Equity and Women in Leadership
Female leaders throughout history have made significant contributions to societal advancement, in such areas as the civil rights movement and education reform. Yet to this day, women still fight for equity, be it in the boardroom or the classroom. However, the good news is this occurs less often within the educational ecosystem today.
Is equity the norm within educational leadership?
I am a Mexican-American woman, a teacher, and a first generation college student. Therefore, I approach my work from many perspectives using different lenses, and my gender is but one part of my journey. I have had many opportunities in my career to provide leadership at different levels of educational institutions, reflecting what I believe to be a trend in the last decade, where more and more women have assumed leadership positions in educational institutions. Take for example the system in which I am a leader: The California State University. We have 23 campuses and the majority of our presidents are female. And while I can’t single out my gender from my other identities as a leader, what I can tell you is that women continue to make a difference in the field because of their passionate dedication to better education for all.
Successful leadership strategy
I reference a specific framework to lead others, one commonly used in higher education. It was introduced to me over a decade ago, and I find it useful to this day. As I think about how I bring a team together to work toward a common goal, the four aspects of leadership that come to mind are those of Lee Bolman and Terry Deal’s Four-Frame model in their book, Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership (1991):
- Political – coalition building, bringing teams together
- Human resources – empowering employees to do collective work while remembering the human element
- Structural – strategy, task analysis, and timelines
- Symbolic – leading with a sense of purpose and meaning
When I consider these four frames, I believe there is always one default frame that is most comfortable to a leader. For me, it’s the human resources frame. I continuously strive to build and empower teams. I ask myself: How can I get the individuals I work with to be engaged? How can I encourage them to feel good about taking initiative in what they’re doing?
Part of this default position comes from my experience as a special education teacher. My preparation in that field involved problem solving, finding strengths in students and families, and collaboration. I utilize these same skills every day as my team and I work on the mission of student success within our system. I realize and believe that only when we work together can we optimize our collective resources and fulfill our common mission: Equity and Excellence in Education.
Unique leadership challenges and opportunities facing women in education today
While there continue to be challenges and “glass ceilings” for women in leadership, I see this less so in education. Many women currently serve in senior leadership positions, but we need to ensure this trend continues its upward trajectory. One challenge that continues to persist is a lack of women of color in educational leadership. While progress has occurred in this area in the last two decades, opportunities for growth still exist to ensure that more women of color are “sitting at the table” and engaging in decisions regarding student success.
As a leader, I have a responsibility to “pay it forward” by creating opportunities for women, especially women of color, to engage in leadership opportunities. Women leaders serve as role models for young girls and women. I have had many a former student say they feel they can aspire to be a leader, because they have seen the strides I have made in my career. I’ve been encouraged by various mentors, and now it is my responsibility to develop and nurture our aspiring leaders.
There are many opportunities for women leaders, but we must ensure they are empowered and supported to use their distinctive characteristics in leading organizations toward student success. My experience is that women bring to their work a unique skill set that often includes an ethos of caring and empathy. When combined with other leadership skills, such as strategic thinking and collaboration, women are both empowered and prepared to be effective leaders.
How successful women negotiate for what they need to be effective leaders
- One must be strategic. You must be clear about your goals and use evidence-based strategies to support them. If asking for funding, demonstrate why there is a need for additional funds. If making a budget request to supplement programs, build a compelling case and have the rationale and data to support considering an additional budget request.
- Be honest and approach your work with integrity. I base all of my decisions on my “north star.” That is, I ask myself, is this in the best interest of students and faculty? I approach my work with candor and authenticity. I don’t take credit for what our team does collaboratively; my work is all about the work of the individuals on my teams.
- Showcase successes and have open and honest dialogue about team challenges and milestones. These actions are a great way to demonstrate your value. Illustrate the inclusive nature of your leadership by highlighting the contributions of all your team members.
The bottom line
The most important part of being a leader, whether a man or woman, is supporting the professional growth of those individuals with whom you work. We must take into account our unique challenges and stories, bring them to the table, and work together to make a difference. Tapping into all of this makes me a better leader and better equipped to fulfill our collective mission and vision of ensuring equity and excellence in education.