Equity & Diversity Opinion

We Need Women in Education Leadership Roles

By Nancy Flanagan — April 18, 2017 7 min read
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Guest blog from Mary Tedrow

Mary taught high school English for 26 years in public schools and currently directs the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project. Her book, Write, Think, Learn: Tapping the Power of Daily Student Writing Across the Content Areas will be released by MiddleWeb/Routledge in September.

“There were about 125.9 million adult women in the United States in 2014. The number of men was 119.4 million.”

-Demography of the United States, Wikipedia

My students have taught me many things. Recently, several used their senior inquiry projects to explore their own gender identity. From them, I learned gender is viewed on a sliding scale. Masculine and feminine are at polar ends of a continuum of sexual possibilities. In the medical community, this has long been viewed as fact.

In recent months, two competing visuals of the Western, binary view of gender came starkly into view, both at the seat of power, Washington, D.C.

The first was January 21 when I was part of the scrum on Independence Avenue during the Women’s March. Though not exclusively female, the crowd was memorable, in part, due to the lack of incidents and the general, polite comradery in this historic bid for recognition—we are here.

The second was in late March when I returned to Capitol Hill to lobby for continued support of the National Writing Project (NWP). As I crisscrossed the hill in a vain search for a public restroom, I repeatedly encountered small groups of white men, all uniformly dressed in conservative blue suits, all sporting American flag lapel pins. In every group, a tall man was center front, joined by five or six young, male, white, hangers on. I assume they were lobbying too. But as the preponderance of uniformly-clad, important-looking huddles became a broadly drawn stereotype, it was difficult to escape the thought “Where are the women?” Oh. I found them soon enough, at reception desks everywhere.

Though I have started this blog a dozen times, I simply cannot nuance the message, “We need women in leadership roles.”

The time is long overdue. And we should not discount my chosen, largely female, profession of education. It is as top heavy with men as any other powerful position in finance, business, and politics.

We need women. And we need women who lead as women. The gender and power scale has tipped masculine for far too long.

The women who led after the 1970s gained acceptance by being more masculine than the men. I think this was a mistake, but one we probably had to endure to get to the next level. It was requisite that women emulate the toughest of the tough men. Be tough. Go to war. One female administrator I know was given a set of brass balls by her male mentors when she was elevated to a leadership position: No crying.

How do women lead like women? The ones I admire remind us, through reassuring, quiet authority, of the right, next best thing to do.

What is good for humanity is at the core of a feminine ethos. We are the bearers and nurturers of life. We bring skills and talents that, when ignored or sidelined, skew society in damaging ways. We now witness what tough, male-mindedness can wreak. In a man’s world, the feminine is characterized as weak.

Not so. Women are already tough. It just looks different.

I think of national leaders like Mary Futtrell of the NEA, who spent a career pushing for the respect gained by professionalizing the highly-nuanced occupation of teaching—one that is regularly denigrated by the tell-all epithet, “You are just a teacher.”

“Just” minimizes what teachers do: convincing whole groups of very individual children that engaging in self-improvement of mind and body, joining a conversation between history and daily turmoil, and glimpsing an expanded world view through the empathetic skills of reading and writing are all worthwhile efforts—even if going to school was something the child would not choose for him or herself. Teaching, as a profession, leans toward the feminine, and is therefore less valuable.

I think of Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School, who ran toward an armed gunman to protect the children under her care. She died in the effort, but there are thousands of largely female colleagues who would instinctively act in the same manner. We nurture and raise children. Our courage comes not from physical strength but from deep wells of understanding our role in creating, often literally, the next, best group of humans. This involves an act of selfless giving—love. And love, apparently, is not a tough, leadership stance.

I think of local leaders like my colleagues who serve together on the NHS honor council, and often unflinchingly tell the next generation of sometimes privileged students and their parents that, as leaders, they must hold to the high standards of honor and commitment. Membership in a group with “honor” as its middle name could and would be revoked. If you don’t think that takes courage, then you have never lived in a small town where decisions are made eyeball to eyeball.

We need this kind of leadership. We also need new, feminine-leaning structures.

The top-down configuration of nearly every system reflects an alpha-male view. Most organizations, including the education system, are built on the template of the Great Chain of Being, a triangular hierarchy which places an all-knowing leader close to the voice of God.

When teaching this construct in Medieval literature, it is hard not see it as anything but a convenient explanation for a teachers’ place near the bottom—with students even farther down the chain—of a structure that originally served male, religious leaders who both designed the chain while taking up residence at the top. And who also, by virtue of their placement, wielded power by interpreting the word of God.

It explains so many of the comments intended to hold me in my place, especially the ubiquitous sports metaphor of not being “a team player,” shorthand for “get in line or get out.” Or the habit of being talked over or interrupted while in the double-bind of appearing too brash (or the other “b” word) when protesting an overreach.

I would characterize the current emphasis on data and measurement as another male construct, where what is being measured leaves many other, less masculine, data out of the equation. These include many of the “soft skills” that are as important as rote knowledge in getting ahead.

An alternative system, one I’d place near the feminine on the continuum, is more collaborative. In this model, hierarchy is flattened.

Leaders in a flatter system are more facilitator than dictator. Structures allow the combined knowledge of the group to come to the fore. When lucky enough to be a part of such a practice, there is an unleashing of energy, largely because the members of the group suddenly become ‘visible’ as their knowledge and experience is affirmed.

A true transformation of participants and communities is possible. The visibility of the group members drives the process as it empowers and energizes the group. Everyone feels recognized.

When this model is incorporated into a classroom, it elevates students to co-constructors of knowledge rather than passive receivers. It is very powerful for bringing about change, and why I lobbied for the NWP in March. The power of the model is apparent in an adult learning community immersed in the social practices of the Summer Institute.

There is a time and place for the top-down model. All parents know this. When the train is on fire, the authoritarian voice directs us to the exits. When children risk danger, there will be no negotiating.

But because we are receptive to strong voices in a time of danger, scare tactics are effective in building authoritarian regimes. Fear mongering is the tool of a bully maintaining a tenuous hold on power. When we’re scared, we will submit.

In real life, there are men and women who embody both of each other’s chief assets as well as the deficits. But balance is maintained only when there are many respected views, and the gender continuum suggests we are missing out on many.

Our statistics are striking. Over half the people in the United States are women. Over half. But the fact remains that half the population has little political voice, nor is it enmeshed in a political structure that embodies the knowledge, skills, talents, and gifts of the feminine.

On January 21, we reminded the nation that we are here. To return to an even balance, there must be leadership from the feminine reaches of the scale. We will have reached equanimity when our leadership make up and style reflect all gifts.

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