Creative: Leading from the heart and empowering women in leadership roles

By Claudia Salazar-Suarez

February 28, 2023   |   0 comments

Creative’s inception, growth and consolidation as a social-impact international development company is an inspiration for all the women seeking to make a difference in their sectors, and the men who want to support them. In 1977 (46 year ago!) in a Washington, D.C., basement, four women with diverse cultural backgrounds and a single passion for educational excellence and opportunity founded the enterprise that would become Creative Associates International (learn more about our history here).

Originally from Bolivia, Charito Kruvant is one of those four founding women. Charito continues to be actively engaged as a board member, sharing her contagious passion for development work and her belief in strong and mutually beneficial partnerships with what she calls the Creative Way. Charito’s big heart and resolute nature have attracted thousands of like-minded mission-driven partners to work alongside us and ensure lasting impact.

It’s a family tradition that has remained after a generation, this is what has happened at Creative,” affirms Charito with a smile, in her ever gentle and nurturing but determined style.DSC_0236-1024x680

Beyond the anecdotal, evidence suggests that this leadership style is exactly what women leaders bring to the table. A study on leadership behaviors by McKinsey & Company suggests that women, more frequently than men, exhibit leadership styles and traits that are highly applicable to global challenges, including  inspiration, participative decision making, expectation setting and rewards, people development, and role modelling.

Yet, women remain under-represented in leadership roles across many sectors. A particularly interesting and ironic case is that of women in education leadership.  Globally, women comprise most of the education workforce—except at the top. While nearly 7 out of 10 primary and 5 out of 10 secondary school teachers are female, the number of women in school leadership positions falls far behind (UNICEF, 2022). In Latin America, although directors are drawn almost exclusively from the stock of teachers, there is at least a 20-point gap in the percentage of female directors compared with female teachers in eight of the 15 countries participating in TERCE (World Bank, Adelman & Lemos, 2021).

While closing gender leadership gaps is intrinsically important, there is reason to believe that more women leaders in the sector is also good for education and for children. A new body of evidence is emerging on the impact of women on education leadership, suggesting a positive association between women school leaders, student performance, and children’s educational outcomes. For example, in the above referenced research, UNICEF found that women-led schools report higher levels of instructional leadership, measured through actions such as supporting teachers to collaborate, motivating teachers to improve their skills, and making teachers feel responsible for students’ learning.

Whether women are equally or better equipped to lead education institutions is especially relevant considering their significant under-representation. The millions of female teachers powering the education system worldwide should be able to seek a path to leadership if they have the talent, drive and vision to do great things for children beyond the classroom.

Overturning this pattern calls for specific policies and practices that address and challenge the contextual, cultural, societal, and structural barriers that prevent women from advancing to school leadership roles. While policy reform and structural barriers are harder to break, actors like Creative can play a role in leveling the playing field by expanding access to relevant training, information, networks, and inspiring role models for women leaders in education.

Charito on executive nurturing and other advice

In addition to founding and leading a successful international development organization, Charito has been married for 56 years to her husband Bill, and together they have two children and three grandchildren who remain close by their side. Here are some words of wisdom from a woman who has proven that indeed women can have it all:

  • Mission, goal and self-awareness: Know that you cannot do it all alone. The larger role you take on, the more you need to rely on and trust others. It’s like cupping your hands to hold water. There’s only so much you can carry alone. If you take on more than you can carry, it just falls. Trust yourself to choose the right team and be clear on what you want to accomplish.
  • Be open to leading from the heart: Trust your experience and your love for the mission. The nurturing part of leadership comes out more easily for women and we must embrace it. Fear-based leadership and the pursuit of individual goals frequently leads to compartmentalized success at work, to the detriment of family, friends, and ultimately the individual.
  • Channel rejection as an energizing challenge: All women, particularly women of color, in any setting that is not our own, must prove ourselves again and again. For me, it never felt like rejection, it was always a challenge. Whenever challenged, I knew that next time I could do it better. Washington is a place of power, and I had a lot of opportunities to prove myself in every setting – and practice makes perfect.
  • Gender biases: Many women in the Americas have become as educated as men, with increased university participation and evidence that they are more competent at work in some fields. The gender gap today is really a gender bias, and those biases are more acute in LAC than in other places. Women need to play their part to break those biases as well.
  • Champion other women: We tend to be harder on each other and we have to be easier on ourselves and on other women to help and lift each other up. Women also need to stop apologizing and seize opportunities when they see them. Finally, be mindful that the habits that made us successful at lower levels need to be repeated at the executive level. I call this executive nurturing.
  • Balancing professional and family life: Marriage is love and commitment, and in my world, the commitment was forever. In the permutation of how you plan your professional life, you must remain committed to your family life. For example, I realized early on that after three weeks away from home, the family structure and the moral authority began to shift, so I was never away for more than that. Companies must support personal time and time with family. Remember to always go where you and your family life are celebrated, not just tolerated.

Charito Kruvant, Co-Founder and Executive Chair of the Board. Interviewee and inspiring woman role model.

Claudia Salazar Suárez, Senior Technical Manager, LAC Specialist, ED Division. Writer and facilitator.

(In her executive nurturing leadership style, Charito insisted that I not remain in the shadow. I can only thank her for being such an inspiring role model for all and for creating a mission that so many of us can believe in.)

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