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Women Are Teachers. Men Are Leaders. Problem Here?

In 1961 after graduating from Brandeis, Phyllis Richman applied to graduate school at Harvard University’s Department of City and Regional Planning.  Shortly afterwards she received a response from Professor William A. Doebele, Jr.

The letter was brief.  Doebele said that based on her academic performance and her recommendations, Richman would probably be admitted to the program.  However, he wrote, “Married women find it difficult to carry out worthwhile careers in planning, and hence tend to have some feeling of waste about the time and effort spent in professional education.”  So before they could make a final decision, Doebele requested that she furnish the department a written explanation of how she planned to combine a career in city planning “with your responsibilities to your husband and a possible future family.”

Richman did not attend Harvard.  Instead, she worked for the Planning Commission in Philadelphia and at the same time free-lanced magazine articles.  Eventually she became the food critic for the Washington Post, a job she worked at for 23 years.  She did marry and she did have a family as well. 

In last Sunday’s paper, a lifetime later, Richmond responded to Professor Doebele. After describing her long and successful careers, Richmond concluded, “The choice of how to balance family and graduate school should have been mine.”

Today, fifty years later, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of Lean In, is taking that message to high school and college girls.  Sandburg, married with two children, says, “I see too many people holding themselves back because they feel intimidated.” 

Sandberg focuses on the financial disparity between men and women.  Women make up 51% of the population and 47% of the work force.  But only 4% of CEOs are female, and 17% of board members are female, according go market researcher Catalyst.  Women earn 77 cents for every dollar men make, says the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

I’ve had a bit of experience with gender bias myself.  Early in my career a college professor discouraged me from getting a Ph.D. because “It’s harder for a woman.” Later, when I was appointed academic dean in Gender-pay-gapa private school, I was the first woman to hold that position in 140 years.  Later as a superintendent, I was one of only two women leaders in my region.

So how are women in education faring in leadership positions today? In statistics provided by the NYS Department of Education, nearly 80% of New York State superintendents are men. Men constitute almost 75% of high school principals and 65% of middle school/junior high principals.  Forty percent of elementary principals are men,less than half -- but over 90% of elementary teachers are women.  At the secondary level, women greatly outnumber men in every subject except social studies, where 56% are male.

So in New York State, anyway, teachers are mainly women and leaders are mainly men.  We’re sending a strong message to our students, aren’t we?


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.