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How Teachers Can Help Girls Lead

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The women's leadership gap is well documented. Despite making up nearly 51 percent of the U.S. population, in 2014 women make up just 18.5 percent of Congress and 24.2 percent of state legislatures. They are only 14.6 percent of executive officers and 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, and they hold just 16.9 percent of Fortune 500 board seats.

The gap exists in fields that have traditionally been male-dominated (for example, in information technology, women hold just 9 percent of management positions and 14 percent of senior management positions at Silicon Valley startups) as well as in those that have been traditionally female. Women account for 78.4 percent of the labor force in health care and social assistance, but just 14.6 percent of executive officers and 12.4 percent of board directors.

In education, they hold 75 percent of teaching positions but only 30 percent of educational leadership roles -- a percentage that decreases the further you get from the classroom (a study of the superintendency shows that just 24.1 percent of superintendents were women -- though that proportion is up from just 13.2 percent in 2000).

The leadership gap also exists in the medical, legal, financial services and entertainment fields, as well as in others. And for women of color, the gap is even wider -- for example, while they make up approximately 18 percent of the U.S. population, they hold just 3.2 percent of Fortune 500 board seats, and more than two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies have no women of color on their boards at all.

A number of factors contribute to this gap, with social norms involving women's behavior and workplace barriers (both structural and cultural) among them. And there are also internal barriers that individual women must overcome for the group as a whole to achieve leadership parity with men. Closing the leadership gap is a daunting task -- but one that educators are well positioned to help accomplish.

Educators' Views on Leadership

Schools play a key role in creating a pipeline of girls who are interested in taking on leadership roles, with educators both supporting leadership development and shaping the perspectives of all students on gender roles and leadership. Recognizing their importance in this arena, the National Education Association (NEA, in partnership with others) recently released Closing the Leadership Gap: How Educators Can Help Girls Lead to promote awareness about the gender gap in leadership and make recommendations about what educators and advocates can do to close that gap and support female leadership development.

The report includes the results of a 2014 NEA survey of middle and high school educators that explores their perspectives about girls' leadership, seeking to understand what qualities educators believe to be important for leaders and to assess if (and to what extent) gender bias might impact their perceptions about student leadership. Key findings are:

  • Middle and high school educators expressed a gender-egalitarian view of leadership: choosing mainly gender-neutral words such as "problem-solver," "collaborative" and "intelligent" to describe a good leader (though the male-typed "confident" and female-typed "compassionate" were also among the most popular terms used)
  • Educators observe that girls and boys take on leadership roles in different settings in schools: with both middle and high school teachers reporting that girls are more likely than boys to take on leadership roles in English and language arts classes, student government, arts and culture clubs, community service and school publications. They also report that boys are more likely than girls to take on leadership roles in math and science classes, athletic activities and science clubs
  • Gender stereotypes and implicit biases are still a challenge in the education setting: as in other settings. When educators were presented with a realistic situation in which they were asked to describe and evaluate a student leader -- identified to some as "Jacob" and some as "Emily" -- they did so differently. While some attributes (such as competent) were attributed equally, educators were more likely to describe "Jacob" using stereotypically male terms like "confident," "aggressive," "arrogant" and "charismatic." They were more likely to describe "Emily" using stereotypically female terms like "bubbly," "hard-working," "compassionate" and "feminine"

As NEA reports, these findings have a number of implications. For example, they suggest that educators' are open to recognizing and supporting girls' leadership. They suggest that students are aware of (and likely influenced by) gender stereotypes in choosing the areas in which they take on leadership. And they raise concerns that implicit biases might result in educators' interacting with students in ways that inadvertently reinforce negative stereotypes.

Take Action

Based on these findings and other research, the report offers three recommendations as to how teachers, schools, and districts can help close the gender leadership gap.

  • Provide professional development and pre-service cultural competency, diversity and leadership trainings that examine stereotypes and biases about girls, women and leadership. Seventeen percent of survey respondents said that their initial training "never" touched on gender and gender equity, and an additional 34.9 percent said that these issues were "rarely" discussed
  • Highlight the importance of women's contributions across the academic spectrum and expose all students to women who are role models and leaders in the world. This practical step -- one that every educator can take -- serves multiple purposes. Such women inspire, and exposure to them can also help break down negative perceptions about girls and women in leadership
  • Encourage girls to take on leadership roles -- and encourage ALL students to take on non-traditional leadership roles. This is another practical step that every educator can take to help girls develop confidence in their leadership skills and break down the cultural stereotypes that both discourage girls from taking on leadership roles and undermine their acceptance once in them

For an example of a school doing innovative work in this arena, see a profile I wrote last year of North Carolina's Wake Young Women's Leadership Academy and it's efforts to change how tween and teen girls view themselves.

Of course, it is worth noting that girls (and women) are not the only demographic facing a leadership gap. And the recommendations here can be easily adapted to help other groups of students discover and develop their leadership potential, with the ultimate goal of empowering all students to fully realize that potential.

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Gwen Pescatore's picture
Gwen Pescatore
President Home & School Assoc, #ParentCamp Organizer, Co-Moderator #PTchat

I'm with you in that I don't think we should forget about the other individuals that are under-represented...but it is amazing to see the difference it can make in girls when you not only expose and invite them to take on leadership roles - but also surround them with peers and other girls who they can look to as mentors.

Some organizations I think are doing great things to inspire girls/women: MillionWomenMentors.org (@MillionWMentors), girlrising.com (@girlrising) and GirlsontheRun.org (@gotri). National Center for Families Learning (FamiliesLearning.org / @NCFL) is a group that I am often in awe of for their work in supporting minorities and literacy to change not only a child's life...but multiple generations of a family.

TanyaB's picture

As an African-American mother of an 11 year old daughter, it saddens me that still in 2014 we are discussing inequalities in education and leadership for women and people of color. But the reality is they still exist and it important for educators to be knowledgeable of factors that contribute to these disparities, and ways they can encourage girls to explore all options open to them, not just those typically deemed to be roles for women. As an educator in training, I will certainly actively seek ways to engage all students in leadership opportunities, and to be especially creative in challenging girls to be open to possibilities they may not have previously considered.

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AlondraSA's picture

Is there certain barriers that women put on themselves that men may not think of when trying to further in their careers, such as making time for family and children?

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

I am not sure it's barriers that women put on themselves per se more so societal barriers. Making time for family/children can and should be a personal decision however, society and the economy does not support women much with these decisions: gender pay gap, maternity leave/pay, child support are all factors that hinder women from staying and furthering their career.

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