Equity & Diversity Opinion

Sexism in the Senate. Sexism in Schools.

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — June 15, 2017 4 min read
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All eyes are on Washington, D.C. these days for a myriad of reasons. So, while others will toss about obstruction, collusion, executive privilege, the emoluments clause, and gun violence, we raise sexism. The bold and unveiled actions of Senators McCain and Richard Burr when Senator Kamala Harris was pushing for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to answer her question(s) have resulted in both men and women calling it out as sexism.

We have long known that standards for men and women are different. The same action taken by both are judged differently. A man is thought to be forthright and assertive when a woman is thought to be rude and aggressive. Residuals of sexism live in all of us. Our ages, the family religious and cultural systems in which we grew up, our education, and even upon the part of the country where we were raised influence our perspectives about gender and our beliefs about men and women, girls and boys.

In the case of this Senate hearing, the only Senator interrupted during questioning was Kamala Harris. And, yes, we say it was more than a coincidence. In the not too recent past, Elizabeth Warren’s was accused of breaking the Senate rules when she was speaking against then Senator Jeff Sessions’ nomination for the Attorney General. Yet, no Senator complained when Senator Ted Cruz was not “formally found to have violated the rules when he accused McConnell of being a “liar” from the Senate floor” according to TheHill.com

Nevertheless, there is a hopefulness in the moment. More people, both men and woman, are recognizing sexism and calling it by name. We have a long way to go before men and women are treated equally but this moment is not to be overlooked. Senators are not the only people actively living out their own beliefs about the difference between men and women. Just this week, the New York Times reported a board member at Uber resigned after making a disparaging remark about the result of having more women on the board. How out of touch can one be when Uber is dealing with so many charges of sexual harassment and its CEO is taking a leave of absence to try to change the corporate culture?

Earlier in the day at an Uber staff meeting to discuss the company’s culture, Arianna Huffington, another board member, talked about how one woman on a board often leads to more women joining a board. “Actually, what it shows is that it’s much more likely to be more talking,” Mr. Bonderman responded.

Leading Progress

Childcare leave laws were changed in 1993 through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) that allowed for unpaid job protected leave for men and women. Over the years since, it has become more accepted and expected that either a woman or a man would have job protection when taking their allowed time to care for a new life in their family. Many families have reaped the rewards of this legislative change but what of other behaviors that may be hidden in schools?

  • Do members of a hiring committee hold a bias toward one gender or another in a leadership position?
  • Do members of that committee respond to decisive talk from a woman as unacceptable?
  • Do leaders respond differently to male and female teachers in similar situations?
  • When observing, do leaders watch for equity in the manner in which teachers’ respond to their male and female students?
  • Are boys’ teams valued more than girls’ teams in subtle ways?

We cannot expect girls to be seen as leaders, or to be encouraged to enter fields previously held by men, without asking ourselves about the very environment the students are living right now. Asking the questions as an organization is a beginning but do we think Senators Burr or McCain will acknowledge that sexism may have been operating in their actions. No, probably not and some will be upset we are even giving the event blog space. But, from one generation to another, we pass along these limiting and judging thoughts that inform actions. We don’t call these two honorable men sexist but the shushing of their female colleagues is an act of sexism. We are capable of acknowledging it, apologizing for it and learning from it. Then, moving on with wisdom gained is fine but ignoring it...not so fine. It is even worse when people like Jason Miller, chief spokesman for the fall 2016 campaign and presidential transition of Donald Trump, call Harris “hysterical” as the way to refute the issue and, we guess, attempt to defend the actions of the men.

Leading More Progress

More and more, the doors to these hidden biases and myths are being opened. The girls in our schools today may not have to face them when they sit in leadership seats. But, we have held that hope for decades and yet, here we still are. A continuing conversation about beliefs and behaviors regarding how girls and boys, women and men are perceived and treated in the school environment is needed. If schools give it serious attention, and openly reflect and address the gender bias’ held by the adults and children also, a difference in how the girls and boys are growing and seeing each other in the world can change. If schools give it serious attention, maybe the next generation of elected officials will model respect, rather than dismissive actions.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Illustration by Dirk Ercken courtesy of 123rf

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.