Equity & Diversity Opinion

Are Schools Developing the Next-Gen Woman Leaders?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 02, 2015 4 min read
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It’s our time to have wage equality...and equal rights for women in the United Sates of America"; so said Patricia Arquette as she accepted the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress this past February. The remarks earned spontaneous applause and demonstrable support from Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez. And, yes, there has been backlash about whether her remarks were inclusive enough of women of color and the LGBTQ community but she pushed a button about women in this country that has caused us to think about education’s role. Wage inequality and the lack of equal rights for women are a results of the way people think and act. As educators, how girls and boys are treated and how adult behaviors are viewed can impact this next generation of men and women and their attitudes about women’s role in leadership.

Family, Society, and Equity
Whether teacher, building, or district leader, is there a difference in the expectations and challenges women face from those for men? The answer is “of course”, at least at some point in their work life. If it is true in our society, why wouldn’t it be true for women teachers or educational leaders? The statistics about women in leadership in education as well as in business remain confounding. Here are four unsettling facts from the American Association of University Women (AAUW):

  1. As of 2013 the pay gap had barely budged in a decade.
  2. The pay gap is worse for women of color.
  3. Women face a pay gap in nearly every occupation.
  4. The pay gap grows with age.

In their Harvard Business Review article, Herminia Ibarra, Robin Ely, and Deborah Kolb wrote,

Becoming a leader involves much more than being put in a leadership role, acquiring new skills, and adapting one’s style to the requirements of that role. It involves a fundamental identity shift. Organizations inadvertently undermine this process when they advise women to proactively seek leadership roles without also addressing policies and practices that communicate a mismatch between how women are seen and the qualities and experiences people tend to associate with leaders.

What does this mean for women? What does this mean for men? What does this mean for the students in our schools? Can we change the way women are perceived and the way we perceive ourselves without addressing this issue in our schools? Information about women’s issues attracts the attention of women, naturally, but, also of men who are fathers of girls, supervisors of women, and leaders in schools in which women work and girls are learning. This is not a women’s issue; it is a family issue, a societal issue and an equity issue. The way women are viewed, the way women view themselves, the expectations and the barriers they confront, perceived or actual, affects everyone.

Limiting Messages
Messages to young women are not as limiting as they used to be. The days of narrowing career opportunities for women to teaching and nursing may have been left behind, but messages that shape young men and women as they are growing in their school years and beyond, remain limiting. Just examine the number of girls in higher levels of science and math courses. Not surprisingly, executive level positions in Silicone Valley companies reflect that. A Business Insider article highlighted a recent report from law firm Fenwick & West LLP s that stated women hold just 11% of executive positions at Silicon Valley companies.

The Huffington Post reported Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was asked the question, “When will there be enough women on the Supreme Court?” Her answer was “nine.” If this has caused a raised eyebrow, think for a moment, did anyone question when there were nine male justices?

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO and author of the book, Lean In, offers insight into why we have so few women leaders.


Policies, Practices, and Attitudes Can Change
An interesting awareness has arisen recently with the movement to put the face of a woman on U.S. currency. Women have made political and social contributions, certainly. But, none has yet been president of the country. How do we take hold of the change in attitude, policy, and opportunity for the young women in schools, and the teachers and leaders in charge of them?

What are the policies and practices in schools that shape the way young men and women are developing? How do these policies and practices impact the continuing messages about men and women in leadership? We might begin by:

  1. Examining the leadership roles available and filled by girls and boys in our schools. Are there ways to introduce leadership opportunities for those who haven’t yet stepped up?
  2. Becoming aware of the repercussive impact of those elementary experiences as students move into high school courses. Attitudes about courses, “what I like and what I don’t, what I’m good at and what I’m not” form early in school.
  3. Becoming aware of language and humor, everywhere from locker rooms to faculty rooms
  4. Paying attention to places where boys and girls are treated differently, whether they are held to different expectations and whether they receive feedback that is equally reinforcing.
  5. Becoming aware of the different ways boys and girls are spoken to when they are facing difficulties
  6. Examining how cultural values about men and women seep into schools, making those working in them unwitting culprits in reinforcing limiting messages
  7. Finding the best teachers, female and male, and encourage them into leadership roles so that all children benefit and girls have role models
  8. Remembering that we teach always, in everything we say and do. If this presidential election has a female candidate, let’s remember children will be watching and learning.

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