Equity & Diversity Opinion

What Are We Teaching Students About Gender Roles?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — July 27, 2015 4 min read
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On July 19, we observed the anniversary of the First Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848. It took 72 years after that convention for women to get the right to vote. And the women who led that fight? They were the suffragettes. Like others who fought for rights denied, they went to jail and when they began a hunger strike, they were force fed by jailers. They were dismissed by “good” women, they were denounced by clergy, they were not “nice.” They might have been your grandmothers.

They were Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Sojourner Truth and they had the support of a few men like Frederick Douglass. The Nineteenth Amendment was finally added to the Constitution in 1920, giving women the right to vote. It’s been a long, long haul and it’s not over yet. Given past rates of growth in female leadership in the superintendent role, it will take another 77 years for women to no longer be underrepresented in the superintendency (Grogan & Shakeshaft, 2011). Yet, one might think today’s big issue is what woman will take her place upon our currency and will it be a 5 dollar bill or a 20, or that a woman is a serious candidate for president. It is more insidious than that.

Women still struggle between the society that frames them and their true personhood. The female accusers of Bill Cosby describe the ways in which they were dismissed and how they searched to “find their voice”. It is 2015 but descriptors that diminish women still abound. We will see more of this as Hillary Rodham Clinton continues her run for the presidency. Calculating, disingenuous, insincere...words that describe a woman or a man? Ambitious, buffoon, agressive...man or a woman? Some among us may choose to ignore the lingering diminishing language, actions, and realities surrounding women. After all, a woman is running for president, more women are in leadership positions in business and in schools, and certainly more women are in the workforce than are remaining in the home.

But, there are other social issues that call for attention and that relate to the place of women in our society: poverty, wage disparities, the prejudice that faces black and Hispanic communities including continuing ghettoization. What about how girls are disproportionately included in STEM classes and career options? All are rooted in issues of equity. There are other differences that can be attributed to socialization. Almost all books written about leadership are about men.

In her 2009 book reporting on her study of 10 female governors, Susan R. Madsen lists the career paths for these women. The beginning roles these women took included office manager, clerk typist, caseworker, campaign worker, retail manager, secretary, journalist, account manager and several of them teachers. As she described “the types of influences that can be most effective in facilitating the development of leadership” she reported “some of the related questions that I’ve been asked regarding non-work related roles that are critical sources of leadership development” for women” as follows:

  • What are the attributes of a man who can successfully be married to a strong woman leader?
  • How can motherhood help me develop leadership competencies?
  • How can I better juggle the demands of my family, work, and community involvement (Madsen. p.277).

The entry roles and certainly the questions are easily attributed to women...why aren’t they the same for men? The complex and shifting roles of parenting are making inroads and changing. Yet, the conflict between career and family remains one that women face far more often than men. The US is the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity or parental leave to workers (The Guardian). In a family where one parent is left to earn while the other cares for the child(ren) leaves little choice...the higher wage earner stays in the workforce...and in most cases, that is the man.

Why Is This An Education Issue?
The potential for gender bias lies within all of us. There are educators in classrooms who tend to call one gender more frequently, accept a brief answers given by boys and expect and welcome longer answers from girls, throughout the building there are those who greet boys with a pat on the back and girls with a gentle hand on the shoulder. Encouragement is offered, even in the earliest of years, in ways that are gender defining. The long held term “guys” is considered gender neutral, yet teaches that being gender neutral means being referred to as male. All of these subtle messages shape the young men and women in our schools for a society that is changing far too slowly.

How we respond to male or female teachers, coaches, custodians, support staff, parents, and fellow administrators serves as a model for the students. They are watching and learning even more from our actions than from our words. Shall we be proud or content with less than a third of school leaders as women? Or should we take a page from Ruth Bader Ginsburg?

People ask me sometimes, when -- when do you think it will it be enough? When will there be enough women on the court? And my answer is when there are nine.”

Grogan, M. & Shakeshaft, C. (2011). Women and Educational Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Madsen, S. (2008). On Becoming a Woman Leader: Learning From the Experiences of University Presidents. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons

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