School & District Management Opinion

A Conversation With Peter DeWitt About the Gender Imbalance in Educational Leadership

By Nancy Flanagan — January 12, 2015 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Peter DeWitt (rising star in education leadership and fellow Ed Week blogger) and I have been exchanging viewpoints on gender imbalance in education leadership. We’d like to know what readers think. From our conversation:

[Nancy] In a recent blog, you wondered about whether teacher leadership has reached a tipping point. I was a keynote speaker at a conference around teacher leadership in your neck of the woods, last August, where I heard teacher-panelists say things like “This is my second year as a teacher leader” and “We don’t have teacher leaders in my district"--which tells me that if teacher leadership has reached a tipping point, it’s tipped over into a particular conception: role-based, defined, compensated--and in the service of goals determined by the district and administrators, not teachers themselves.

I believe that there is never a vacuum around teacher leadership--the question is around what direction, toward which goals, that leadership is headed. If teacher leaders are acolytes--that is, formally chosen to accomplish pre-selected goal--then it may make higher-ups comfortable, but it’s not about organic leadership from the folks who are actually doing the work.

And the people actually doing the work in education are overwhelmingly female. Somewhere between 80% and 85% of classroom teachers are women.

Why, then, are the nonprofit CEOs, thought leaders, big names in ed tech and on social media, best-selling authors, administrators and bosses in education so overwhelmingly male (and, I’d add, white)?

[Peter] Nancy, you ask a very good question and I’m not sure I can give you a proper answer because I wonder about the same thing. For eleven years I was an elementary school teacher, and most of my colleagues were female. However, the administrators that I had in 2 out of 3 buildings were both male.

As a school administrator in a K-5 setting, I was actually the first male principal in the 50 years history of the school, so my perspective is skewed a bit. The female teachers in the building actually wanted someone who came from the elementary teaching ranks and they specifically wanted to have a male principal because it was a building long led by women. Perhaps they thought having a male would be a big change and I’m not sure if that self-fulfilling prophecy came to fruition or not.

However, I’m not blind to the fact that most of my counterparts were male, even though the superintendent and assistant superintendent in the district were both female. I used to wonder if women were interested in the role of principal or assistant principal, but as I have gotten older and more experienced, my opinion is that women are not looked at in the same way as men.

I understand that is a case by case basis and there are progressive districts that do not care about the gender of the leader, but whether they are a good leader or not. However, I feel like in other districts it is much harder for women to take the lead and they deal with issues of contradiction. The old idea that a man who is tough is a good leader but a women who is tough may be called a far different name.

In some ways I feel a sense of marginality in my thinking around women in education. As a gay man I have had experiences where I was not allowed into the old guard of men, and there have been times throughout my career that I was not allowed to be open about being a gay man. However because I was a guy I was given entrance by men who did not know I was gay because they assumed I was straight. It was only after finding out I was gay that problems existed. I was left out of certain things. I learned that I had to be twice as competitive as those around me. So, it was like a part of me understands how women who are not accepted feel, but the other part of me has been given access because I was a guy.

It’s not fair. As you can see, I don’t have any answer for your question because I wonder the same thing.

[Nancy] How does that shape the education discourse, when the majority of mouthpieces are male? Who has the loudest voice in education policy--and why?

[Peter] As you know I recently wrote a blog about 18 women who I believe are great thought leaders, and you were one of them. I originally wrote the blog because I wanted to highlight the women who have inspired me. The blog went viral and I had Tweets, comments and e-mails from people around the world. Many people provided names they would have added to the list, and others wanted to edit my grammar, which was unfortunate because they clearly missed the point.

What happened after the blog has been interesting. I have heard from many of the women on the list and they received new followers on Twitter and some were approached about writing forwards for books or keynote speeches and other jobs. But, the blog also brought about the fact that women are not up on the stage as much as men are, and that is really unfortunate because we are missing out on some important voices in the field.

When conferences do not have keynoters who are women, or panels that have women, the conference organizers are not just missing out on an important perspective, they are perpetuating a hidden curriculum as well. That curriculum is that women have less of a voice than the men around them do, and that is wrong.

Many will jump at me after reading this and ask about Diane Ravitch, Linda Darling-Hammond or Carol Dweck, but all I would answer to that is...wow. You gave me three. I would bet that anyone reading this blog would be able to list 10 men much quicker than they can list 5 women and we have to change that perspective...now. We have a real opportunity to make sure women have a much more active voice in education, and that starts by empowering our female teachers, students and leaders to speak up more often that they do. It takes both men and women to foster school climates where that is accepted and fostered.

On Twitter someone Tweeted that it should matter about the “genitalia” and they were right in one respect, but I thought it was ironic that it was a man who said it. I agree with him that the genitalia shouldn’t matter but unfortunately, it does right now and we must have real dialogue around that and move forward finding our best leaders.

[Nancy] Read Peter’s blog--Where Are All the Women in Educational Leadership?--and stay tuned for my response.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.