Equity & Diversity Opinion

Women in Education Leadership: Why Is This Important? What Difference Does It Make?

By Nancy Flanagan — January 21, 2015 4 min read
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My principal, after taking 3rd grade Smarter Balanced practice tests last year, said “These tests are developmentally inappropriate.” Then she said: “But we have to do them. We’ll just put our heads down and do what we’re told.”

(Teacher in WA, in a Twitter discussion around educational leadership)

This is the very heart of the discussion on why we should be embracing women who seek positions of power and influence in education decision-making. There’s a reason why we are now experiencing an all-out assault on one of America’s best ideas--a free, high-quality, fully funded, fully public education for every child. It takes a compliant work force, people fearful of losing the low-paying jobs they love, who will put down their heads and do as they’re told.

It’s the core rationale for why we need to balance and spread out power and control between the people who do the work--our 80% + female teaching force--and the people who are making the decisions. We wouldn’t be testing kids to death. We wouldn’t be bowing under standards we question, curriculum not designed for the students in front of us, punitive evaluations and budgets, if the people doing the work had a voice in what that work looked like. We wouldn’t be raging against the machine, if we had genuine balance between the wisdom of practice and the power of decision-making.

Besides--education is a very human field. Kids are watching and silently absorbing the lessons of a system where all their elementary teachers are female--and the lone male teacher in the building is flooded with parent requests. They know that someone (presumably someone smarter and in charge) is insisting they take high-stakes tests, and their teachers feel powerless to stop the onslaught. They witness their teachers closing the classroom door and saying--hey, we’re not supposed to be doing this right now, but let’s do something fun for a change, something that builds community or makes us laugh together.

It’s healthy for kids to see both males and females--and people of different colors and ethnicities--in all levels of education. It makes teaching feel more important--something everyone wants to do, not just second-income employment. It makes teachers a more valued professional class in society. Consumers of education are gender-balanced--leaders should be, too.

We build better, more honest relationships as the power balance shifts--collaboration. We bring more diverse viewpoints into policy-making and supervision--and diversity is good. We offer better role models for both girls and boys. We move toward democratizing one of our most visible public arenas, education. We also dispel destructive myths--like the meritocracy of men as best or natural leaders.

That’s the theory. Aside from the bulldozing of female leadership in the classroom, leading to acquiescence with policies that are damaging to kids, much gender bias passes without notice. It’s just the way things are.

Item:Both male and female high school science teachers are biased against female students in the classroom and often see male students as more naturally skilled and inquisitive, according to a book from two educational researchers.” Sexism is Alive and Well in High School Science Classes, Study Says.” (Huffington Post, April, 2014)

Item: “if a job is done primarily by women, people tend to believe it has less value"--from a NY Times article, “Why Don’t More Men Go Into Teaching?” (September, 2014)

Item: “Researchers took two online [college] course instructors, one male and one female, and gave them two classes to teach. Each professor presented as his or her own gender to one class and the opposite to the other. The results were astonishing. Students gave professors they thought were male much higher evaluations across the board than they did professors they thought were female, regardless of what gender the professors actually were.” “Best Way for Professors to Get Good Student Evaluations? Be Male.” (XFactor, December 2014)

Item: Rick Hess crafts an annual list of “Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings” for Education Week---a “useful, if imperfect, gauge of the public influence edu-scholars had in 2014.” This year, an even two-thirds of these movers and shakers were men. He also created six “Top Ten” lists in individual fields--economics, government, psychology, sociology and junior faculty--where the ratio, male to female, was 7/3, except for curriculum and instruction, where there was an even split.

Item: Women have made serious inroads into other professional fields. The percentage of women in recent medical school and law school graduating classes now hovers around 48%, for both fields, although partnerships and administrative positions are still held mostly by men, a legacy of earlier norms. In education, however, we are decidedly moving toward a more feminized workforce.

So--what to do? How to push against something so ingrained and accepted that it feels like the wallpaper--unremarkable? It would be nice to think that democratizing the public education arena in 2014 could be accomplished through the use of social media. Seth Godin says: The recommendation from person to person is now the most powerful way we have to change things. He urges people to share their ideas, in spite of the fear of being judged--to not merely put their heads down and do what they’re told. Easy to say.

Audrey Watters, in a must-read piece on gender bias in ed-technology says:

Despite all the hype and hope about revolution and access and opportunity that these new technologies will provide us, they do not negate hierarchy, history, privilege, power. They reflect those. They channel it. They concentrate it, in new ways and in old. Harassment -- of women, people of color, and other marginalized groups -- is pervasive online. It's a reflection of offline harassment, to be sure. But there are mechanics of the Internet -- its architecture, affordances, infrastructure, its culture -- that can alter, even exacerbate what harassment looks like and how it is experienced. For advocates of education technology, this is a bitter pill to swallow: Internet technologies are not simply generative or supportive; they can be destructive. But this, all of this is an ed-tech issue. It is a technology issue. It is an education issue. It a societal issue. It is a political issue. We cannot ignore it. But that's precisely what most people in ed-tech seem to do.

What are your ideas on how to address gender bias in education?

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