Last week, I wrote in editor's notes about spending hours trying to find fictional representations of women administrators in TV/film — I couldn’t find enough portrayals of women leaders in education to make my lists even. When I did find them, they were often characterized by immense ineptitude, a lack of moral competence (sleeping with male students or colleagues, often) and generally unpleasant attitudes.
I started doing research, and found that my anecdotal observations weren’t off-base. In the book “American Education in Popular Media: From the Blackboard to the Silver Screen,” authors found “The few women principals in popular media” tend to “be unconcerned with moral or legal guidelines, and sometimes mentally unstable,” which seemed to suggest “the very existence of female authority is the result of illegal, immoral and insane practices.”
When we put this in the context of the #MeToo movement which took off on social media in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations to show the number of women who have been impacted by sexual assault or sexual harassment, and we consider how few women are actually leaders (versus teachers) in the education space, these things all seem connected. On the K-12 side, the number of women principals has seemed to skyrocket in recent years, with women making up 52% of the nation’s principals, and 13.2% of district superintendents across the country, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics and the School Superintendents Association, respectively. I was challenged by one reader to dig even deeper and found, as she suspected, that these women principals are highly concentrated in elementary school, and the numbers are sparse as you get into middle, and definitely high school. In higher ed, only 30% of presidents are women. In both cases, predictably, white males dominate.
I have had female presidents tell me they've been catcalled on their own campuses, by male students who didn't realize they were in charge. I've heard others say they wear men's clothing and try to dress in ways that do not call attention to their figures when they attend board meetings, because they are often the only woman in the room. One female district leader wrote in to tell me the harassment she had received by male colleagues affected her confidence and the level of position for which she would consider applying — to go further up the ladder, she assumed, she'd face more of this type of behavior as she'd find herself more outnumbered.
In the conversation about de-colonizing curricula, it is equally important that we recognize that the way to get there is through “de-colonizing” the leadership spaces where decisions are made. This week’s quiz observation was around women in leadership, but when we talk about people of color, the numbers are even more grim. With increasingly diverse student populations, which will become workforce populations, it is important to recognize systemic patterns of “othering” individuals who are not white and male, and to begin to dismantle the stigmas and glass ceilings our education system has created.