Equity & Diversity Opinion

Leadership, Sexism, Girls, and Education

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — October 01, 2017 4 min read
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According to the Indiana Business Insider, a whitepaper “authored by GE cited a study that showed more gender-diverse companies perform 53 percent better than lesser ones, including a 34 percent increase in total returns. GE Chief Economist Marco Annunziata notes, ‘Unless we bring more women into technology and manufacturing, there will be a significant negative economic impact on the sector.’ ” So, don’t be surprised that GE intends to hire 5,000 women in the STEM fields in the next three years.The company’s call for girls as scientists includes the honoring of Millie Dresselhaus, the first female professor of physics and engineering at MIT, in a now well-known television commercial.

Time magazine recently featured its project “Time FIRSTS, Women Changing the World ". From multiple field and races and ethnicities, remarkable women are making differences and breaking glass ceilings. Young girls need to know that barriers do fall and in their lifetime potential is unlimited. But, we must prepare them with realism. Yes, that is part of education’s role, not to discourage but to prepare and sustain hope. Breaking barriers isn’t easy and resistance will be present.

We ought not be surprised that amidst this progress a simultaneous backlash is gaining momentum. In the summer news carried the Google story about the engineer whose resistance to diversity training was to post his belief that women were biologically less incapable in tech engineering fields. Last Sunday’s New York Times had an article about the men’s movement in Silicone Valley. It quoted another man, James Altizer, an engineer at the chip maker Nvidia. The 52 year old said he had realized a few years ago that feminists in Silicon Valley had formed a cabal whose goal was to subjugate men.

But, then, women in Saudi Arabia were just given the right to drive. And they can go to school and play sports. All this progress despite some men in that country who think women have only a quarter of the brain of a male person.

Educators Can Make a Difference

There are good reasons why educators, more than most, have a responsibility to find where the ‘isms’ hide within them and how they become visible to others. We are models and shapers and teachers of far more than subjects.

How sad that in 2017 we are still dealing with an undercurrent, and sometimes out in the open push-back against women as equals. How long ago was it that Billie Jean King proving that in a sport that remains divided by gender, a woman could beat a man? A new movie now introduces this generation to that story, the time when a man could feel comfortable calling himself a ‘male chauvinist pig’ and saying ‘a woman’s place was in the home’. Although those words may no longer be said openly, it doesn’t mean the thoughts are gone. There are other ways women are held back and out of opportunities and equality.

Yet, Educators Can be Fooled

Education is a field in which we can be fooled. Schools were always places where women were hired. Women, more than men, fill the ranks of teachers and elementary principals. However, numbers slide away as one considers the data for high school principals and superintendents; those are largely filled by men. Why is that? NPR published an article by Education Week’s Denisa R. Superville in which she reported:

The search for superintendents also traditionally has from districts’ pool of secondary school principals. Women, who were more likely to be elementary principals, were less likely to be immediately tapped. Part of the problem stems from districts’ lack of planning for long-term leadership, which makes it difficult to spot talented educators, including women, who could be groomed to be in charge. Educators also see subtle biases in how school boards and search firms recruit candidates, and negative stereotypes about women’s abilities to lead large institutions are still pervasive.

The higher the position in the organization, the more male the leadership is. Although Denisa R. Superville’s report said that school boards and search firms hold ‘subtle biases’ it doesn’t seem so subtle when looking at results.

What Can Educators Do?

Examine internal values and beliefs and confront external ones. It also may involve running against the current of society or of communities. How can schools make a difference? First, we encourage any woman who has ever thought about stepping into the role of leadership and the superintendency to do so. Second, we encourage school leaders, no matter their gender, to investigate with faculty and staff the manner in which girls are treated, responded to, and encouraged to explore careers and pursue and open closed doors. But it isn’t just about changing how girls think.

We both know a male superintendent, a person who is highly respected and is a model of service and leadership for his community. He tells a story about how he would have had other jobs if the districts didn’t hire women instead. He didn’t see those women as highly qualified educational leaders who were more successful candidates than he. He believed they were hired simply because they were women. That, too, is a story we hope to change. Our work isn’t nearly done, is it?

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

Photo by geralt courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.