Intersection of Women and Leadership in Education

A version of this post was originally published on Education Week’s blog The Intersection.

The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein is hopefully going to be one of those books that all teachers remember reading in their undergrad days. Just like so many leave teacher prep remembering Montessori, Hunter, and Bloom, I’m hoping the profession comes to namedrop the women in Goldstein’s book at the same rate.

Given I’m a mite impatient, I also hope it’s read by anyone interested in education and the stories of educators like Mary McDowell, Ella Flagg Young, and Anna Julia Cooper become more widely known. While it’s primarily a look at the past and present of the profession’s relationship with the public, Goldstein’s book is an explicit reminder that teaching is a female-dominated profession.

As Christina said, there are compelling and interesting through-lines to explore around what it means to have 76% of a profession identify as female. Goldstein’s book looks to the past and gets at some of how that came to be but in the present, that history seems much less important than the fact teachers of color – men and women – are significantly under-represented in classrooms. Yet, when we ask Christina’s question, What does it mean to be a woman in education and/or the classroom? there’s another, slightly uncomfortable question resting behind it: Are women recognized as leaders in the profession they dominate?

Doctoral dissertations have been written around what it means to be a leader in education but for the sake of this post, I’ll start with explicit leadership. For example:

  • At the 2015 Bammys, winners in 7 of 21 categories had female-presenting names (30%)
  • Eight of the 28 members of Congress’ Education Committee are women (21%)
  •  In 2011-2012, 52% public K-12 school principals identify as women (64% at the primary level, 42% in middle school, 30% at the high school level)
  • 22% of public school superintendents identify as women

At the same time, the presidents of both national teachers’ unions are women. The president of the National Councils for Math, English, Science, and Social Studies all have female-presenting names. Education books written by female authors have dominated in 2015 and 2016 and women were at the head of several recent movements. Women hold leadership roles in practically every organization, group, school, or district.

So what are we to infer? It’s possible we could average out the numbers of female leaders in the data sets and end up with something close to 85%, but that math won’t change the fact that those making both the day-to-day and policy decisions in education are more likely to be men than women.

Opinions may vary on if this fact is good, bad, or neutral. It’s useful, though, to look past the numbers in education to society writ large. A recent piece in Vox by Amanda Taub unpacks the phenomenon of panels of all-male experts and tries to understand its source. One thing she hits on is that women are less likely to be viewed as experts in their given field and in many cases, this stems from their lack of access to positions of authority in their field.

A hunch she follows that has a connection to women in education is what is referred to as the confidence gap and its cousin, overconfident bias. That is to say, in Western society, especially in America, women have a tendency to hold back and be more cautious in their public statements, while men are more likely to make “bold predictions and sweeping arguments.” Again, this society-wide phenomenon may be good, bad, or neutral but it can be observed in local union leadership, in faculty and department meetings, and who gets elevated as an “expert” on social media and in publishing. As a result, women do not dominate leadership positions in the same way they dominate the profession. What is a profession to do when 85% of its members are predisposed to caution while 15% are primed to share rough drafts of their thinking?

Tied closely to confidence cousins (gap and bias) is our shared comfort with the voice and look we believe represents the concept of “expertise”; an image that is communicated via who anchors the most popular newscasts or how stock photo sites define the word. For a laugh, we can visit the Tumblr, White Guys Doing it By Themselves and see the pattern. There are many reasons behind these patterns, one of which may be “time.” Female classroom teachers and experts may say less simply because they are too busy. Yet make no mistake: there are female teachers who are eager to be leaders, trying to find the right opportunity to step up out front.

If we accept that educators become leaders because their voices are heard and their names become known, we must work on who is heard and known. The first step is accepting the impact that socialization has on us and give it voice, while not trying to explain it away through anecdotes and personal experiences.

This first step may be hardest for male leaders and experts in education as it’s asking them to be hyper-vigilant around their privilege and voice, especially its volume. When they speak, people are socialized to listen. When they talk over a woman, she has likely been socialized to stop talking. In order for the system to change, it’s going to require that white men elevate and boost, consistently and regularly. Change will not happen without white men being active participants.

In truth, we cannot talk about the representation of women without talking about race. Mainstream feminism, that of Lean In, has rightly taken knocks for not being inclusive, attending to intersectionality, or looking at systemic issues. As a white, female educator, I empathize with the messages many white women get around gender and race in childhood and tried to unpack some of where that comes from. White, male educators, who for decades if not generations, have seen themselves reflected as the default, will need to figure out what that means at the individual level.

This background work, for white male and female educators, is critical. It does little to jump into the conversation, declaring “I’m an ally” or be ready to “fix” issues without doing the private reflection first. Namely, those seeking to “help” need to be incredibly conscious of not “co-opting or tokenizing” issues related to diversity.

Even while doing the work at the individual level, it’s possible to work towards systemic change through the use of quotas for the books we read, the things we re-tweet, and the voices, faces, and names we boost. On a gut level, the idea of “quotas” may feel unfair, almost sexist… but rest assured; it is not sexist to attend to issues of gender any more than it is racist to attend to issues related to race. (MSNBC’s Chris Hayes provides a nice overview of how he uses quotas to work towards equitable conversations.)

For white, female educators who look around and see an abundance of female leaders in their system, consider making a conscious effort to lift the voices, names and faces of women and girls of color through social media or book talks at faculty meetings. Actively seek out chats and discussions by or about women of color in education, and commit to re-tweeting or sharing something written by one of those women of color at least once a day. If you notice that you have re-tweeted, shared, or namedropped a white male author, actively seek out a female author of color and share her thinking.

For white, male educators, do an extra bit of research before speaking (or writing.) Before writing a blog post or article on a topic and sharing it with your readers, see if a female educator, especially a teacher of color, has already said something similar. If you find a tweet or text that’s close to what you want to say but doesn’t get at what you want, give the author a shout out in your writing by honoring her writing and then adding your thoughts. Elevate her name and words. In case it needs to be said, writing a critique about something written by a woman isn’t the same as elevating her voice and expertise.

If you notice you are on a thread or in a conversation about an education issue and all of the faces or names belong to white men, do something about it by drawing the group’s attention to a text by a female expert. Become conscious of how often you re-tweet or cite male authors and then do it less. If you see that an account with a white male avatar has tweeted a link to something you suspect wasn’t written by him, check the text’s byline. If it is written by a woman, find her Twitter account and RT her link or tweet it yourself, putting her name first.

For educators from both genders: not sure of your gender balance on social media? Sites like Twee-Q can provide data for you to analyze.  Even just scrolling your timeline and looking for patterns among the names and faces in those you’ve RTed or boosted can be a powerful way to draw attention to your unconscious behaviors.

If all things were equal, there would be no need to attend to gender, race, sexuality, or other variables in discussions of an idea. All ideas would stand on its own.

All things, though, are not equal.

Teaching is a female-dominated profession, and teacher leadership remains predominantly male. Knowing that we are socialized to elevate certain voices and names doesn’t mean we’re sexist or racist. Instead, it means that socialization goes deep to our bones. It does not however, go to our DNA. If we want to change the future of teacher leadership to ensure that it reflects the population of children we serve, we need to walk right on up to that intersection and deliberately choose a more thoughtful path.



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