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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

Women in Leadership: Does Gender Matter?

By Jennifer Abrams — May 28, 2015 4 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Jennifer Abrams, one of the women featured in “18 women all K-12 educators should know.”

Mad Men ended on Sunday and Joan Holloway, played by Christina Hendricks, is seen in a final scene starting her own production company from her dining room table. Given that she feels like a soul sister in that I also went forth to start my own consulting business, I applauded her courage. Joan was one of the first women to strike out solo and to be a leader in her field.

And in the year she did so, 1970, I was 3 years old. As I watched that final episode I knew 45 years later, in 2015, that 1970 was just the beginning and we aren’t done yet. Women are still working towards equality. Just this afternoon, I looked at a report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research where they showed women earn less than men in every state in the nation. We are facing a very entrenched problem of sexism in the workplace.

And some don’t see it. Maybe more so they don’t see it in education as so many women are in the field. On a recent Twitter Chat for aspiring administrators, (#admin2b), focusing on the topic of women in leadership I noticed that almost all, not all, participants were typing responses as to how gender shouldn’t matter in choosing a leader. Many commented it was being the best person for the position that mattered.

I think the best orgs see past gender and focus on who is best for the job at hand!” “Good leaders/bad leaders, gender doesn’t matter,” they said.

While that might be wonderful in the ideal, the truth is gender still matters in terms of who achieves leadership positions in education. Maybe not as much in some parts of the nation as others, or less at elementary than secondary, but gender is still alive and well in terms of who gets the job.

I shared my noticings with friend, Karin Lippert (@klippert, www.notperfecthatclub). And in her kind voice, Karen said, “You’re surprised?” Ugh.

Karin, who has worked for Ms. Magazine and The Phil Donahue Show, has been a women’s rights advocate for decades, and when I commented that I was writing on the topic of women and leadership in education, Karin said, “It’s gonna take more than a few blogs to get this conversation going in education.

In education, women don’t talk much about being women in education. The word ‘feminist’ is still too inflammatory for most to use in our workplaces. The idea that we would fight for ourselves as women educators doesn’t feel right to many. After all, it isn’t about us. It’s about the students. As the majority of teachers in the USA are women we don’t feel right speaking up for ourselves as there are so many of us. We care for the kids. And yet, in positions of leadership, especially at the top, there are fewer of us. It is a conversation to have.

As I spoke to Karin she cited and commented, reacted and opined. Our conversation made me realize how little I know about who came before me. Who the real “Joans” were.

Karin suggested a few reading/watching/listening/viewing assignments:

READ: The Housewife’s Moment of Truth by Jane O’Reilly, New York Magazine, December, 1971. While written in 1971 it didn’t feel so unlike Lean In from 2013.

WATCH: Makers: Women Who Make America, a 2013 documentary film about the struggle for women’s equality in the United States during the last five decades of the 20th century.

LISTEN: Robin Morgan is host of ‘Live with Robin Morgan’ and the co-founder of the Women’s Media Center (www.womensmediacenter.com/), an organization “amplifying women’s voices and changing the conversation.”

SEE: Clio is dedicated to developing innovative American history projects that are designed to attract students, inform educators and researchers, and appeal to a wide public audience. They are producing Click! The Ongoing Feminist Revolution, an online exhibition which will highlight the collective action and individual achievements of women over the past fifty years and explore the power and complexity of gender consciousness in modern American life.

I have my homework cut out for me. I know that I am not alone in my need for history lessons. A trainer at the gym, born in 1990, didn’t know who Gloria Steinem was. (!) But beyond reading and watching in my apartment, solo, I think the confidence building and consciousness raising conversation must continue out in our schools, in district offices and online.

As a member of the group, Learning Omnivores, I have been a part of bringing educators from across the country together with those from whom we want to learn. We create our own events and design our own PD. We, women leadership focused learning omnivores could design an event around confidence building and finding our voice in leadership. It is possible. Joan Holloway started her business from her dining room table. We can do the same. Virtually, in person, wherever. Join me.

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.