Advocating for Gender Equity & Gender Representation

In August of 2021, after years as a ‘teacher leader’ (first as Innovation Institute Program Coordinator, then as an Instructional Coach), I stepped into my first formal leadership role. Since then, I have found myself quite regularly advocating for gender equity and the importance of gender representation. This advocacy ranges from providing advice or support to female colleagues to speaking out in a meeting, as well as intentionally having ‘courageous conversations’ with colleagues and superiors. As I acknowledged my increasing role in advocating for gender-related issues, I started to question myself. As a female stepping into my first ‘formal’ leadership role, was I being too ‘predictable’? Was I going to annoy or alienate some of my colleagues by too frequently bringing up issues related to gender equity and gender representation? Was I seeing things from my own narrow perspective and experience, becoming too focused on issues related to gender? Am I even ‘qualified’ to advocate for gender-related issues?

I brought up these questions and concerns with a few friends and colleagues, as well as in a recent conversation with my professional leadership coach, Aleasha Morris. (As a side note, I strongly believe that every leader regardless of sector would benefit from a professional executive coach. Perhaps this is a future blog post!) I am not sure why I was surprised that everyone I spoke to led me to the conclusion that I should not feel apologetic about advocating for gender equity or gender representation. I was left feeling reassured that I should be using my voice for such an important issue that is – shockingly, really – still a problem today.

Gender Equity & Representation Are STILL Issues?

According to data from the Academy for International School Leadership (AISH), [the number of] women heads of international schools have only improved slightly — increasing from 27% to 33% over the past ten years.

Promoting a Gender-Inclusive Hiring Process (ecis)

2019 survey results (full report here) from the inaugural Diversity Collaborative Survey (DCS) indicates a clear call to action: the diversity in many international school leadership teams (and often faculty as well) is not representative of the diversity in the student body. As part of a summary by the Council of International Schools it was stated that, on average, “29% of teachers are male and 61% are female” while “75% of the schools have a male head” of school.

During the AAIE Conference in April 2021, the authors of the soon-to-be released book Raise Her Up (Debra Lane and Kimberly Cullen) shared that according to a 2019 UNESCO study, 94% of early childhood teachers are women, while less than 50% of secondary teachers are women. It is probably no surprise that there are even fewer women in leadership positions: less than 13% of school leaders are women (based on data from Finland, Japan, Portugal, and South Korea). These statistics seem to be more or less the norm around the world. One of the six main calls for action from the UNESCO report is to increase the number of women in leadership positions.

None of us will see gender parity in our lifetimes, and nor likely will many of our children.

WEF Global Gender Gap Report 2020

The fact that the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report in 2020 indicated that, on average, at our current pace it would take almost 100 years to achieve gender equality is unbelievably shocking. Sadly, it has gotten even worse in the last year. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic means that “the global gender gap has increased by a generation from 99.5 years to 135.6 years” (WEF Global Gender Gap Report 2021). As a teenager, I had no idea that the battles my mother’s generation faced would not be much different from those that we can expect current teenagers to continue to face when they enter the workforce. This is not the reality I expected my sons to be stepping into as they near adulthood. I feel discouraged, sad, and frustrated. However, I also feel an increasing sense of responsibility and urgency. (I should note that I realize I have much to learn related to these and other issues related to diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and justice. Gender issues are even more complex and nuanced than I once thought – it is an area of growth for me.)

Women’s full and equal participation in all facets of society is a fundamental human right. Yet, around the world, from politics to entertainment to the workplace, women and girls are largely underrepresented.

UN Women

As Simon Sinek says, it is important to start with the WHY. Why is it important to me to speak out about gender equity and gender representation?

  1. I strongly believe that all students deserve role models and experiences during their education that ensure that they do not even question that women and men should be equally represented at all levels, and in all areas. “Negative stereotyping of women as unsuited to be leaders are reinforced by a scarcity of female teachers in higher education“, as well as a scarcity of female leaders. All of our students must internalize that they, too, can be leaders regardless of their identity.
  2. Just as our students deserve leadership teams that are representative of the student body, our faculty also deserve to be represented. Diverse leadership teams help to prevent discrimination and minimize micro-aggressions among adults as well. Diverse leadership teams increase the likelihood that every faculty member has a leader who they feel ‘seen’ by, and with whom they feel safe.
  3. I also truly believe that teams and organizations are stronger when they include and value diverse perspectives – I have personally seen this time and again throughout my career. A 2020 Forbes blog post states that companies with “diverse and inclusive cultures” provide a “competitive edge”; they are “better prepared for decision-making and accomplishing the task at hand.” Similarly, the article Why You Need Diversity On Your Team And 4 Ways To Build It references a study that suggests gender diversity on a team encourages creativity and innovation.
  4. Unconscious bias and stereotypes exist – and are often unintentionally reinforced – at all levels in schools. As a classroom teacher, I remember noticing that girls were more likely to be the ones acting as the ‘note taker’ for their team. Similarly, I started to notice that some of my male colleagues would request not to be the note taker in meetings or in charge of organizing, as it was not their strength. While this may seem minor, it is important to note that women in the workforce are more likely to engage in ‘office housework’: necessary tasks and activities that benefit the company but go unrecognized, are underappreciated, and don’t lead to career advancement”. Educators and school leaders must be mindful of messages – even if unintentional – that students receive and may even perpetuate among themselves. It is important for us to look for – and question – behaviors and structures that may be reinforcing gender stereotypes among students as well as adults.

Gender Equity in Leadership – Potential Pitfalls

It is important to recognize that not all leadership positions are created equal. Even if there is gender diversity and representation within a leadership team, who has the power? Who is at the table when decisions are made? Do all members feel they are valued and their voices heard? How do we know? It takes a strong commitment to ensure true gender equity within an organization. It is not just about ensuring representation, but also cultivating a true sense of belonging and inclusion for all members.

Leaders also need to be aware of who ‘has their ear’. Is there a perception that colleagues are more likely to influence leaders’ thinking and decisions if they are of the same gender? Knowing that there tend to be more male leaders in positions of power, does everyone have equal access to their leaders?

Recruiting is another area that needs attention. While one hurdle is to consider how candidates are being sought out in order to ensure diversity, it is also important to consider whether everyone involved with recruiting and interviewing have had anti-bias training. Otherwise, the idea that “the best person” should get the job can continue to reinforce the hiring of homogeneous candidates who do not challenge the current culture at an organization. The myth that there is a “best person” for the job often unintentionally “assumes that diverse” candidates are automatically less qualified and that the hiring requirements need to be “lowered” which is explicitly biased and racist“. This Guardian article also warns that an “unconscious bias and a tendency to hire in their own image” can lead to hiring the wrong candidate.

Where to start?

I am still learning when it comes to issues related to diversity, equity and representation. For those who are interested in considering a root cause of gender inequality, I highly recommend the book Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. This book provides powerful examples of why we need women at the table – and data about women and girls – in order to make informed decisions and find effective solutions. I found this book to be an eye opener and a call to action.

A good resource for men wanting to increase their awareness is Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace. The book states that “gender inequities are not women’s issues – they are leadership issues. Framing gender inequities as “women’s issues” gives men a free pass“.

My Personal Commitment

Diverse leadership teams is one area I am interested in; one of my goals is to partner with colleagues to find ways to develop leadership capacity within our school. I would like to think specifically about how to ensure the development and support of female leaders.

I would also like to help to identify and address student issues related to gender equity and gender representation at my school. For example, a McKinsey & Company Intersection newsletter stated that although “girls make up nearly half of American middle- and high-school students who are interested in learning computer science“, “they make up less than one-fourth of high-school students who take the Advanced Placement (AP) computer-science exam. Missing out on this and other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education could mean missing out on high-paying jobs down the line.” This newsletter also stated that “in fact, women make up only a quarter of the US computing workforce.” I wonder what areas of improvement related to gender equity might exist currently at my school? What data does my school currently collect &/or what data might we need to collect related to gender equity?

I will continue to educate myself about issues related to diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and justice, so that I can be a more informed and more effective advocate. One resource I will look to is the Integrated Organizational Framework and associated strategies from the Diversity Collaborative Survey (DCS) 2019 report which can “help international schools and organizations serving international schools become more intercultural, equitable and just.

Integrated Organizational Framework (from The Diversity Collaborative)

Finally, if you have any advice or thoughts to share reach out to me on Twitter (@foley_amy) or LinkedIn. I’d love to hear from you!

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