Developing diversity
by Dana Watts and Liz Duffy

To encourage more diverse, equitable, inclusive and just (DEI-J) educational communities within international schools, the Diversity Collaborative recently initiated a research study by partnering with ISC Research and George Mason University.


In the spring of 2019, over 2,500 international schools were sent the Diversity Collaborative Survey to establish a baseline of information on international school leadership and diversity. Although the diversity of leadership at international schools seems to be gradually increasing, there are strategic efforts we can make at the school and regional level to increase DEI-J among international school leadership.


Diverse, equitable, inclusive and just

What do we mean when we talk about DEI-J?


Diversity: the presence of difference

Equity: ensuring everyone has access to the same opportunities

Inclusion: embracing and valuing differences

Justice: systems, policies, and practices that ensure DEI


The importance of having diverse leadership teams in schools and other settings has been well documented. In his 2007 landmark study, The Difference (2007), University of Michigan Professor Scott Page demonstrates how diverse groups make better decisions than homogenous ones, because they benefit not only from divergent perspectives and information, but also from varied problem-solving heuristics, interpretations, predictive models and decision rules. Strikingly, the fact that it is typically harder for diverse groups to come to a consensus or reach a decision often ultimately works to their advantage, as disagreements prevent premature, suboptimal decisions and solutions.


Diverse school leadership teams not only have the potential to make better and more innovative decisions, but they also provide effective role models for all students, ensure broader access to talent, and enhance professional learning. Additionally, when the board and leadership team of a school embrace an intercultural mindset, that perspective tends to affect all aspects of a school, from recruitment to student learning, from professional development and promotion to community and staff relations.  


Key findings

Due to different cultural norms, laws, regulations, policies and understandings of the definitions of DEI-J, context played a role in the survey responses and should be noted. Nonetheless, despite such differences, a number of key findings emerged:

  1. Definitions of diversity, equity, and inclusion vary among international schools.  

  2. International schools are mostly focused on the diversity of students.

  3. Awareness of the importance of a diverse leadership team matters.

  4. Intentionality followed by implementation across time makes a difference in the development of a diverse leadership team.

  5. Recruiting for a diverse leadership team can be difficult but it is doable.

  6. Support progress through policies, accreditation, and strategic planning.

  7. Demonstrable differences in self-efficacy and power were apparent.

  8. Strong models of diversity, equity, and inclusion exist and committed school leaders can make a difference.


Integrated organisational framework

By merging two established frameworks for diversity: the Intercultural Development Continuum and DEI-J, we developed a related ‘Integrated Organisational Framework’ to help international schools and organisations serving international schools become more intercultural, equitable and just.


This framework is designed to help schools diagnose the challenges they face and move forward given their specific situation:


  • Resistance – identify sources of resistance and learn from schools in similar contexts.

  • Commitment – articulate a commitment to DEI-J and interculturalism that reflects your unique context.

  • Strategic Focus – establish specific goals and long-term plans.

  • Persistence – respond to inevitable challenges.

  • Sustainability/Leadership – leverage commitment and serve as role models, mentors and leaders.

International schools may find themselves at different points of the framework, depending on the particular DEI-J issue (e.g., student inclusion, senior leadership diversity, local staff engagement) they are addressing, and they may move back and forth among the stages as situations arise, contexts evolve, or leadership changes.


The integrated organisational framework suggests how individual international schools, supporting organisations and the international school sector as a whole can cultivate more diverse leadership and ultimately become more intercultural.


DEI-J recommendations for schools

To address resistance:

  • Attend local or regional training

  • Learn from others’ journeys

  • Articulate why DEI-J is important

To establish commitment:

  • Evaluate your leadership pipeline

  • Host courageous conversations

  • Refine DEI-J in your context

To develop a strategic focus:

  • Focus on DEI-J in your strategic plan and reaccreditation self-study

  • Establish priorities and goals

  • Recruit and promote diversity

To ensure persistence:

  • Celebrate successes and learn from challenges

  • Use a tool like the Intercultural Development Inventory

  • Share your journey

To achieve sustainability/leadership:

  • Use your DEI-J reputation to promote your school

  • Lead the DEI-J efforts in your region and globally

  • Write a case study or a journal article


DEI-J regional and global recommendations

  • Develop international school definitions of DEI-J

  • Gather data about existing inequities

  • Include PD sessions about DEI-J at conferences

  • Educate school boards and search committees about DEI-J and connect to diverse networks

  • Work with accreditation agencies to promote and share effective DEI-J strategies

  • Identify a critical friends group in each region

  • Create case studies

  • Share and promote best practice


How to get involved

Diverse school leadership teams not only have the potential to make better and more innovative decisions, but they also provide effective role models for all students, ensure broader access to talent, and enhance professional learning.


Much can be done to increase DEI-J at international schools, particularly with regard to the recruitment, mentoring, and support of school leaders. To effect the significant change envisioned, parallel efforts by supporting organisations, such as recruitment firms, reaccreditation agencies, regional associations and global organisations, are essential.


Sector-wide initiatives, such as the Diversity Collaborative, can also reinforce, magnify and standardise best practices, ensuring that progress persists through the inevitable leadership transitions experienced by international schools.

Liz Duffy is President of International Schools Services (ISS) and Dana Watts is ISS Director of Research and Development. For a full version of the Diversity in Leadership report and supporting resources as well as additional information about how to get involved with the Diversity Collaborative, visit

Liz Duffy

Dana Watts

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