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The Unique Challenges Facing Women in Education

The ways in which women face bias while working in education — in all areas of the sector — and how to push back against it.
Jennie Weiner

The pandemic has exposed many of the challenges facing women working in education. Yet, Jennie Weiner, Ed.M.'03, Ed.D.'12, an expert who studies how to create a more inclusive and equitable education field, acknowledges that many of the gender disparities in the education profession have long existed. Across the sector, women make up a majority of the education workforce but occupy barely a quarter of top leadership positions. This is not by accident, she says, but by systemic design.

“We've had a highly feminized profession, but feminized means both that women do the work, but also that it's devalued because it is women's work,” Weiner says, pointing to many issues that exist in education, such as underpaid teachers, buildings in disrepair, and even an “inverted” pyramid where men hold far more leadership positions than women.

“Many people would rather believe that hard work and being really good at what you do could outperform bias, and that's a lie. No matter how good you are, if we live in discriminatory system, that discrimination will raise its head," she says.

In this episode the EdCast, Weiner, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut, breaks down the gender issues in the field and suggests ways to push toward equality.


Jill Anderson:    I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast.

Jennie Weiner knows the pandemic has exposed gender inequities that don't often get talked about in education. It doesn't matter whether women work in early childhood, or higher education, or somewhere in between, these inequities play out similarly across the field. Jennie is an associate professor who studies how to make education more inclusive and equitable through educational leadership. Although females have long made up the bulk of the education workforce, they barely represent a quarter of top leadership roles. She says there's many reasons for how we've ended up with gender inequity in the field and society. I asked Jennie to tell me more about the unique challenges facing women in education.

Jennie Weiner:    There are a number of challenges facing women in leadership generally, and then within the context of K12 specifically. Some of these challenges exist outside of the role, which are really about how our society frames the role of women and socialize us to understand what women should and shouldn't be doing within the space. Right? So for example, the idea that we should be the primary caretakers for our young children, which, of course, then creates complications if you don't have paid family leave, or access to reliable, cheap, and effective care for your children, and are attempting to work full time. Which was true in our context of our society prior to the pandemic, but of course has been exacerbated by the pandemic. We also have issues around who becomes caretakers, even if you don't have children for elderly parents, or for other kind of tasks within the context of a family, or an extended family.

So you have all that external socialization. And then you also have, what I would say is role socialization in leadership specifically, which is the way leadership is constructed in our society, and in education specifically, still really focuses on this idea of a lone hero, or heroic person, and I would argue, a white man, with characteristics that are stereotyped as masculine characteristics. So being very strong, or ambitious, or innovative, or aggressive, right? And we see this through our political cycles and in other spaces. So what happens is women may not be considered the best candidates for these positions because they hold other kinds of stereotyped ideas, right? So if you are more communally oriented, which should be a stereotype female, you're softer, you're emotional, you may not be seen as having leadership potential, right? And there's a lack of female mentors and women who are in charge in the first place to tap people along the trajectory.

But also if you exhibit traditionally, or stereotypically male characteristics that are more aligned with leadership, let's say being quite aggressive, or being innovative, we know that women often get criticized for exhibiting those behaviors. So I talk a lot about this idea of a double bind. So you have these externalized pathway issues and things that keep women from having full access to leadership that exist because of, again, our societal structures, and who gets to do what roles, and why, and how we think about that. But then we also have these internalized structures about how we understand and perceive what leadership is, and hence, who should be able to do it, and be successful, and thrive in the role. So it's a lot to say the least.

Jill Anderson:    It is a lot. I think it's something that you can easily look at and see in K through 12.

Jennie Weiner:    Right.

Jill Anderson:    You look and you see a lot of females, predominantly females in education, but you don't often see them in roles of superintendency or principalship.

Jennie Weiner:    So right now about 83 to 86% range of teachers are women. About 54% of principals are women, predominantly in elementary schools, and that's not an accident because elementary schools don't have after-school activities to the same extent. There's also ideas about women and their ability to facilitate, let's say discipline for older boys, and what they can handle. Also, women's willingness to blend their life and home life with their work life. So if I am a mother, am I willing to bring my kids to a bunch of basketball games, or activities at school consistently? If I'm a man, am I willing to do that?

And then at the superintendent level, it's been around 23% since the last 15 or 20 years. So, if you inverse that it's even more bananas, right? So you have, what is that then? 16% or so of teachers are men, about 50% of them are principals, and about 74% are superintendents. So, it's jarring in either direction, but I sometimes ask people to think in the reverse, right? But you have this teeny tiny pool at the bottom of the pyramid for men who are situated in schools and they're overwhelmingly more than 75% of the superintendents, the people in charge.

Jill Anderson:    Right. And is it the same when you get into higher ed and you start looking at careers [crosstalk 00:05:16].

Jennie Weiner:    Yes.

Jill Anderson:    ... in academia, the same reflection.

Jennie Weiner:    Right. And I think what's important to remember too, is historically it was built this way on purpose, Michael Apple, a scholar who studies the history of the profession, talks a lot about the ways in which we had to fill these common schools with an available workforce, people who could read and didn't have a lot of other options, and that was primarily women. So we've had a highly feminized profession, but feminized means both that women do the work, but also that it's devalued because it is women's work.

So that helps to explain why we have, for example, still issues around teachers being substantively underpaid, why buildings are in disrepair, and why we say we value education, but we consistently underfund it, and do not treat teachers with the respect I think that they deserve. And I think it's partially because it's mostly women who do that work over time, but it's also why we've created elaborate evaluation techniques to watch these women who need to be controlled and evaluated and observed to ensure they're doing the right thing within the context of schools. But teaching itself has been really situated as primarily a profession of women, and also then around caretaking as a primary driver as opposed to let's say high skills, knowledge capabilities. And academia is the same way. So it was created primarily for men, and therefore not surprising that it's very hard to break in, or deconstruct those ways of thinking about the work.

Jill Anderson:    How has the pandemic really shifted this? Because this has been a long existing problem, but now we're hearing about it on so many levels and it's getting a lot of attention.

Jennie Weiner:    Yeah. We're looking at somewhere between 2.5 and 4 million women leaving the workforce between the beginning of the pandemic and February of this year. So just that number is just breathtaking. Now, why? And it's intricately related to the things that we're discussing, right? So if you have professions, and you have, let's say a heterosexual couple, one is a man and one is a woman, and they both were working prior to the pandemic, it is highly likely because of the way discrimination works that the woman was in a lower paid field, or if she was in the same field, she was in a position in which she made less money than her husband.

In addition, many of the caretaking responsibilities within the context of the home that are considered to be stereotype female work, childcare, cleaning, scheduling, cooking, are usually taken up by women. So then the school is closed, there's no caretaking, you have young children, somebody has to give up their work in order to make that happen. If this is the parameters under which we make decisions, who's more likely to leave? Clearly the spouse who makes less money is more comfortable, or has been socialized to take on those roles within the context of the house before. And we see that, right? In fact, we actually saw quite a few women who made more money, or had their own professions and jobs, even those women leaving in favor of staying home.

And then we also, of course, to talk about this without talking about races, not really appropriate because most of the women who lost their jobs are women of color who were also in service industries, primarily in work that was most risk for catching COVID, whether that be home health care, the service industries, restaurants, cleaning services. And now they're also home and are unable to work, or have to put themselves at risk to facilitate their child, and their family having enough money to survive. So it exposed, I think things that were already there, but that we just never talked about in the public space.

Jill Anderson:    There were mothers I know who were working in education, who were working as early childhood educators and decided to leave their jobs to be able to accommodate remote learning, or being home with their kids through this time. So definitely hearing that in my own world.

Jennie Weiner:    Yeah. I think what you're saying is really powerful too, which I think people don't talk about, which is, if you have a profession, both early childcare providers and let's say any kind of childcare provider, and educators who are not childcare providers, but children go to school, is predominantly female. We can imagine that many of them probably have young children themselves. And yet the rhetoric has really been to not discuss that as if these are separate identities. So we say, why aren't the teachers, or the childcare providers doing their job? They should be open, without paying any attention to, if I'm a teacher and I'm supposed to be attending to my class full time, and I have a three-year-old, who's taking care of my three-year-old?

Jill Anderson:    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jennie Weiner:    And I just feel like in the public discourse around school opening, they're not opening the idea, or understanding that many of these are young women with families who are facing the same challenges that I'm facing is not discussed. And I would just put that to people about how that reinforces our lack of discussion about women's rights and gender equity within the context of our society when we do not attend to that as part of the problem of schools reopening.

Jill Anderson:    Well, since you've mentioned the, what you've just written about, which is your own experience, in a collection of essays being released looking at pandemic parenting, you talk about that experience of juggling the challenges of parenting while working in academia. So what has it been like for you?

Jennie Weiner:    Dislocating, discombobulating. So I have twin nine year old boys, both of whom have been home with me for over a year now, now they've had full-time learning, but not in person. I think one of the things that's been so terribly difficult is so much of the gymnastics that I've had to do over the course of my career to simply persist and thrive in a space that's not made for me. So to constantly be in spaces and having to make really tough choices about, should I go to a conference? And then when I get to the conference, people say, well, who is taking care of your kids? Or I'm missing something that's happening at home, and I'm feeling that's really difficult and hard. And I've made so many, what I perceive to be sacrifices in a system that is not made for working mothers, or for people from non-traditional backgrounds in that space. And then to be home all the time and feel like some of that is slipping away, my identity and my ability to thrive in my workspace just gone.

And even though I think externally there's a sense that everybody's going through it, and I should just not be so hard on myself, I don't believe that the system will actually excuse women who have taken this time. I think that I have a lot of fear that if I don't keep juggling and pretzeling, that's not something I'm ever going to be able to make up, because, again, I've had to fight so hard just to feel like I had a space at the table. It's difficult to lose something that you feel like you've fought so hard for.

Jill Anderson:    Yeah. You raised an interesting point because there have been some predictions made about how far this pandemic will definitely set women off course, and it's alarming. We're talking not just like, Oh, this is going to set women off by a couple of years, this is decades of setbacks from just this one year, year and a half, whatever it ends up being.

Jennie Weiner:    Yeah. Basically like 1970s or something, yeah.

Jill Anderson:    Which is crazy.

Jennie Weiner:    It is really crazy. I think it tells you how precarious everything was, and on whoms back the progress had it been made. So because there haven't been attention to, let's say structural and systemic changes to our policies, to issues a place like the ERA for example, the Equal Rights Amendment never passed. The fact that many black and brown women are in low wage jobs and we can't pass a decent minimum wage. The fact that we don't have universal childcare, or universal pre-K. So what happens? Well, women behind the scenes address all those issues behind the scenes. And so every success to a large degree has been on the backs of the people who have been discriminated against, we've elbowed, and we've worked, and we've suffered, and we've done what we needed to do, but individual hard work is not a way to fix systems of oppression, it helps, but you can see, right? Once that fell down and we didn't have any systems to support us, the marbles all fell out of the bag.

I only hope, perhaps, that people will remember and understand the veil is off, that depending on women to just do more is not a way to create a just society. And we have to fight for these kinds of systemic changes that are going to make things different regardless of what the future holds in terms of calamity, or change, or whatever the fact may be.

Jill Anderson:    We've heard a lot about the glass ceiling, especially even recently with Kamala Harris being elected, and a lot of us have heard of that term before, what is the glass cliff?

Jennie Weiner:    So the glass cliff was brought about by some research by Haslam and Ryan, and they're British researchers. And I read in the newspaper, there was an article about how the FTSE Index, their publicly traded companies, how women were in charge of all the ones that were doing poorly, and therefore women must be poor leaders. They did analysis, and basically what they found was that women were more likely to be leaders within the context of companies that were not doing well, but they were hired once they started to decline. So the idea is that women and people of color, people who are traditionally marginalized from those kinds of leadership opportunities, are given the opportunity to lead, but only when an organization is in decline. And now, of course, that comes with a bunch of other parameters, right? So usually that also means often that you have a highly activist board.

So women who end up taking these positions spend far more time catering and having to deal with activist board members than do men. Additionally, when women start to improve the organization, they're not given credit for that. Alternatively, if something that looks like it's doomed to fail, and then they take over fails, they're blamed, and most often a white man is put back into the position after them. I'm actually studying this within the context of education superintendents, but I noticed, for example, I work in Connecticut, there are very few black women principals in a place like Hartford, but when you look at where they're placed, they tend to be placed in most of the turnaround schools, which are the chronically underperforming schools. April Peter speaks about how they're positioned as cleanup women to come in and mop up and clean up the mistakes others have made, but instead of being lauded for that, even when they have success, they're vilified as being difficult, or hard to work with, or aggressive in ways that are not valued, even when they have success in addressing the problems of the organizations. So it's pretty tricky.

Jill Anderson:    What is the most important thing for a female in education leadership, whether it's K through 12, whether it's in academia?

Jennie Weiner:    I'm often in places with women leaders, I'm often asked to speak and I facilitate a women superintendents group for the state of Connecticut, I'm so proud and privileged to have that opportunity. I think one thing that often happens is people are upset by hearing these truths. At the same time, because we'd all rather believe, or many people would rather believe that hard work and being really good at what you do could outperform bias, and that's a lie. No matter how good you are, if we live in discriminatory system, that discrimination will raise its head. Now, of course, there's exceptions, there's always exceptions, but on average, across, right? Most women are not exceptions. So what's the benefit of doing it then?

Well, the other piece of this is, if you don't have language and understand that there is something systemic happening, then when someone says to you, you don't really have leadership capabilities, or you're not really leadership material, you might believe them. You may actually begin to feel that the problem is you, because you look around and you're not seeing that happening to other people, or nobody's talking about it. And you internalize those feelings of shame and ineffectiveness, and you lay the blame on yourself. And that is terrible. And it's going to get us to come together, it's not going to help facilitate change, it's not going to move us to press, and push, and fight for something better on the horizon for us and other generation of women leaders.

And so I think it's a misnomer to say that liberation comes without pain because facing her truths is painful. It is painful to see that I can't out run discrimination, but I cannot be free. I cannot be liberated if I don't see how the system operates, because individuals cannot by themselves change discriminatory systems, we need each other. And the only way we can find each other is if we own up and talk about these experiences and connect them to something larger than ourselves.

Jill Anderson:    But it doesn't feel like the conversation about gender bias happens as often, which is interesting in lieu of all of the information that we have about females in education.

Jennie Weiner:    I am concerned about the ways in which gender identity and other forms of identity have not been taken up as part of the larger conversation about DEI efforts, and I wonder how we can have an anti-racist society without addressing patriarchy and vice versa, because patriarchy and white supremacy are intricately linked and both need to be addressed simultaneously for justice to come forward. I do not place one above the other, but I do think we can do hard things and we should, and need to talk about them as intricately linked, and when we don't, we miss quite a bit of the conversation.

Jill Anderson:    To just backtrack on that, is that intersectional feminism?

Jennie Weiner:    Part of the critic of the feminist movement was that it was predominantly women like me, upper-middle-class white women, who did not attend to the fact that they have particular privileges regarding that status, right? I'm not a low wage earner. I have documentation, I have particular freedoms and abilities to assert myself in spaces without the same repercussions, and that needs to be owned and understood. So intersectionality is really, really linked with black feminist thought, critical thought, and legal work as well. But the idea is that we have to attend to multiple forms of identity at once, and how that discrimination manifests across the spectrum.
So a really concrete example, I think that's useful to think about within the context of education is, we still have very low numbers, but only 6% of principals are black women, which is just crazy, and much of this is actually a result of what happened in the post-brown era when schools integrated and they fired in mass something like 40,000 black educators, because when they integrated schools, they shut down black schools and fired black teachers and administrators, and replaced them with white administrators and teachers, which many people don't talk about, but it's important to our legacy and why we are where we are.

So if I was somebody who was interested in trying to recruit more people of color and women into, let's say administrative ranks, the reasons why they are not accessing those historically are different. So if I try to just do it through a white lens, right? So I'm addressing gender, but if I only do it through a white lens, I may not be attending to the ways in which racial discrimination and this legacy is impacting black women's ability to access, feel successful, and how they're treated in the role, right? So the solutions may look different, and the ways in which I engage and think about them may look different because I understand that both of those things matter as do potentially other things that are the ways in which discrimination operates to allow them to have access and thrive in those positions. So I think the lack of attention to that is really, really problematic. And again, those are just a few, right? We could talk about LBGTQ. We know that immigration status, other things that bring about different ways of interacting with systemic oppression, and then, again, how we might attend to that and think about it if we really want things to change.

Jill Anderson:    So it feels so huge that it can almost feel like it's difficult to know how to take a step toward change. And so even in lieu of the pandemic, which is almost like this dark cloud lingering over it. So what about next steps?

Jennie Weiner:    On one hand you could say, I feel really overwhelmed because of all the things that you just said. On the other hand, you could say, wow, there's so much work to do, and there's so many different, based on my skills, capabilities, orientation, understandings, I could get involved at so many levels, right? I could get involved in my intimate relationship with my partner and discuss about the balance of work and why things are, and start begin to question that, and that would be, I think, a feminist action. There are ways to be engaged in sisterhood to support women in your place of work, for example, here's just a small one. You go to a meeting frequently and your female colleagues said something, and then five minutes later your male colleague says it and everyone says, Bill, that's a great idea. Thank you for sharing that. I think a lot of women, if they're listening to this, may have had that experience.

So you may be with women in your group and speak to them and say, whenever someone says something, we're going to amplify it. So now this time Jill says something wonderful, and then Bill says it, and Bill repeats it, and I said, yes, I loved it when Jill said it five minutes ago. These are small, but I think if we first name things as problematic and situated outside of ourselves, and two, come together around them, right? We can run for office, run for office, if you're listening, run for office, run for your school board, put that in your pocket, understand that issues around fair pay are feminist issues, issues around childcare are feminist issues. Access to healthcare is a feminist issue. Read, study, affiliate, fight.

I'm working really hard to try to imagine a future that doesn't look just like trying to get more women look like men, in the sense of, I don't want our future to have to be that women have to take on the attributes of men to feel successful and gain access. I want us to begin to think about a future that's not imagined, or created yet, but to do that, we have to talk to each other like we are now, and tell the truth about how we feel, and about what's hard about it, and that these things are happening to all of us, and that we're in solidarity, and I think that's where change starts to happen.

Jill Anderson:    Well, thank you so much, Jennie.

Jennie Weiner:    Thank you. It was so fun.

Jill Anderson:    Jennie Weiner, is an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Connecticut. She authored an essay in the forthcoming book, Pandemic Parenting: The Collision of Schoolwork and Life at Home. She will also teach in the upcoming Women in Education Leadership Program as part of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, professional education. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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