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School & District Management Opinion

What ‘Barbie’ Teaches Us About School Leadership

3 lessons from the hit movie for closing the ‘dream gap’
By Shayla Ewing — August 15, 2023 4 min read
Stylized photo illustration of Barbie dolls with superimposed symbols of graduation and success.
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I walked out of the film “Barbie” thinking about, among other things, my high school— just like Barbie’s Dreamland, it was led by women. My principal was a woman, along with the entirety of the district office. A woman led my school assemblies. A woman evaluated my teachers. A woman signed my diploma. In the classroom, gender didn’t dictate the subjects my teachers loved; I had female math and science teachers and even male English and theater teachers.

As a young woman myself, I decided to be like them, so I graduated from high school, wearing pink, and went to college to become someone important—a teacher. Once I entered my teacher education program, I realized what an outlier my high school was. I was shocked that, as Ken would say in “Barbie,” schools were doing patriarchy very well.

My education classes were primarily—sometimes only—women, but at every practicum school, I was greeted by a male principal. I skated through my courses without a whisper that educational leadership degrees, where women could excel, even existed. And, like the world of “Barbie,” I realized that the world of teaching is pink, too—a pink-collar job.

About This Series

In this biweekly column, principals and other authorities on school leadership—including researchers, education professors, district administrators, and assistant principals—offer timely and timeless advice for their peers.

Barbie, in the movie and the box, represents limitless dreams for young girls: astronauts, chefs, doctors, and, yes, even teachers. Barbie’s never-ending professions and interests aren’t just fun; they are purposeful. Mattel, the owner of Barbie, identifies a “dream gap,” where girls as young as 5 begin to develop self-limiting beliefs and think they’re not as smart and capable as boys.”

Unfortunately, not all schools come with a leader Barbie; many come with just Ken. In public schools today, staffs of mostly female teachers are led by a staff of disproportionately male leadership. Seventy-seven percent of public school teachers are women, while only 56 percent of public school principals are female. There is even less pink in America’s district offices; only 28 percent of superintendents are women.

Helping young girls visit more Barbielands than Kendoms starts at schools. At stake is not just the career advancement of teachers but the leadership landscape for all professions. A lack of women in education leadership creates deep dream gaps for future female leaders.

Generations of young people have missed the opportunity to see the world in pink: women leaders … leading. In a 2016 survey by the Rockefeller Foundation, 1 in 4 Americans found it more likely that humans would colonize Mars than that women would lead half of Fortune 500 companies within their lifetimes.

What if we dreamed big to close the dream gap? The solution is simple, obvious, and known. For young girls to dream about being leaders, they need to grow up in institutions that value women leaders. However, the journey to creating future female leaders is nuanced and extends beyond the hiring process. Leadership opportunities at the state and district level must open to close the dream gap. Here are a few ways we can get started:

1. Uproot hiring biases. When filling new positions, every person on the hiring team should be aware of their biases and assumptions of female leaders. Incorrect beliefs about women leaders are still commonly held. Women candidates are often discarded like a Weird Barbie. Hiring committees may believe that mothers will not be able to handle the workload, that women of comparable ages to male counterparts are too young to lead, or that women are too emotional in their leadership. These myths must be identified and debunked to ensure an equitable hiring process.

2. Provide mentorship support. Once women are given opportunities to lead, they also must be given support in their leadership. Many women may not have grown up with female leadership role models and are less likely to know other women in similar leadership roles. To my knowledge, Mattel hasn’t made a School Superintendent Barbie (but they totally should). Creating a network of support for women to problem-solve unique issues not experienced by male leaders is important for long-term retention.

3. Create authentic leadership opportunities. Traditional school structures have limited leadership opportunities. As a result, there are fewer opportunities for students to see women leaders. Additionally, educators shouldn’t have to leave the classroom to be a leader in schools. President Barbie isn’t the only leader in Barbieland. Teachers are leaders and should be treated as such. Current leaders should steward their power to others in the building, particularly by understanding the strengths of their staff and providing opportunities to use those strengths.

While Barbies may just be a toy, the dreams they provide young people aren’t just play. As the old adage goes, “If you can see it, you can believe it.” And Barbie allows girls to see and believe that they are capable of their dreams. Schools are packed with passionate professionals who work tirelessly to make kids’ dreams come true. So, let’s give young girls something big to dream about.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 23, 2023 edition of Education Week as What ‘Barbie’ Can Teach Us About School Leadership

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