Women in K-12 Technology Leadership Still Face Sexism. Now They’re Calling It Out.

Jan 23, 2020

Women make up the majority of the K-12 education workforce but are chronically underrepresented in leadership roles. That’s especially true in IT leadership, where women hold just about a third of all positions, according to recent survey data from the Consortium for School Networking, with some indication that the ratio is actually skewing more male. An earlier survey found women typically earn less money and are given less prestigious titles than men, despite having greater overall education attainment.

But districts that make diversity a priority can easily reverse those trends. That was one takeaway from an all-women leadership panel last week at FETC 2020, an edtech conference in Miami. The panel was facilitated by Ann McMullan, the former executive director of education technology for Klein ISD in Texas, who now serves as a leadership consultant in Los Angeles.

Part of the problem? Men may not see it as much of an issue, said Lorrie Owens, the administrator for IT services for the San Mateo County Office of Education in California.

“Why would they?” she asked a mostly full room, where I was one of only four men in attendance.

Throughout the session, panelists spoke of their experiences with gender discrimination, learning to speak up about unfair treatment, improving the hiring process, and making women in leadership a priority for men who might not otherwise recognize the problem. What follows are highlights from that conversation.

On Sexism in the Workplace

“I can definitely say there were instances, in K-12 and at IBM, where I have been treated differently,” said Owens, who worked at IBM for 14 years earlier in her career. “I can definitely say it was more because I'm female than because I’m a female of color.”

All the panelists shared that they had faced sexism, and indeed most of the women who attended the session raised their hands in response to a prompt by McMullan about experiencing gender discrimination. Marlo Gaddis, the chief technology officer for the Wake County Public School System in North Carolina, recalled attending meetings with her enterprise architect, who is male, and seeing other men in the room speak only to him.

“The assumption was that he was the CTO and it started to make him uncomfortable,” said Gaddis, adding that he is quick to make corrections in the moment and redirect the conversation to her.

On Calling Out Behavior

“When there is an incident I think it’s important to call it out,” said Melissa Dodd, the CTO for the San Francisco Unified School District. “That’s a responsibility that I think we have as women, a way to model what we expect of others as well—male and female and nonbinary [staff] in our workplaces.”

Once, after what she described as a “disturbing” conversation with a vendor, Dodd shared her concerns with the company’s president. Internally, she added, teams should talk about what to do when gender discrimination occurs, and help male colleagues recognize it and speak up. “Being silent also is not enough.”

After an audience member asked the panel about how to respond to men who claim their behavior was unintentional, Owens suggested refocusing the conversation on how their words were perceived. “Stress: ‘This is how it was received,’” she said, adding that she tries for a non-confrontational approach. “Sometimes people try to belittle your perception of what they just said. Firmly, professionally stand your ground.”

On Getting More Men to Recognize the Problem

Few men attended the session and the panelists said it can be hard to get them to believe that gender parity is important. “A strategy that I would say is that this should not be a concurrent session where it’s a choice” on whether or not to attend, said Dodd. “It should be a general session at every single technology conference that we’re at.... If not, my fear is that we’re perpetuating what we’re all seeing and not making a shift.”

Owens added that women and minorities in leadership roles like hers are often cited as examples that opportunity does exist. “Until we make sure people understand there is a problem, we’re not going to have a lot of people coming to sessions like this,” she said.

On Creating Diverse Teams

When Dodd first started in San Francisco in 2015, the team she inherited was predominantly male. “I had one female director on the team and that was it,” she recalled. “I was committed to changing the makeup of our team.” That meant hiring not just more women, she added, but also with ethnicity and race in mind to bring different perspectives to the work.

Owens added that teams should also be mindful about having diversity on hiring panels. “If everyone sitting on the interview panel is a white guy, the likelihood is that the white guy is going to get the job, although that’s not always the case.”

And Gaddis recommended being even more proactive, scoping out prospective candidates before job openings even come up. “It’s always important to be succession planning and giving your leadership staff room for growth as well.”

On Leading Emotionally Supportive Environments

Building a collaborative culture, where team members feel they’re in it together, is crucial for leaders, Dodd said. So is establishing a work-life balance.

“We have lives, we have responsibilities outside work,” she noted. “Early on in my career, I thought I had to prove myself even more than men did. I thought that I couldn’t take the time away. I had to be there; the work had to come first. I look back on that now and think, ‘Why was I like that?’”

To better understand her large team and the support each person needed, Gaddis scheduled 15 minute meetings with everyone—120 people in total. “Fifteen minutes is the perfect amount of time to get the conversation going,” she said. “You have to give them questions ahead of time and make them feel safe.” Although she joked, “sometimes I wish I didn’t know as much as I do. Now I know a lot of things going on with a lot of people.”

Overall, though, she’s grateful for the added context and glimpses into their lives.

“You have to give people grace,” she said. “Grace is a huge gift not many people give in leadership. It’s something that needs to be given a lot more often.”


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