“Mrs. Blakeway… my dad says it’s weird that you are a woman and that you are the principal”. My heart sunk for this little grade one girl – not because her father’s comment had impact on me, but because he thought it was ok to say this to his daughter.
Growing up, I never felt disadvantaged for being female. I can’t say that I thought the boys had it any easier, and I didn’t notice any stereotypical expectations. My mother was a strong independent single mom so we didn’t really grow up observing ‘pink jobs’ or ‘blue jobs’. My mom did it all. Besides the occasional frustration that it wasn’t safe to run through trails alone, I never noticed a gender imbalance amongst my peers. After university, I worked in Human Resources, and then as a teacher and a school counsellor. Again, these positions were often filled by women and I was oblivious to any gender discrepancies.
Last year, I attended the ULead Conference in Banff – a conference for school administrators worldwide. It was there, where a keynote speaker shared some statistics. Seventy percent of teachers are women. School administrators are chosen from this pool, meaning it would be an accurate representation to have 70% of school leaders as women. This is not the case. I’m lucky to work in a district that is more progressive than the norm, though in Canada, only 47% of school leaders are female. The further you climb the management ranks, the less likely the position is to be filled by women – less than 20% of superintendent jobs in Canada are filled by females. Considering the pool started with 70% women in teaching roles, these stats speak for themselves. Women either have not felt comfortable applying for these roles, or gender stereotyples have played a factor for roles that are considered more masculine.
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of Lean In, shares a research study where participants were asked to read a paragraph and then decide how much they liked the person in the story. Half the particpants received a card that talked about Howard. Howard is a CEO, has a wife, two kids and likes to golf on the weekend. Most people who read the card said they really liked Howard. The other half of the participants received the same story – but this time it was about Heidi – married, two kids, CEO and golfs on the weekend. This time, participants assumed they wouldn’t like Heidi. Why? Do they assume Heidi isn’t a good mother? Is it selfish of Heidi to golf on the weekend? Perhaps they assume Heidi lacks some feminine qualities if she is CEO. Either way, it demonstrates that both men and women have preconceived notions about gender and leadership.
Kirstine Stewart, author of Our Turn, was the first female vice president of the CBC. Later, the Canadian vice president of Twitter, she shares the story of her first big media release at CBC. Anxious to see how the press accepted the new direction of this media giant, she eagerly awaited the press coverage – only to wake up and find article after article critiquing her shoes, her dress and her hair. The attention focused on her sense of style and appearance more than the goals she had accomplished.
In Our Turn, Stewart shares a study where women and men were asked if they prefer a male or female boss. Both chose male. In fact, women were more likely than men to say that an ideal boss should be male. Why is this? Is it because women have had more male bosses and are comfortable with this or is it because both genders assume leadership is masculine?
Now that I’m in my 40’s and a school principal, I notice the gender inequality more than ever before. For the last four years I worked as an elementary principal. Our district exceeds the national average with 11/20 elementary principals being female. In January, I switched roles to secondary principal. I hadn’t noticed the gender imbalance in secondary until my new director welcomed me and said “Congratulations- you will be our only female secondary principal”. Of seven secondary principals, 6 are male. By no means do I mean to put down my colleagues as they are great leaders – but I do appreciate that our district has taken notice of the gender imbalance.
As I transition to my new position, in a role predominately filled by males, I hope for a day when we value leadership traits in all – regardless of gender – and I hope for a day when no child is told it’s weird her principal is female.