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Increasing Gender Diversity in Leadership. Why Do It?

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A few months back GE released an ad campaign featuring physicist Millie Dresselhaus. The 86 year old has been cast into stardom as the company announced its commitment to have 20,000 women employed in STEM positions by 2020. And, essentially, that's the dual purpose of the ad, not just to announce the program but to raise the question about whether female scientists can achieve celebrity status.

Pair that with Rush Limbaugh's recent rant about his disdain for acknowledging women and minorities who are first to achieve in their field as a put down of America rather than a noteworthy marker of our progress as a society. Or match it to Kellyanne Conway's remark in a Business Insider interview that she relates well to the POTUS because of her "femininity". She is allowed to respectfully and deferentially give her opinion. She also said her smile matters when dealing with him. Then, we feel the American divide of values and, particularly, about women at a gut level.

Preparing Girls

So, how do school leaders and teachers prepare girls for a world wanting women to be both strong, equal contributing partners in the world and simultaneously demure, pretty and smart but not too demanding? We don't. Thankfully, our role is to make them college and career ready. For us, the GE ad is helpful. Yet, where are the women helping young girls and women with knowing and creating choices? Are we still in a place where men need to open those doors and secure our opportunities? Yes, this is the work of women and men both.

When we wrote our STEM book, we learned of the advocacy required to include women scientist dolls in Lego collections. The same holds for children's books with female heroes.  And an investigation of what it really means to encourage young girls to 'be whatever you want to be'.  But the everyday pictures do not exist. Just yesterday, Jessica Chastain, actress and judge at the Cannes Film Festival, observed that she was disturbed by the representation of women in film. A Newsweek article reported that she wanted more female characters who were "proactive, have their own agencies, don't just react to the men around them. They have their own point of view." This is what we want also....as leaders in all fields including our own. School leadership is not for men alone. It is for educators who aspire to lead and benefit children. It is for men and women alike and we need both.

The Gender Balance?

Education Week reported on this issue of women in school district leadership. The national data is: 76% of teachers are female, 52 % of principals are female, and 78% of central office leaders are female. But, just 25% of superintendents are female. Certainly progress has been made but women still are underrepresented at the top. The picture is even more bleak when examining minority female data. Does this matter? Why?

Nearly thirty years ago, five educational leaders in New York State, two men and three women, created the New York State Association of Women in Administration (NYSAWA).  They believed that advocacy for girls and women was not a priority within any existing professional organizational and that a voice was needed to represent those issues in policy arenas. It is not an organization solely of women but one that would be inclusive by gender, race and leadership position within the educational system. Yet, today, in New York State less than 30% of school superintendents are women.

Recently, the New York State Council of School Superintendents, whose Executive Director and Attorney sit on the NYSAWA board of directors, has launched an initiative to support women who want to become school district leaders. We commend the initiative and hope it can become a model for other states as they, too, examine the pool of candidates from the superintendency and act to increase the numbers and quality of those within the pool. Yet, there is a touch of sadness when we acknowledge that women still need encouragement and support to step into leadership roles. At least some of us do. The opening of doors must happen with the effort of both genders for women and for minorities. That doesn't make those who need a nudge less able to lead nor does it make them weak.  Both individual and societal change come slowly, too slowly at times. But, we never give up if the cause is right. You see, this isn't just about having women and minorities in leadership. It is about the girls we are educating in our systems and including perspectives that may open minds and careers and possibilities for them.

We Still Need Courageous Pioneers 

Those who wanted to enter the workforce, without models, have to be pioneers, with courage and thick skin as they enter the male dominated worlds of work. The good news is there are opportunities for support and coaching that can bring more women into leadership positions and provide more models for the students. Even more good news is that there are women who have already been the pioneers who can reach back and extend a hand to others. And, we know with certainty that there are men, strong and principled ones, who do the same for talent and potential when seen, albeit manifesting differently perhaps, in both genders.

Most importantly, however, is this. This is not only about the adults.  What are we teaching the children?  If the reasons for the lack of female leadership in our schools and our nation is due to unexplored beliefs about the roles of men and women, then models alone won't serve.  We can accelerate this change by considering that we are products of the world we grew up in and that we have beliefs about the roles of men and the roles of women in families, in the world of work, and in the world in general.  Are we still treating boys and girls differently?  Do we hold different expectations for them by subject area or by behavior? Is there a difference in the response to a boy falling while climbing a tree and a girl? Are there differences in the way boys and girls are treated in a classroom or hallway or during discipline? There is work to be done in our schools.  For GE to find women prepared and ready for STEM careers, there is work for us. For there to be more complex female characters in film, there is work for us. For Kellyanne Conway to see her competence of equal value to her femininity in accessing and influencing the POTUS, there is work for us. We need those who will lead us to do it.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo by Andriy Popov courtesy of 123rf

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