning different roles to male and female leaders in crises and presenting them as adversarial.

On the contrary, they should try to promote the advantages of female educational leaders’ empowerment to male leaders and use inclusive gender-neutral approaches.

Moreover, the reinforcement of perceptions of women’s vulnerability and the creation of gender conflict and competition should be avoided.

Finally, they should take advantage of and assist positive gender role changes in crises and ensure their long-term sustainability.