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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Where Are All the Women in Educational Leadership?

By Peter DeWitt — January 12, 2015 4 min read
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Recently, I posted 18 Women All Educators Should Know. They are women in education who have inspired me over the years. It was an honor to list their names and more of an honor to know them. There were many reasons why I wrote the blog. I have long been inspired by the women on the list, and felt they needed to be highlighted. Their voices need to be heard over and over again.

In typical fashion there were commenters who were angry because I left their favorite off the list. It was not my intention to offend, and quite frankly I was happy to see others jump into the conversation because they wanted me to know about others. I could never make everyone happy with a list but I stand by the 18 chosen because they have a powerful influence over my work.

However, something amazing also happened. People began Tweeting who the women they were inspired by, and others sent me e-mails with information about the women who had an impact on their careers. Thoughtful, beautiful e-mails about the women on their list.

We need to keep open dialogue about women in leadership positions and those women who are thought leaders. A person on Twitter commented that we shouldn’t care about the “genitalia” because we need to be more concerned about their leadership skills. I agree, but it would have been a little easier to take if...

It wasn’t a guy who Tweeted it.

I agree that in the future we should not be concerned about genitalia, but right now we need to be...because it matters. When we attend conferences or see educational books, most panelists are men, and most of those educational books are written by men. I don’t wish to take away from their accomplishments, but many have a very strong female helping them achieve their work, which all of the guys would admit to in a second.

My greater concern is that if we lined up ten men and ten women, and then secretly chose who should sit on a panel, more men would be chosen because they are perceived as being better “known” in the field, when the reality is that some of the women not chosen may be better known and more highly respected.

There are many reasons why this happens. According to this study by Hoff and Mitchell, our actions may fall into one very interesting category. Hoff and Mitchell wrote,

Women and men both believe that a "Good Ol' Boy" still exists, which culturally marginalizes many administrators, especially women (45.71% of men and 73.72% of women). It was not too surprising that a majority of women reported the existence of such a network; however, what was somewhat surprising is that almost half of the male respondents agreed. The presence of a "Good ol boy" network may encourage action (i.e., actively and deliberately providing information and assistance to males in the network regarding job opportunities), or inaction (i.e., actively and deliberately withholding vital information from women that keeps them outside the political "knowledge" loop). It also may result in a form of complicity (i.e., an awareness that there are forces at work that advantage some and disadvantage others with no steps taken to challenge or interrupt them.) As a consequence, if a "network" exists (which may be largely hidden, but have visible effects), it may serve as a disincentive and keep those on the outside (mostly women) from entering or trying to advance in leadership. Those who see themselves as outside the network may give up before they start."

Where Do We Go From Here?

The blog went viral for many days, which means that it struck a chord. Clearly my writing wasn’t the reason it resonated because a couple of people with too much time on their hands corrected my grammar instead of adding to the larger discussion. I believe the blog resonated because we have come to a time when we need to stop ignoring the women in the field and their accomplishments. And make no mistake, when they are not chosen to speak when they are highly qualified, we are ignoring their voices.

Women shouldn’t be chosen based on being a women, just like men shouldn’t be chosen because of being a man. But women shouldn’t be ignored or not chosen because they happen to be female either.

I would like to challenge conference organizers, interviewing panels for leadership positions, and college leadership preparation programs. Choose more women to write books, take leadership positions, and to give keynotes or plenary sessions. Truly look at your practices, list of candidates and your conference history. Reflect on how many men were chosen to speak, lead or write as opposed to women.

The women I listed as my 18 do not get the chance to speak as often as their male counterparts, and yet each and every one of those women have research, blogs, books or practices that those men highlight in their own presentations.

Why do we look at those women as somehow less important than the men?

In the End

Over the weekend I heard David McCune, the Founder of Corwin Press, give a speech about his mother Sara McCune who founded Sage Publications. After spending time as an educator she went on to found Sage Publications which is a huge publishing organization with offices around the world. As a women in the educational publishing field, she had a tough road fighting through to reach her goal of offering K-12 resources.

We don’t hear enough about the Sara McCune’sof the world. According to this 2011 eSchool News article,

Seventy-two percent of the education workforce consists of women, yet the number of women in leadership positions falls far short of that statistic. They fare best in the role of elementary school principals, with 54 percent of these jobs being held by women. But at the secondary school level, only 26 percent of principals are women, and in the head job of superintendent, 24 percent are women."

Truth be told, my dad died when I was 11. My mom went back to get her GED the year after he died because that was his dying wish. My sister, who was in the National Honor Society graduated from high school 3 months after he died, and chose to give up on some of her dreams in order to help raise her younger brothers. I will never be able to thank her enough for her sacrifice.

As a guy who struggled throughout school and barely graduated from high school (I was ranked 262 out of 266), I did not have many prospects for college. Quite honestly, I failed out of two community colleges. My sister and mom encouraged me to (at least) get a 2 year degree so I could enter the job market with something more than a high school degree. I went far passed that two-year degree.

Women are more than a good blog topic.

Although I had support of all of my siblings, my mom and sister helped me change my life, and there are women who are having that kind of impact all over the world. There are female teachers, principals and thought leaders who are inspiring others and doing important work.

Don’t you think it’s about time they got the respect they deserve?

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.