President's Corner

Those Pesky Gender Issues

by Sarah D. Jerome

Sexism is alive and well in every aspect of our society, in every facet of our lives, including our own professional association.

The pervasiveness of sexism throughout the world is the topic of the Feb. 10, 2008, New York Times op-ed piece written by columnist Nicholas Kristof. Kristof states, “The world does have several thousand years’ worth of experience with female leaders. And I have to acknowledge it: Their historical record puts men’s to shame.” He goes on to say that women perform well in circumstances where they can work with a fairly small slice of the population and theorizes that women’s interpersonal skills shine relative to men’s skills. However, in broad-based democracies they face cultural prejudices that are difficult to overcome. These prejudices, he says, are universal, not solely an element of Western or American culture.

Kristof cites several studies to support this view, including one experiment in which people were asked to evaluate a speech or article. In one case, the work was credited to or presented by a man and in another case was credited to or presented by a woman. The man’s work was typically ranked higher regardless of the country in which the experiment was performed.

Research also indicates that women are generally not allowed to self-promote. In fact, the public is offended by self-promoting women but tends to accept it in men. Women also face a wider array of judgments than men — appearance being one.

Esther Duflo, an economist at MIT, studied women leaders in India at the village council level. She found that by objective standards, the women ran the villages better than men, but the ordinary villagers judged the women as inferior and they often lost their re-election. There is hope, however. The second woman elected did not face the same prejudice and was judged by the villagers to be comparable to men. Who knows? Perhaps the third woman elected will be judged as better.

Malcolm Gladwell, in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, shares an example of historic prejudice against women auditioning for orchestras until the auditions were held behind screens where the judges couldn’t see whether a man or a woman was playing. In these blind auditions, women began to be selected to join professional orchestras. And so we learn the lesson that when blinded to gender prejudices, we can exercise judgments based solely on merit.

Two other articles worth your time on this topic are an article by Jodi Kantor in the Jan. 10, 2008, issue of The New York Times titled “Women’s Support for Clinton Rises in Wake of Perceived Sexism,” and the article “Are You Biased?” by Caralee Adams in the February 2008 issue of Scholastic Administrator.

Closer to Home
It is interesting to reflect on this topic from both the personal and professional viewpoint. As I turn the microscope on the speeches I deliver or on the articles I write, a look at the references used to validate my points reveals that my references are mostly from white male researchers.

For example, I delivered an address to the AASA National Conference on Education in Tampa in February. I spoke about the need for our association to embrace diversity and to make our schools more inclusive of the world’s cultures and languages. However, as I analyze the references I used to support the need to diversify, embrace and internationalize, I realize that I most often referred to white male researchers to exemplify my points.

These are excellent researchers and stellar contributors to our educational endeavors, but if I’m imploring the audience to embrace diversity, why wouldn’t I have thought to use contributors representing women and minorities as well?

Another perplexing example of our culture of sexism emerged within our AASA family via the production of a DVD to illustrate the critical necessity of public education in preparing an educated citizenry for democracy. This is an important project and one I fully endorse. The yearlong project produced a DVD that featured, among others, two male officers of AASA — the immediate past president and president-elect — and glaringly omitted the current president, the second female ever to serve as AASA president.

Why the omission? Was this merely an accident or an oversight? Does this exclusion signal some unwelcoming message to women as members and officers of AASA?

Sexism is pervasive, thus making the answers to these questions very difficult. The answer lies in the fact that sexism has been the cultural norm for most of us throughout our adult lives. It creeps in whether intentional or unintentional. We don’t see it and we don’t always force ourselves to look for it. We just haven’t trained ourselves to question.

We haven’t learned to routinely ask, “Is this a fair, balanced and inclusive representation for our organization?” It is a crucial question whether the issue is sexism, racism, ageism — or any other kind of “ism.” Excusing ourselves with the simple explanation that this omission or error was an oversight is no longer acceptable or adequate.

I believe we can and must do better. I believe if we intend to overcome the “isms,” we can start by asking the right questions — and inviting everyone in our organizations to do so as well. One right question is: “Am I measuring my response based on the individual or on the merits of the proposal?” Every one of us has this responsibility. Look at the bylaws or mission statements in the organizations we represent. The statements to embrace diversity and ensure fairness are there.

Now we must make our actions fit our words. The fact that you are reading about this topic in The School Administrator tells me that AASA wants to get this right. If we can combine self-examination, open dialogue and congruence of word and action, I feel hopeful we all will be changed for the better, to borrow a lyric from the musical “Wicked.”

We have the opportunity to begin a transformation at AASA. The SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis conducted this year calls for AASA to create a culture of change. It is time.

Final Gratitude
On this final note, I want to thank you for allowing me the bully pulpit to discuss ideas, share concerns and invite dialogue on topics important to public education and to AASA. It has been the greatest privilege to serve as your 142nd president. I greatly appreciate your trust in me during the past year and for this opportunity to serve you.

Also, I want to thank those many selfless, dedicated and exceptional AASA staff members who care deeply about the mission and work of AASA. It has been a privilege to be partners with them this year.

Sarah Jerome is AASA president in 2007-08. E-mail: jerome@ahsd25.k12.il.us