being me, Passion, questions

Where Are All of the Female Leaders?

where are

One of the most asked questions I get wherever I go is; how do you do it all?  And by all they mean be a mother, wife, teacher, author, and speaker and still seem somewhat normal.  Not dazed, not frazzled, not crazy.  I wish I had an amazing answer or  a magical formula that would somehow give me more hours in the day and peace of mind to the person asking.  But I always answer honestly; I don’t.  There’s a balance and sometimes that balance shifts one way or another, but I never lose track of what is most important.  Yet, the many times I have been asked that question, I cannot help but wonder; how many times has that same question been asked to my male counterparts?  To those male educators that seem to have a million things going on as well.  Do they get asked how they do it all, or is it just a female question?

I ask, because this post does not have inspiration or answers, but it does have a lot of questions that I am hoping you will discuss with me.  Because I have started to notice that there seems to be a double standard when it comes to female educators in leadership.  That females who lead in some capacity are always assumed to be sacrificing something for that leadership, whether it be time with their husband,  time with their kids, or time from their job.  And that supposed  sacrifice means that we should feel guilty (which trust me I do) and at some point we need to apologize for the fact that we sacrificed something in the first place.  That we are not supposed to sacrifice time with our children to further our own learning.  That we are supposed to become leaders only after our children go to college, not whenever we want to.  (Just to make clear, I have no issue with women who choose to wait until later in life, I do take issue with being told I should wait).  Not while they live at home.  That we tend to say no to opportunities presented to us because we feel bad, and boy, are we good at feeling bad.

So I wonder if this is just a female thing?  Do males get asked how they do it all?  Are they supposed to feel guilty when they leave their families behind to pursue a leadership opportunity?  Or am I biased because I am obviously a female myself.

It is not just because I wonder about the whole notion of feeling guilty when we are away.  More importantly though, I wonder if this guilt is stopping us from speaking up, from going to conferences, from taking leadership positions that we know will swallow more of our time?  Are we creating a barricade to strong female leadership ourselves?  Because it seems like everywhere I go, males are dominating a lot of the leadership roles still.   And it can’t just be me,  I cannot be the only one noticing this.  So I wonder;  where are all of the female educational leaders?

Because I am surrounded by them in my daily life.  I am surrounded by them at my school, in my district, in my network of people.  And yet, the minute we are asked to point out leaders, how many times do our fingers point to males?  How many times when we see a new initiative being pushed out is there few females involved?  How many pictures of leadership meetings feature mostly males?  And what are we doing about it?

So what happens to those women who want to be more than “just” a teacher?  “Just” a principal?  Are there enough opportunities out there for them?  Are we holding ourselves back or is it a societal thing where conference committees, editors, and other people with opportunities tend to gravitate toward males rather than females because there is an assumption that women don’t want these opportunities?  Why in a profession that is mostly female are most leaders still male?  Did we do it to ourselves?  Or am I completely wrong here?

PS:  Kaye and Leah, this one’s for you.

I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA but originally from Denmark,  who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade.  Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children.  The second edition of my first book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students” is available for pre-order now.   Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press.  Join our Passionate Learners community on Facebook and follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

32 thoughts on “Where Are All of the Female Leaders?”

  1. I’m pretty sure that I asked you that question. Maybe out loud, maybe just in my head. I have put off having kids because I don’t know how people balance this career and family.

    Somehow, though, you manage it. I was hoping that you’d reveal your secret for getting a bit more than 24 hours in this post because watching what you do is truly an inspiration.

    At ISTE, I found myself wondering the same thing – where ARE the female education leaders? In a profession where we are the majority, why are our voices in the minority? What is it about individuals or the culture that quiets us?

    What I do know is that I’m gathering a collection of awesome female voices in my life and working to support and celebrate them and their accomplishments. If we don’t do it, who will?

    Thanks as always for your superhero time management ways and a terrific post.

  2. This is such an important issue. How many panels of “education experts” contain only a token female or two, while we constitute 84% of teachers at latest count I read? I think we should start a forum like the #WomenEd forum in England – a series of blogs, twitterchats and meetups. Anybody up for something like that?

    1. Great post, powerful questions. Similar conversations going on in the UK; here is an example of a post reflecting on an @SLTchat hosted by one of the women who’s pioneering the @womened Unconference:

      I’ve commented there and, related, this is a recent BrainPicking article which talks about technology unleashing women’s true potential:

      As a recent student I saw over and over how my amazing teachers, male and female, were held by hierarchical structures. As a graduate I felt those same limitations in the real world; to be myself in this environment I’d have to change myself for a while first, and I couldn’t pretend any more. I’m not trying to give advice to anyone. Who am I to do that? Who is anyone to give advice without permission? This is just my take on the world and I’m just expressing my answer to it. I’m alive now like I never knew was possible as a hard working student and graduate employee.

  3. I have no ill will for any male in this profession. However, I can count the number of times I have heard that “we really need strong male teachers.” While that might be true, it is no less true that we need STRONG FEMALE teachers as well. Now is the time to ensure that our voice in this field is heard. I think we can all agree that there are many areas in education that need reformation. Instead of thinking that we have to leave our classrooms to make change happen, let’s start the discussion of what we can do FROM our classroom. I don’t want to wait until more men enter the field or more women leave the classroom to demand that we have better pay, lower ratio, and less testing. We advocate for our students every day, it’s time to advocate for ourselves.

  4. As a female administrator with 2 children and currently am working on my dissertation for my PhD (yeah I’m ABD). I get that question all of the time. Last summer I had the opportunity to teach in China for 3 weeks and I had so many people ask me what I was going to do with my children and if I could leave them for that long. I have a husband I was not leaving my children home alone, yet no one even thought of course my husband would be fine. It was beyond frustrating when a month later my husband went out of town for about 10 days and not one person asked him what he was going to do with our kids or if he could handle being gone that long. I love Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, she has such a great perspective on this. Beyond female leadership this is so important to encourage female teachers to take on more leadership and for us to encourage female students. This is an issue everyone thinks is solved and is still greatly lacking in equality when we look at education specifically high level district leadership.

    1. While this post is almost a year old, I just happened upon it today and wanted to share my gratitude. Thank you for writing this post and asking these questions. Thank you to all the insightful comments as well.

      I often wonder about the implicit gender bias that puts female leaders at a disadvantage – because of the assumptions that are made about what a “woman” wants (whether she has chosen to have children or not). I agree, there needs to be more female leadership in education and there needs to be changes to ensure that females are encouraged and supported when choosing to pursue that leadership.

  5. This post has truly spoken to me. As a principal and mother of twins I often feel guilty of pursuing my dream of being a champion for children. I recently attended the “Grow your value” conference and it was so refreshing to see so many women who are passionate about their careers, but are also great at being moms and wives. Thanks for taking the time to address a subject that many are afraid to touch.

  6. I could not agree more! I worked in the food industry before teaching and it was the same thing- in order to be one of THE chefs it required 90 hours a week for years…and I was on board until I had my first child and then I had to learn how to balance my time between family and work. My oldest son is turning 22 and I am still learning that balance. A lot of my identity and self-esteem come from the passion I have for my work- now more than ever, and it is a trade off. Not only because of the hours of preparation and my constant state of preoccupation but the low pay for the number of hours required to be on top of the learning curve in my field. I want to give my all in all areas of my life- and I do- but that can’t be all areas all at the same time all of the time. I don’t care what gender you are- that is the way it is. There is no expectation for men to give 100% of themselves in ALL areas, even though many of them have that goal and are faced with the same conundrum.

  7. Well, I asked Dave Burgess how he manages it all in a Google Hangout in May; now you’ve made me wonder if I only asked because I get asked the question so much!

    As an emerging leader in my school and state and a wife and mother of two preschool-age boys, I get asked how I manage to do it all each day with my “home responsibilities” and my career. I know exactly what you mean by “good at feeling bad!” No one is asking the football coach or the male principal how they have time or giving them the guilt trip.

    I am fortunate to have two amazing and encouraging female leaders in my district who inspire, as well as role models of education leaders at the state level. Thank you for acknowledging the lack of female inclusion in the big picture, and I hope more women are encouraged by this post to lead, speak up, seize opportunities, and support each other!

  8. Hi Pernille,

    I wonder this all the time as well. Why is it that people ask me how I can do it, over and over and over again. How can I be a principal? How can I leave my kids at home each day – with the long hours we have to put in much of the time? How do I balance it all? Do they ask the same to my admin male colleagues? Hmmmm… Not so sure.

    Is guilt a woman-thing? I feel guilty all the time, but not so sure I should. We are all doing our best – for our families, for our schools, for our students. We are trying to make a positive difference. I feel very fortunate in my district where we have a number of wonderful female leaders who lead the district with some male colleagues.

    Not sure I have any answers, but I share in your frustration and concern around this topic.


  9. You’re still supposed to be Mom and Wife first. It’s still part of the culture and it’s not right. Remember the crap Wendy Davis was getting? How could she have gone to college and had a career when she had kids at home? Teaching is very female but teacher leadership isn’t.

  10. Pernille,
    I appreciate the reflection in your post. As a father of five, farmer of grain and livestock and principal of over 850 students, each night I go to sleep I spend time in what was accomplished and what was missed through the hours of my day. I must say guilt is always there but also feelings of refinement. I am not speaking to the “leadership” aspect of your question but rather the service of serving. In education, we serve others, very sacrificially at times and to our our detriment. We are helpers by the mere fiber we are made of and at times our own families may pay a small price for this. But, leadership is a calling of service and placing others in front at all times. In education, this need is a balanced need for both men and women. As an elementary principal, I work in a world that is quite opposite of what you describe as I collaborate with both a leadership team of a great majority of all females and a school of a great majority of females educators. I honestly don’t see this; I see people. People who need me and me who “needs the people”. I would compare this to the great youth soccer teams that are mixed gender. It is a special blend of harmony and representation of the kids we serve. I am not answering your question but hopefully giving a charge to any woman or man who feels called to serve in leadership; there has been no time better than this day in education, take the step and go forth. Change starts with each of us! Thanks again for insightful and reflective posts! Best, Chad
    chadsmithelearn on twitter

  11. Lack of women in leadership is a discussion with a lot of reality behind it. I think perspective has a lot to do with it though. As a male elementary teacher, I often wonder where all the other men are; then the answer hits me: teaching high school, in administration, or earning more money in the private sector. Obviously there is a lot wrong with all three of these. Just like Maria notes, the comment about more male teachers probably comes from an elementary perspective. Tia probably feels like a minority in administration, many will agree we need more strong female teachers in secondary education, and Rafranz will remind us that we need more people (especially women) of colour everywhere. Recognizing my position of privilege as an educated white male, I’d just like to see more diversity. Period. It was beautiful to see the diversity on the streets of Philadelphia, and I wish we could have that all across every part of education.

    As far as leadership goes, this is something that I’ve struggled with a lot. The work-home balance is something that I’m very conscious of, and haven’t pursued some opportunities because of it; yet, I have still been asked how I do it all, between the classroom, the union work, grad school, family and hockey. My answer has become two-fold. First, I’ve struggled and negotiated and prioritized what’s really important and do that first. Second, I’ve really come to understand that leadership, and strong leadership at that, doesn’t have to come from an administrative or district position, or as a keynote on the speaking circuit. It can be done from the classroom. As educators, we can lead from the classroom and broadcast to the world through social media with great impact. That can be really powerful, as Pernille has repeatedly demonstrated.

  12. I have been surrounded by strong women all my life: My mother, grandmother and aunts. (That is not to say male figures did not play a role as well.) My major “role model/influencer” as I journeyed into my profession were strong women leaders In the field of education and were the leaders at the school I taught for 39 years. I love this question Pernille, and have often wondered if our male counterparts were held to that standard as well. It’s not about having it all. It’s about family systems that support each other in their growth, passion and dreams.

  13. As a parent of two-under-five, a school leader at a middle level, a teacher, and a full time PhD researcher, I’ve thought about this, too. My thoughts in more length are here:

    While not everyone is fortunate enough to have support at home, I think our lives are about choices – for men and women. I wish for all of us to be able to make choices that fulfil us, and for employers to have the flexibility to support that. What is one person’s or family’s perfect balance is not another’s.

    The last paragraph of my blog post is this: There is no “invisible power pellet” or perfect one-size-fits-all recipe for finding the work-family-life-happiness sweet spot. We can only make choices which work for each family at any given time, riding the ebb and flow of life’s messy randomness together, and with a view to serving each individual (parents and children) and the whole.


  14. I appreciate the comments posted prior.

    I guess it depends on what one means by “leader.” I have not written a book, or am on the short list of speakers at national and regional conferences. In other words, I am not one of the sanctioned voices in Eduland. And, before anyone flames me, I don’t denigrate anyone who is; you do you, as they say. But, albeit just a classroom teacher, I am very much a leader – perhaps in micro versus macro – but a leader, all the same. I challenge my students and my colleagues to think differently, on a daily basis. And, occasionally, I even motivate them to think and act, and do courageous things.

    What’s grossly missing from the conversation is recognition of the women of color who are leaders. Again, not just in leaders in macro. But those like Marva Collins, who did what she did, without a lot of fanfare, but, because she knew it was the right thing to do.

    1. Hi Miss Jones, I’m liking your micro vs macro leadership distinction. It’s a cultural shift we’re living though as we begin to appreciate the micro leadership you’re talking about. Some conversations on these lines are coming up elsewhere in posts like this one: If you read this I think you’ll see what I mean. People talk allot about how headteachers are important, and I agree; to the teachers the headteacher is important. For students the most important person in their education the class teacher.

    2. Your comments about the micro vs macro leader certainly resonate with me. Thank you for stating the idea so clearly. I would suggest that you remove the “just” in front of classroom teacher. It has become a word used too frequently and I can feel the hackles rise each time I read or hear it. What I hear in your words is a strong, competent, self-aware and courageous woman.

  15. I honestly feel there are many amazing women leaders in education. It’s all about perception, and those who feel they aren’t leaders are wrong. Kristen Ziemke, Irene Fountas, Gay Su Pinnell, Lucy Caulkins….et al. All leaders in the field. I’m proud to say I learn from excellent female educators every day (including my wife), all of whom are leaders in the field of education.

    Men do get asked “how do they find the time.” I have three children, coach a sport every season, and do mentor several school activities (BOB, STEM Club, Coding Club, newspaper, etc). The perception is probably a bit harder for men in elementary, as there aren’t as many… so the question seems to be for different reasons. Either way, dedicated educators are leaders… regardless of gender.

  16. Thank you so much for this post and for getting this conversation going. Before I became an educator, I studied sociology and spent a lot of time reading about feminist theory. It drives me crazy to hear colleagues say things like “I just like the leadership style of male principals better”. Women with strong opinions who aren’t afraid to voice them are often seen as b**ches while men with the same strong opinions are seen as leaders. It’s so frustrating.

    I’m married but have chosen not to have children. Often I hear from educators with children (male and female) that the only reason I’m able to do all the work that I do is because I don’t have a family to take care of. That almost feels like a cop-out to me. Like people are using having children as an excuse to not pursue leadership roles. And while I don’t judge people for putting their family first or cutting back on other responsibilities to be with them, I don’t think it has to be such an either/or issue. (Not even getting into the judgement of choosing not to have children – that’s a whole ‘nother discussion)

  17. Pernille,

    They are all around us. 🙂 I’ve learned so much from my female colleagues and educational leaders. I think that sometimes they do not get the recognition they deserve because they are more concerned about getting results than getting credit.

    People ask me that same question. I’ve always taken it as a compliment as in “you are such a hard worker” but I’m sure that you are right that some do not mean it that way.

    Thank you for leading and for sharing your writing with us!



  18. Hi Pernille,

    I respect your post here, but would like to affirm that, yes — I, as a male, get asked the question, too. My hunch is that most folks probably aren’t saying this because you’re a woman; but I could be wrong.

    I also respect your transparency about struggles with guilt as a parent — as a dad, I struggle with the same things and, as a result, intentionally turn down leadership opportunities. But really, it’s not the guilt that makes me make these choices; it’s a pursuit of calling. It would be a shame, I think, for a man or a woman to enter a field just because there are not enough men or women in it; much richer and deeper is entering something because you see that you have an affinity for it, you have some abilities geared toward it, and then — only then — there’s a need for it.

    My calling is to teach and write and speak for teachers. But an even more primary calling is to be the only father that my children will have. Does that make me a bad leader and advocate for equity and justice? I don’t think so. I think it makes me honest about what I can and can’t do with my one life.

  19. Reblogged this on The Jester Flys and commented:
    This honest Blog post by Pernille Ripp articulates many of the issues and concerns I have been grappling with as I undertake research into the role of leadership on the professional identity of rural women in education. Somehow the notion of women and leader and educator causes a general panic. Questions of doing it all, having it all, work life balance are all thrown at she who tries to be a leader in education and retain a life of one’s own – be it partner, kids, other interests and passions. There are additional constraints for women in a Rural context. We need to put this issue on the table. Will you join the discussion?

  20. Reblogged this on Marshall Madness and commented:
    “So I wonder if this is just a female thing? Do males get asked how they do it all? Are they supposed to feel guilty when they leave their families behind to pursue a leadership opportunity? Or am I biased because I am obviously a female myself.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s