Equity & Diversity Opinion

Six Questionable But Common Reactions to Gender Bias in Educational Leadership

By Nancy Flanagan — January 13, 2015 4 min read
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Last week, my Ed Week blogging colleague and friend Peter DeWitt posted a blog that went viral. He called it 18 Women All K-12 Educators Should Know. Peter and I have tossed around opinions on why women are underrepresented in top-tier ed-leadership positions before, so I was pleased and honored to be mentioned. I appreciate the fact that he went looking for outstanding women in education--movers and shakers--and put a spotlight on their achievements. I’m glad the blog was well-received and widely shared.

But I have to admit that I wondered what would happen if someone wrote a parallel blog: 18 Men All K-12 Educators Should Know. I am thinking that it would not draw the response 18 Women did, which was mainly: Thank you! And here’s someone else you should have mentioned...

A couple of commenters noted that Peter--uh, DeWitt--referred to the women he highlighted by their first names. One reader pointed out that he had a typo in the blog copy (see fourth bullet, below). But none of the comments were angry or argumentative. They were, in a word, grateful.

And therein lies the essential truth about men and women in leadership roles: It’s “normal” for men to hold most high-profile leadership positions, normal for women to be grateful for special recognition, normal for folks to be indignant or confused about gender bias. Aren’t we beyond all that?

I occasionally blog about gender bias--and those blogs always generate heat, like this one: Men Explain Things to Teachers. There was some hostile commentary from readers--it’s all right, it’s expected as part of the conversation. But I also got a half-dozen private e-mail messages from men I don’t know on that one, none of them complimentary. Or even friendly.

Gender bias is so endemic, so deeply and subtly woven into American society, that most of the time, it goes unrecognized. Even--or perhaps especially-- by the folks against whom the discrimination is aimed. Every time a building full of female teachers decides they’d prefer a male principal--the example shared by DeWitt--they’re buying into a whole set of predictable, unexamined ideas about what men bring to leadership, or the classroom.

It’s really hard to get past these assumptions and predispositions, most of which fall into the category of folk wisdom: Men are tougher disciplinarians. The Board will listen to a male administrator. A male kindergarten teacher will make parents uncomfortable. Boys are better at math. Boys are more inquisitive, girls more disciplined and compliant. Women are more patient with struggling students. Boys in poverty need male role models.

And on and on. Some folk wisdom is rooted in observed reality--but just as often, it’s based on habitual thinking, ideas we haven’t dusted off and examined in too long.

Let me share my (un-researched, data-free) biases with you: Men are more likely to use teaching as a starter career, then seek positions in education that offer more money, prestige and influence. Women are more likely to be content with teaching as long-term career and home base for leadership activities. Because men and women are responding--as is their right--to decades of socialization, presumptions and convention.

Is this why we see significantly more male nonprofit CEOs, thought leaders, big names in ed tech and on social media, best-selling authors, administrators and bosses in education? (That’s not an assumption--there’s plenty of data to back that up.)

When you open a conversation on gender bias, familiar responses emerge. Here are six common reactions to the question: Why are men calling the shots in educational leadership?

  • I, personally, am not biased against women! Here are several examples of the women I have chosen for leadership positions. Other people may make these assumptions, but I am enlightened. (This assertion comes from women as well as men.)

  • I understand the invisible barriers for women in ed-leadership, because I have experienced barriers myself. Followed by examples of difficulties and impediments the speaker has experienced, for reasons other than gender.

  • What about Diane Ravitch? And a list of other women, exceptions who prove the lopsided rule.

  • Interesting...but let me point out this other, semi-related flaw in your case, diverting attention from the core argument by the disputing the relative quality of research data, relevance of personal examples--or spelling errors.

  • Hey, lots of things are much worse than gender bias. We have a whole list of crises in education that we need to address first. So be grateful you’ve got a job, and get your whiny self in line.

  • We’re much better off now than we were 100 years ago, when women had to arrive an hour before school to stoke the stove and draw a bucket of water. Look at how many female superintendents there are! These things just take time.

Dana Goldstein, in her wonderful book, “The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession,” makes several relevant, historically-supported points about the intersection of gender and the notion of professionalism in, and control over, teaching. Women in education really aren’t much better off than they were 100 years ago--or even 40 years ago, as the Women’s Movement emerged, giving rise to the dubious idea that women now had comprehensive career choice and could leave a substandard occupation like teaching.

Blog III will look at the data we do have--and the question of how male-dominated education leadership impacts classroom practice, and has for a long time. In the meantime, here’s a photo of my grandmother’s one-room schoolhouse, in November, 1900. Grandma is the girl farthest right, middle row. Note class size of 37 students and all the opportunity for “differentiated” instruction.

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