Same but different

When women lead boys' schools

Two women principals were recently appointed to boys schools. They talk to journalist Sue Osborne about breaking new ground and what they bring to the table.

Since 2021 dawned, a series of media reports have raised serious and disturbing questions around gender roles and respectful relationships, particularly in the non-government school sector. As schools strive to understand and change this, we talk to two principals who are already making a big difference.

Silvana Rossetti

Silvana Rossetti is making history as the first female principal at 84-year-old boys’ school Marist College Eastwood, in Sydney’s north-west.

A couple of times a student has greeted her in the corridor with: “Good morning, Sir – I mean Miss. Sorry Miss, force of habit!”

Only five weeks into her role when she spoke to IE, Rossetti said surprise has been the predominant reaction from the school community, but also pleasure, particularly from female teachers.

School leadership is nothing new for Rossetti: she was assistant principal and acting principal for 10 years at Catherine McAuley, Westmead, an all-girls school also in Sydney’s north-west. She spent the first 14 years of her career teaching in a co-ed government school.

Transitioning to a boys’ school has not fazed Rossetti; her view is “education is education”.

“I’m really passionate about education and excited to be a role model for the boys, as I have hopefully been a role model for girls in the past,” she said.

Role modelling is a crucial part of Rossetti’s philosophy. Having taught physics and biology before moving into leadership, Rossetti wants girls to see female role models both in leadership and the sciences.

But she also wants boys to see female leadership in action. “Being in a ‘boys’ club’ is not good preparation for life – boys need to understand that respect for everyone, regardless of who they are, is important in today’s world,” she said.

“The more boys see women in leadership roles, the more society can evolve, and we can tackle some of the problems we’ve been reading and hearing about lately.”

Thanks to encouragement from one of her own female mentors, Rossetti gained a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership in the mid-2000s while guiding her son through high school and holding down a full-time teaching job.

“I think I’ve been confident enough to step forward into leadership roles because someone has said to me, ‘hey, have you thought about this? I think you’ve got some good qualities that could make you a leader’,” Rossetti said.

Rossetti hopes to support the staff at Marist Eastwood similarly, and her door is open for them to talk to her about their aspirations.

“I’m not in the classroom with the students, they are, so my job is to support them as much as I can so they can do the best by the students,” Rossetti said.

“There are more males on staff than at my previous school, but so far that has not been an issue. Some of the females have said they are happy to welcome a female principal, but so have some of the men. They are keen to see what kind of leadership I will offer.”

Having met with the P&F several times, she said the parents seem excited and supportive.

“It’s quite a lovely community and they want their boys to grow up with respect for everybody,” she said.

A member of the union’s Principals Sub Branch, Rossetti said being able to touch base with other principals, male and female, share ideas and find out how other schools are approaching problems has been a big help.

Vicki Lavorato

Dr Vittoria Lavorato (known as Vicki) has recently taken the reins at St Patrick’s College Strathfield, a Catholic primary and secondary school in the inner-western Sydney suburb of Strathfield. She is also the first female principal of this boys’ school.

It’s not Lavorato’s first experience in leadership at a boys’ school: she spent some years as a deputy at Waverley College in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. She has also been a principal in two girls’ schools: Domremy College at Five Dock; and Bethany College, Hurstville.

Lavorato said leadership appointments should be gender blind, based on merit, talent and ability. “It’s never been an issue when men have been appointed principal at an all-girls school, so it shouldn’t raise concern when it’s the other way around,” she said.

Lavorato began her career as a mathematics and science teacher, and she also had a stint as a regional director with Sydney Catholic Schools. “I was a very interesting looking deputy headmaster back in the 1990s, as there was no attempt to make that job title gender neutral,” she said.

Lavorato comes from post-war migrant parents who didn’t get to complete primary school, so she is justly proud of her doctorate. “I believe in the liberating power of education,” she said. “Coming from quite an impoverished background, I believe teachers can help bridge the gap for their students.”

A love of education spurred Lavorato to undertake a master’s degree in pure mathematics at the University of Sydney. She also has a graduate diploma in theology and has completed doctoral research in secondary school improvement.

“I love being in the chaos of schools,” she said. “What inspired me to become a teacher from the beginning was the students, and that passion hasn’t changed. They give me life and energy and I love being able to make a difference in their world.”

Lavorato sees a difference in how boys learn, particularly in their activity levels, self-confidence and willingness to take risks. But she says there are more similarities than differences between boys' and girls' schools.

But this lack of confidence and self-belief she sees in female students manifests in women not taking full advantage of their career opportunities, Lavorato says.

“Women often talk themselves out of opportunities, especially if they’re mothers,” she said. “At St Pat’s, I’ve been meeting every person individually. I think as a female leader you learn quickly to put a lot of energy into building positive relationships. It is the first step in building authentic collaboration within a school culture.

“Meeting and encouraging the women in my workplace will be an ongoing thing, because you find women can be reluctant to consider leadership positions. Reminding them of their skills and capabilities and letting them know they are ready can often give reluctant women the impetus to ‘put their hand up’ and lead.

“When my appointment at St Pat’s was announced, there was fabulous support from the community, from teachers, parents, boys and old boys. Parents have commented on how pleased they are that the school is being progressive and in tune with other workplaces.

“I remind staff that you can have a work/life balance because people like me have done it. I was the primary caregiver to my two children in the past. They’re grown now, but with two children and a husband, and being married for 35 years, you learn the efficacy of multitasking, delegation and prioritisation.”

Lavorato hopes her appointment will challenge assumptions and stop people making sweeping generalisations about women in leadership. Disappointingly, Lavorato still experienced some trolling on social media, with comments to the effect that her appointment was a sad day for boys’ education.

“Some people perceive education to be a ‘highly feminised’ profession and these prized positions in boys’ schools were the last male domain,” she said. “But in reality, while there may be a lot of female teachers, principals’ positions still tend to be dominated by males.

“I never got around to responding to the negative comments, but I didn’t need to. The education community saw those remarks and answered them on my behalf.”