School & District Management

Ed-Tech Community Faces Sexism Concerns

By Benjamin Herold — July 03, 2014 7 min read
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From sexual harassment to the glass ceiling, the challenges women face in the workplace are suddenly front and center in the education technology world.

On the heels of claims of rape and harassment at the 2013 conference of the International Society for Technology in Education, perhaps the country’s largest ed-tech gathering, have overhauled their guidelines for attendee conduct.

The new rules were in place here this week, where ISTE’s 2014 conference featured the launch of a new network of female ed-tech leaders who aim to promote career-advancement opportunities and improved experiences for women working in technology jobs for school districts and companies.

“To hear that I’m not alone, that it’s not just a personal issue I face trying to be a leader, was just overwhelming,” said Mia Kim Williams, one of about 45 women who took part in the inaugural meeting of the new International Leadership Network for Women in EdTech.

“Having a space to feel that has been the thing that has been lacking in my career,” said Ms. Williams, an associate professor of curriculum studies and technology at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley.

Roughly 16,000 classroom educators, school and district technology officials, and entrepreneurs and industry officials participated in this year’s ISTE conference.

Women are well represented in educational technology, accounting for roughly 65 percent of ISTE’s membership, according to the Washington-based organization.

But problems such as wage inequality, inequitable access to leadership positions, and sexual harassment have been well documented in the broader technology industry.

While hard data on the prevalence of such problems specifically in the ed-tech sector remain scant, nearly a dozen prominent women in the field shared during interviews with Education Week common stories of being harassed and bullied in the workplace, watching as less qualified men passed them on the career ladder, and being subjected to a steady stream of slights and false assumptions that served to undermine their confidence.

“We all hear things like ‘we are just teachers,’ and that female founders of ed-tech companies go into venture-capital meetings with their husbands to be taken seriously,” Sehreen NoorAli, a co-founder of EdTechWomen, a Baltimore- and New York City-based professional-development network, said during a leadership dinner the group hosted at the ISTE conference.

“We’re trying to create a community that mentors and lifts women up together,” Ms. NoorAli said.

The suddenly public conversation about the treatment of women in the ed-tech field was ignited in part by Ariel C. Norling, a 22-year-old graduate student and entrepreneur.

Last month, Ms. Norling published online a first-person account in which she described being raped and sexually harassed while attending ISTE’s 2013 conference in San Antonio. Ms. Norling has not publicly identified or pressed charges against either of the men allegedly involved in the separate incidents, and her claims have not been independently corroborated.

Her account struck a nerve for many in the field.

“I do think there are incidents that happen all the time at conferences,” said Audrey Watters, a freelance writer and speaker on ed-tech issues who maintains the popular Hack Education blog. “They’re huge issues we face broadly in our society, and I don’t think ed tech is immune to it.”

Behavior Guidelines

Following a groundswell of concern and online reaction, ISTE announced major changes to its code of conduct for the conference.

The version in place in June 2013, at the time of the incidents alleged by Ms. Norling, called on participants only to treat one another “fairly and with respect.”

The new guidelines explicitly outline unacceptable and harassing behaviors, delineate clear protocols for addressing such behaviors when they occur, and identify specific consequences for violations, including evictions and bans from conference events.

Such detailed codes have become increasingly common in the broader technology world, said Valerie Aurora, the executive director of the Ada Initiative, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that supports women’s involvement in open-source technology and has helped push the organizers of a wide range of technology events and other conferences to adopt similar guidelines.

Some technology-conference attendees, Ms. Aurora said, believe that behaviors such as using pornography in presentation slides or making repeated unwanted sexual advances via social media are acceptable until directly told otherwise. The result can be a climate that is unwelcoming at best, and unsafe at worst.

“If you ask, lots of women will tell you about their horrible experiences,” Ms. Aurora said.

Kecia Ray, the chairwoman of ISTE’s board of directors, said the changes to the organization’s conference code of conduct—along with the decision to no longer provide some free alcohol promotions to participants—resulted this year in “a different kind of mood, with people being more aware and more respectful of one another.”

Ms. Ray, who is the executive director of learning technology for the 81,000-student Metro Nashville school system in Tennessee, was also the driving force behind the creation of the new International Leadership Network for Women in EdTech, whose affiliation with ISTE is still being negotiated.

She said the network will be dedicated to encouraging women to believe in themselves, to supporting them in efforts to attain leadership positions in education, and to helping them maintain a good work-life balance. It will also seek to promote greater cultural diversity among women leaders in the field.

“It’s taken me a ‘hot minute’ to move into administrative positions. There’s unfair treatment around salary, titles, and whether you sit in [cabinet-level positions] or not,” said Ms. Ray, a 27-year education veteran. “We need to be a little more assertive as women to connect to one another.”

Such networking opportunities can be valuable both personally and professionally, said Margaret H. Roth, also a co-founder of the group EdTechWomen.

On several occasions, Ms. Roth said, prospective investors have said they would finance the Baltimore-based ed-tech startup she helped found—but only if she were replaced in her current position of chief operating officer.

“When that happened, I felt like ‘I can’t care; I need to be tough.’ But it was a really painful experience,” she said. “To know now there is a place that I can talk about it is healing and empowering.”

Similar Stories

During the dinner that EdTechWomen hosted at the ISTE conference, similar stories were common.

Anya Ruvinskaya, the student-audience program manager for Microsoft in Education, said it’s difficult not to notice how corporate ed-tech work is often divided by gender.

“All the women are on the audience and [marketing] teams, and all the men are on the solutions and technical teams,” she said.

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, the CEO of Powerful Learning Practice, a teacher-professional-development company based in Virginia Beach, Va., said that even for those women who make it on to technical projects with typically all-male staffs, there is often a personal price to pay.

“I never allowed myself to have the professional identity of being a girl,” she said.

And two women who have held ed-tech leadership positions in K-12 public schools, both of whom requested anonymity for fear of negative repercussions for their careers, described instances of being verbally abused and harassed by male staff members.

“He would never have bullied a man,” one of the women said of such a colleague. “It took me almost two years to write a memo and say, ‘I’m not putting up with this anymore.’ ”

For the most part, the women who spoke with Education Week took pains to avoid casting blame upon men as a group for the issues they described.

For some, it was actually other women who constituted a barrier to advancement.

“Women [leaders] are sometimes the hardest people to get to open up to you, because if another woman is introduced into the group, that’s threatening to them,” said Kelsey Vrooman, the educational technology director for San Francisco’s independent Urban School, during the EdTechWomen dinner.

Reversing that dynamic and forming stronger connections between aspiring and established women leaders is at the heart of the networking mission adopted by both EdTechWomen and the new International Leadership Network, the groups’ leaders said.

Already, there are signs of progress.

Jean Tower is the director of technology for the 4,700-student Northborough and Southborough public schools in Massachusetts. She is also the board chairwoman of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN, a membership organization for district chief technology officers that recently began offering a certificate in educational technology leadership.

Ms. Tower said that men have gravitated toward the certificate program in disproportionate numbers, in part because women are often perceived—by others and by themselves—as less knowledgeable about technology than they really are.

“The men dare to go for the job, even if they’re not qualified, while women think they have to be qualified for years before they can even ask for it,” she said.

It’s a reality that Ms. Tower said she now hopes to play a role in changing.

“I want to really seek out women who aren’t yet a CTO or tech director and mentor them so they can make that role,” she said. “This will accelerate our discussions.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2014 edition of Education Week as Ed-Tech Community Faces Sexism Concerns

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