“The personal is political”: Questions to Extend the Conversation on Female Leaders (Part 1)

So I wonder; where are all of the female educational leaders?… Are there enough opportunities out there for them? Are we holding ourselves back or is it a societal thing where conference committees, editors, and other people with opportunities tend to gravitate toward males rather than females because there is an assumption that women don’t want these opportunities? Why in a profession that is mostly female are most leaders still male?  Did we do it to ourselves?

Pernille Ripp,  “Where Are All of the Female Leaders?”

It’s been a little over a week since Pernille Ripp posted these questions and her words have been reverberating in my mind ever since.

To be sure, her open contemplation of the relative absence of female leaders in K12 education resonated with many of us in the K12 community, male and female. Through tweets and comments on Pernille’s blog, a number of educators have shared their own thoughts, experiences, and stories about gender roles, work/life balance, and what it means to be a leader in today’s schools.

There is no question that Pernille’s post and experiences resonated with me personally. I, too, am a teacher-mom and I have recently left public school to take on a leadership role at an independent school. Her words are my words, whispered to female colleagues while waiting for a keynote to begin, debated at lunch with coworkers, lamented over glasses of wine with girlfriends.

But after reflecting on this topic for a week now, I wanted to find a way to extend conversation beyond the personal to the political. I am deliberately invoking the hotly debated question from the second wave feminists of the 60s, “Is the Personal Political?,” in order to shift our focus from personal experience to the institutional and social structures that impact leadership pathways and positions available to women in education.

I will specifically address two questions Pernille raises in this vein, and offer up some thoughts on each:

1: Are there enough leadership opportunities for women?

If you work in education and (especially) if you have a TLC (Twitter Learning Community) you will no doubt say, like Pernille, “I am surrounded by [female leaders] in my daily life.” Ditto. The women leaders in my own PLN helped me create and write this blog/post (started less than a week ago thanks to inspiration I got from the #30GoalsEDU challenge).

Yet as Pernille and many others have pointed out, every conference we go to reinforces a subliminal message that #eduleadership comes in the form of a male Admin (see, e.g., Maria Mayer’s passion post-ISTE15 reflection). Indeed as I read Michael Fullan’s book Stratosphere last week, I couldn’t help counting the all-male line up of innovative thinkers he points to as he describes “The New Pedagogy”: Tony Wagner, Sir Ken Robinson, Marc Prensky, & Jonah Lehrer. Even as I took notes on this inspiring book I wondered what the future of innovation would look like if there were more female “thought-leaders” included in his vision of the “stratosphere.”

For this shift to happen we need to rethink the structures of leadership within (& beyond) school systems. Just as we have worked to dismantle old systems of teaching and learning, we have to be willing to re-envision administrative and leadership roles. I have had countless conversations with women of all ages who simply don’t see the type of career opportunities that they would like to pursue in order to make a broader, deeper impact on education. Many of these women don’t want to give up teaching because they place tremendous value on their daily interaction with students as learners. But they also want to have a voice and a role in the leadership and decision-making, system-shaping process of schools. We need to consider new models within schools and districts (they do exist!) and advocate/agitate for change. One great example is Starr Sackstein’s (@mssackstein) new teacher-coach position that she will be starting this Fall (read her Fear of Leaving the Classroom post, which speaks to all of the above).

Like so many women I know, I did not see the leadership position I wanted within my district. Instead, I had to leave public school for my dream job. On July 1 I became the Director of the Center for Innovation of Teaching & Learning at St. Mark’s School, an independent high school where I get to teach, coach faculty, and create/manage programs all designed to support great teaching and learning. I am not wasting time regretting that I had to leave public schools to do the work I want to do for students and teachers; instead, I am developing innovative partnerships with the goal of making “school” better for all.

I’d love to hear what your dream leadership position is. How can you work to create this job in your district or does that opportunity exist elsewhere? How would you restructure the leadership roles in your school/district?

2: Is it a societal thing?

Absolutely. There is not one professional industry out there that is not affected by gender inequality. As Judith Warner of the Center for American Progress writes, “Although they hold almost 52 percent of all professional-level jobs, American women lag substantially behind men when it comes to their representation in leadership positions” (Fact Sheet: The Women’s Leadership Gap 2014).

We know this! We saw it televised at this year’s Oscars. We read it daily in the news: women are underrepresented in leadership positions in the newsroom, on corporate boards, in hospitals, law firms, politics, and IT as well as in K12 schools. In fact, the Center for American Progress estimates that at the current glacial pace of change in the U.S., “it will take until 2085 for women to reach parity with men in leadership roles in our country” (Fact Sheet: The Women’s Leadership Gap 2014; see also this Pew study from January 2015).

Yet as we consider this question we cannot remain silent about/blind to other injustices that permeate our schools (shout out to #educolor) and our world. We cannot raise our voices in the service of improving the status of women without also speaking out about the underrepresentation of people of color at every level in education (follow #educolor & EduColor.org). Rafranz Davis did this beautifully in her #ISTE15 Ignite.

We need to do more than tweet. We need to act. As educators we must take the reality of structural inequalities into account as we teach and as we grow as leaders. The racialized acts of violence that have (finally, please read this) captured the attention of our nation, thanks in large part to the #blacklivesmatter movement, makes this clearer and more urgent than ever. Following their lead, we need to find ways to “Get Active. Get Organized. Fight Back.” We need to dismantle the barriers to equity and justice within schools and show our students that all of us, including women and people of color, are educators as well as leaders, and that we are committed to changing ourselves, our schools, and our world for the better. As one of my students, Ashley Olafsen noted in a talk she gave at COSN this past March, all students deserve to “see” people like them in their school & learning environments and all students need to find role models they can connect with. Many of us love the expression “be the change you want to see in the world,” but Ashley’s words remind us that our students need to “see it to be it” (to borrow from Miss Representation).

Great work is being done. In addition to Pernille Ripp (who, by the way, has been raising this point for years), Peter DeWitt, Jennifer Abrams, and Nancy Flanagan have recently blogged about female leaders in education. There are also great educators from around the world addressing this question (join in #SatchatOC’s “Women as Educational Leaders” Twitter chat on 7/31 7:00pm EST hosted by @stringer_andrea; see also this post).  Jose Vilson blogs about institutional racism (among other things) and started a movement with his EduColor collaborators (including @RafranzDavis). Others, including Matt D’Angelo, are advocating for our LBTQ students and teachers.

Inspired by these #eduleaders, I’m trying to find my way of breaking down societal barriers to equity and justice, and would like to learn more about what are doing. How do you support the “see it to be it” model in your classroom, school, and professional organizations? How can conferences, editorial boards, publishing companies, etc. change in order to be more inclusive? How can/does “school” work to promote equity and social justice? What organizations are doing this well — and/or do we need to create new organizations/opportunities for social justice educators in order to move beyond words to action?

I’ve only addressed two of the important questions Pernille raises via her post and hope you will add your voice to the conversation in order to extend our focus to include “the political” even as we recognize that this topic is deeply personal. More on that in Part 2 (forthcoming) of my response to Pernille’s post.


4 thoughts on ““The personal is political”: Questions to Extend the Conversation on Female Leaders (Part 1)

  1. So glad this issue seems to be taking off. I’m a public school teacher in Tennessee, but have been really inspired by the UK group @WomenEd and the way they have collaborated to share writing through staffrm.io, have created chats, and organized conferences to promote women in education. I wrote about an effort to form an offshoot of that group here in the US and would love to have others join/help/lead https://readyforthenewworld.wordpress.com/2015/07/19/us-teachers-lets-join-forces-with-womened/


    1. Becca,
      I’m so glad we could connect on this topic through blogging & Twitter. I just followed @WomenEd and am going to read your post/follow you to learn more. I am all about connections and partnerships so count me in!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment, Deb. I know you are in the dissertation phase of your degree and value reading your blog as you share your work. I love learning from & with you!


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