March brings Women's History Month

The following article was written by ACSA President-elect Lisa Gonzales in recognition of Women's History Month.

Have you ever wondered why there is a month dedicated to one gender? I did when I was asked to reflect on Women’s History Month and the importance of female leadership, particularly in public education. What I learned in making a cursory review of existing research is that much of history has excluded the roles of women. Take the recent Academy Award nominated movie Hidden Figures (which tells the story of three African American women whose brainpower helped make John Glenn able to be the first American to orbit the Earth). It is but one example of women having a prominent part in our nation’s history yet the stories, until now, were left untold.

For the last 15 years or so, I’ve carefully observed female leaders. I’ve been fascinated by how some have effortlessly climbed the ladders and broken glass ceilings in their districts and county offices. A number of skills emerge that set women apart as leaders.

In a 2014 study, The Business Insider recounted the many characteristics that women have that resulted in them out-shining their male colleagues. As women mature, they are perceived to be more effective and positive leaders. This, despite women reporting that they have to “perform twice as well to be considered half as good.” But there is something to be said for this drive to outperform male counterparts, as the rewards result in a notable gap of effectiveness between women at 54.5 percent effectiveness in 360-degree evaluations as compared to their male counterparts at 51.8 percent effectiveness.

One reason given for the differential that grows to as high as a 6 percentage-point difference at the end of their careers, is that women ask for feedback and then take action to improve. Women are less likely to be complacent and strive to do better. The 360-degree evaluations also note significant differences in that women take initiative (13.67 percent differential); display high levels of integrity (9.78 percent differential); drive for results (9.53 percent differential); and develop others (8.14 percent differential). In 12 of 16 competencies, women outperformed men, and while many of the gender comparative studies are grounded in the business world, correlations can carry over into our work in public education.

Women are typically opportunity driven, seeing challenges and confronting them head on. According to a 2014 report in Forbes magazine, rather than seeing a glass half-empty, women either tend to see it half-full or they throw away the glass and look beyond. Because they see optimism and opportunity, they look for ways to grow and thrive, often bringing along other women in the process. Although not the risk-takers that their male colleagues may be, women are predisposed to let their egos go to make decisions and move organizations forward in healthier ways.

The Gallup organization, well known for its polls on perceptions about public schools, analyzed organizational performance over time, having worked with business executives on leadership issues. Their conclusions: Diversity in leadership roles is critically important, with stronger financial outcomes resulting from organizations with a gender balance. Women and men bring differing viewpoints, diversity in innovation, and broader experiences in both problem solving and decision making.

This easily translates to our education-al environments. Studies have shown for decades that women lead differently than men in schools and districts, categorized as gender norms. While these are not genetically determined, the norms are pretty consistently observed. For example, masculinity is associated with action and strength, while femininity is tied to passivity and vulnerability. When men act with decisiveness and authority, this is perceived as positive.

Yet, when women exhibit the same behaviors, they are seen as overbearing and bossy. Women need to keep this in mind when they are leading – not that they need to change their behaviors necessarily, but they need to have the awareness of how they may be judged differently. Women are also seen as more maternal and nurturing in their coaching and support of both genders of future leaders, as well as more in tune with problem-solving issues at the site level.

What is puzzling in the trends in leadership is that, despite the strengths women bring to leadership roles, women still hold only about one-third of superintendent positions in California. The same percent-age also exists in the business sector.

It could be a matter of choice. Studies note that the work-life balance holds a much higher priority for women. Women choose family over work and elect a more balanced lifestyle over career progression.

Whatever the reason, it has been shown both by the statistics cited above and by the anecdotal evidence of such outstanding past district leaders as Sandra Thorstenson, and Maria Ott, and current ones such as Mary Sieu, Cindy Marten, and Michelle King, that women can be great leaders. It behooves our schools to encourage new women into leadership, building new women leaders to create a history of their own to celebrate.

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