Education Opinion

The Women We Need in Leadership

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 29, 2018 5 min read
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Who would have thought that Stormy Daniels would have given us an idea for a blog? But, there she was on camera outside a courthouse in New York City and she said “who would have thought a woman like me...” There it was. As two elder women who have little, if anything, in common with her, we couldn’t get the phrase out of our heads. We don’t know what her life is like but we do know what it is like to be the unlikely woman. We hear her phrase in our own heads and know others do also. We looked around and there they were everywhere, women making a difference in the world. Think of the week that passed.

There was Tammie Jo Shults, the female pilot who successfully landed the Southwest plane after an engine failure. She was one of the first women to serve a a pilot of a naval fighter jet and there she was, an American civilian hero, walking down the aisle and speaking to each passenger. The life lost was tragic for sure but everyone acknowledged it could have been a much worse with her knowledge, skill, and composure.

There was Barbara Bush, the former first lady of the nation. As she passed from life, she remained a model, with faith, with humor, with family and with love...and with the force of speaking truth. Who among us will have a 72 year marriage, experience the devastation of losing a child, or be first lady or be the mother of a president and a governor? She left a legacy of strong lifelong commitment to family literacy. Thousands gathered to pay respect and give thanks for a life well used.

There was Nikki Haley, the South Carolina governor turned United Nations ambassador. We have watched her since the Charleston killings. She is a leader without question but, we wondered, if given her leadership she could follow the script she was given. And she has...until she couldn’t. The leader who stood as in the center of the Confederate flag debate and led forward was now on a new team. She spoke out to affirm the importance and dignity of African nations when insulted by our POTUS. But, then, this past week, there it was. She spoke of new sanctions against Russia coming within the day or two and they didn’t happen. Larry Kudlow, the new, male, administration economic advisor, said she was confused. The Nikki Haley we had been watching responded, strongly and immediately. “With all due respect, I do not get confused”. We believe her.

There were the women who were the Cosby accusers. They might have once been victims but now they were raising voices with courage and dignity. Perhaps fortified by #MeToo, they found each other and united in the determination of unsettled decades. The voice was heard and followed by news daily as the second trial proceeded. The story had its own life and we are sure none of these women ever expected to be the women who were there, testifying. One of them said they were taking back control of their lives. We get it.

There were female teachers in states like West Virginia and Kentucky and Arizona who left classrooms to lead and join the protests about salaries and classrooms and funds supporting education. It had become enough....the words about how important education was without the action of value following those words. Change comes but slowly and not without courage and voices.

Female Leadership

We have written before about the need for more women in leadership. The simple numbers of women in our profession call for it. Many are well prepared and ready to step into this moment. We think back over the men who made a difference for us as we were growing into becoming leaders. We were in the early days when there were only a few women who “left” classrooms to enter offices. One such memory involves a NYS Commissioner of Education. He observed the two female superintendents who sat at his monthly meetings with the forty two men. He knew they must have something to offer but seldom heard it. They knew their male colleagues had dinners before those meetings and discussed the agenda and their positions. In the summer, it was golf and drinks afterwards but not for the two women. Instead, they were told the story of the woman who came before them who “shook hands like a man”. Finally, they asked for a meeting with the Commissioner. Surprisingly, he agreed. They raised the issue, carefully and respectfully told their story. He listened. At the end, he offered an agreement. He would create space for them to lead within the group if they committed to use their voices at the table. It worked. Those two women are now retired but behind them have come another 12 women at that table and a new Commissioner. There are still dinners and golf but, at the decision table, changes endure.

In all fields, women are seeking and finding greater voice. As they do, we remind all who lead that voice is what matters. Allow a person voice and they will speak and sing, become orators and actors and work together on teams. But, not just any voice because voice can also have dreadfully negative effects. No, the voices must be ones of truth and courage and respect and civility. Strong voices will bring change and will create discourse. They can uplift and enlist collaboration or humiliate and discourage. The pilot, the former FLOTUS, the Ambassador, the accusers all have exhibited courage. We have written frequently about that virtue. Nevertheless, it doesn’t always take the same shape and form.

A new book, The Courage Way, Leading and Living With Integrity, by The Center for Courage & Renewal and Shelly Francis, brought back to mind a lesson from Rollo May. There are multiple kinds of courage: physical courage, moral courage, social courage and creative courage. As we yearn for leaders and seek leadership for schools, we might be well advised to develop a deep understanding of courage. Most of us won’t be called into an act of physical courage but the other three kinds, well, they can be a daily part of our work. Let’s also not forget that courage is too often a lonely place and that joining others give courage the loft it deserves and the human beings who are courageous the support they deserve.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.