Thoughts on Gender and Leadership

“We cannot counter structural inequality with goodwill” Cathy Davidson

offered in her keynote at the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute. Her statement resonates with me, and has recalled me to my convictions and actions in how we think about race, culture, and class in teaching, learning, and society.  Working in higher education in Maine, with both pre-service and in-service teachers, I have spent a lot of time helping them explore the potential negative reality of teaching ‘color-blind’.  We’ve worked to explore how a goal of political correctness has given us the impression that all children are alike. Maine is 97% white, and thus many of my students have not had personal experiences with people who have significantly different, racial, cultural, or ethnic lived experiences.  I am committed with students to exploring the structural elements, and the fact that structural inequality is present, hidden, and persistent.

And yet.

And yet, I have been ignoring a central element of my lived experience.  Being female.  I have ignored the structural elements that have been part of my life because of my gender.   In my teaching I have tiptoed around this topic with students, and in one failed Introduction to Education course was almost brought to tears by a first-year student who reduced women to hormonally imbalanced maniacs.  His classmates would have all crawled out the windows of the class and he spoke, and while he and I addressed his comments outside of class, I failed to respond to his stereotypical comments in the way I wished I had.  I still wonder about my inability to process this moment as a teacher, and wonder if it because of the fact that I have been trying to ignore the fact that I am a woman.

I am now a leader of three graduate degree programs, and work with amazing faculty who are eager to empower our in-service educators to translate the care into action. I am in my fourth year of this role, and am still nervous to call myself a leader, and far more nervous to discuss the fact that I am female.  I read a great deal on effective leadership, and wonder when do I “Lean In” and take my seat at the table, and when do I wait.  I laugh when I read comics like 9-Non Threatening Leadership Strategies for Women, and I laugh because I have used some of these strategies, and changed the way an email was written or a phone call made because I did not want to be too aggressive.  

In addition to my identity as a female who is new to leadership, I am also a mother.  The impact of being a parent in higher education has been explored by

  • Loeffler, D. N., Ely, G. E., & Flaherty, C. (2010). Parenting on the tenure track: Exploring gender differences in perceptions of collegial and supervisor support. Academic Leadership Journal, 8(2), 1–6.
  • Pirouznia, M. (2009). Fewer women than men in educational leadership. Academic Leadership Journal, 7(3), 69–75.
  • Klatt, R. (2014). Young superintendents with school-age children: Gendered expectations, effectiveness, and life quality in rural communities. Journal of School Leadership, 24(3), 452–481

The parameters that I place on my work because I want to be involved with my child are real. My partner is amazing, but works away from the house half the year, and as such the demands of an intense leadership job, and the reality of parenting make me confront my own stereotypes of being a good mother often. Coming to terms with my own conceptions of leadership, my gender identity, stereotypes, and advocacy is difficult work, and yet I am eager to begin to dive into these issues.

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