Years ago, at the top of my undergraduate class, I confided to a professor that I thought I’d like to pursue a doctorate. I still remember his response. “You know it’s more difficult for a woman,” he said. “You’ll have all your home responsibilities.” Later, when I was in graduate school anyway, another male professor asked me who was going to “rear” the child I was carrying and would deliver between semesters. Clearly, he indicated, it wasn’t going to be me.
I thought about those guys last week when a young pregnant woman I know told me about meeting with her male department chair. The baby is due in January, so she figured she could finish the fall semester of graduate school without too much trouble. “Well,“ said the chair, eying her baby bump, “you’re really stretching the boundaries of what can be done.” More confident that I was years ago, she just laughed, wisely deciding to pretend he meant it not as an insult, but as a play on words.
Well, it turns out it can be more difficult for a woman, but not because of “all the home responsibilities,” although that can certainly be a factor. Sometimes the attitudes of the very people who should be supporting and facilitating individual education can be a problem. And, of course, the culture of an educational institution begins at the top; the leadership sets the tone.
This is not to say that female professors or department heads would automatically be more supportive to female students, but there’s not
enough gender equity in these positions to test the theory. Of course, we have made general, if not always personal, progress. In the ten
years from 1994 to 2004, public school principals who were female increased from 41% to 56% according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. Secondary principals who were female increased from 14% to 24%.
Women have also made progress in terms of accessing the superintendency. Currently 22% of school superintendents are women according to an AASA report. Of these, 55% lead small rural districts, 35% head up suburban districts, and 9% are chief officers in urban districts. Still, about 75% of teachers are female, so “progress” may be an overstatement.
Nearly 40% of female superintendents enter the position from an assistant superintendent post. Men, on the other hand, move into the position directly from the principalship. “…The pipeline is women, primarily, and we’ve had a clogged pipeline,” says Paul Houston, president of AASA in 2008, the year of the report. “I’ve always maintained that women culturally are well prepared for the role because they’re more collaborative and lean towards bringing more people together ….”
At the college level, while more than half the current college undergraduate student population are women, only 33.6% of full-time faculty are women. The American Council on Education (ACE) says that 23% of college presidents are women. In a Forbes Magazine interview, Molly Broad, president of the ACE, says of the hiring process, “It wasn’t called the ‘old boys’ network’ for nothing.”
Still, more than half of all the students in law school and medical school are female. In addition, currently more than half the students enrolled in school administration certification programs are female.
Some of them may even be pregnant.