In our recurring 10 Questions series, the Neag School of Education catches up with students, alumni, faculty, and others throughout the year to offer a glimpse into their Neag School experience and current career, research, or community activities.
As an associate professor of educational leadership in the Neag School of Education, Jennie Weiner recently co-published “Education Lead(her)ship: Advancing Women in K–12 Administration” through Harvard Education Press. In 2020, she published “The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders” with Routledge.
Weiner focuses her scholarship on reframing educational leadership and change to make both more inclusive, equitable, and oriented toward collective uplift and continuous improvement. Specifically, she focuses on issues of educational leadership and organizational change, particularly in chronically underperforming and under-resourced schools and districts. Weiner is interested in gender and racial bias in educational leadership and issues of educational infrastructure at the local, district, and state levels.
Before coming to the Neag School, she worked for the Rhode Island Department of Education on school turnaround and capacity building issues. She also was a senior research associate for the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP) at the Milken Family Foundation. Weiner holds a master’s in education in administration, planning and social policy and a doctorate of education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
In this feature, we learn more about Weiner’s new book and what it means for advancing women in K-12 administration.
Q: How did the idea for this book come about?
A: There were several factors that pushed us to write this book at this time. First, the pernicious and persistent gap that exists in women’s leadership in K-12 administration. Despite the fact that women, who are most often white, hold more than 75% of all teaching jobs, they represent fewer than 50% of principals and only 27% of superintendents (a number that has decreased since the COVID-19 pandemic began). This representation is even more meager for women of color – and needs immediate and sustained attention.
Despite the fact that women, who are most often white, hold more than 75% of all teaching jobs, they represent fewer than 50% of principals and only 27% of superintendents. — Jennie Weiner
Second, while several factors created and sustained this disproportionality, gender discrimination and gendered racism (i.e., the intersection of gender and racial discrimination) are clear causes. However, despite this well-documented reality, few educators have access to resources that highlight these issues or provide strategies for coping with or, even better, disrupting this discrimination. Instead, women are frequently told to “lean in” or twist themselves to meet impossible and often contradictory criteria (e.g., be strong but not aggressive, be kind but not too emotional, etc.).
Such feedback suggests that women are somehow responsible for the discrimination they face and that it is their job to outperform any potential bias they encounter (an impossible task). The result is that women leaders often blame themselves or question their capabilities instead of understanding the source of these messages and/or fighting to change the system. This needs to stop. Women leaders and those wishing to support them need tools that help to name patterns of gender discrimination and how it operates in situations and how to challenge these patterns. By offering research on discrimination, real women leaders’ stories of how discrimination impacted their access and success in leadership, and tools for reform, we hope this book begins to address this need.
The result is that women leaders often blame themselves or question their capabilities instead of understanding the source of these messages and/or fighting to change the system. This needs to stop. — Jennie Weiner
Q: As the co-author with Monica C. Higgins, how did you connect with her for the book, and how did you two divide the writing?
A: I am grateful to have several mentors who have paved the way for me and lifted me. Dr. Higgins was my thesis advisor and has always pushed me (and I would argue all her students) to ask deep questions about the nature of leadership and how we define it and why: What does it mean to be an effective leader? An effective organization? How can leaders create organizations in which everyone can thrive?
She is also a remarkable woman leader in her own right. She brings excellence to all she does, and I asked her to join me on this book for all these reasons. We conceptualized the book together, and throughout the process, she served as a thought partner, critical friend, and inspiration. I believe the book is better for her participation and more insightful.
Q: Why is the book important to women of color in leadership positions in K-12 schools, and how did you find interview participants?
A: I hope the book will feel like a relevant and authentic representation of the experiences of women of color. Their stories matter and need to be elevated. We are grateful that, through formal research studies and/or informal conversations, so many women trusted us with their stories and permitted us to share them with others. I would not presume that the book would be important to them, but I hope it can serve as a support and means to build connections and some additional tools for a more equitable path forward. At the same time, white women, who are the majority of teachers and thus most of those represented in education leadership, need to do better in understanding and fighting for their colleagues of color. The book can serve as a means of beginning to open the conversation for more understanding, connection, and, as Tina Opie and Beth Livingston suggest in their book, more shared sisterhood.
The book can serve as a means of beginning to open the conversation for more understanding, connection, and … more shared sisterhood. — Jennie Weiner
Q: If you were to look back at the publication process, would you do anything differently and why?
A: There are a few things regarding the book that I might have done differently and perhaps will do next time. First, I would have loved to have “beta-tested” the book with a diverse group of women educators. While I feel that the book has much to offer, as our main goal was to make it meaningful, relevant, and helpful to those in practice, I would have liked to incorporate more of their feedback about these elements. With that said, given the book took about ten years to get out the door (building the knowledge, teaching a course on this topic, writing and revising, having friends and colleagues provide feedback, and teaching a few of the cases), I also acknowledge that at some point you have to put the boat in the water and hope it will float.
Second, I would love to write with a women leader in practice. We did capture stories of women in these positions, but it would be powerful to have an editorial voice of someone “in the thick of it.” I welcome those interested in such collaboration or wanting to give feedback to contact me!
Q: What did you learn along the way? How does this book compare to other books or articles you’ve written or edited?
A: Writing this book was a wonderful experience in that I got to share the stories of so many of the women I have had the pleasure to work with and learn from over the years and help to make a difference for others. When I started writing about women in educational leadership, I sometimes felt a bit like Cassandra – telling a truth that few were interested in. However, over the years, I have found a wonderful community of researchers and practitioners, working to bring greater attention to this issue. Indeed, one of the special elements of this book has been the encouragement I have received from this community. In this way, the book feels like it belongs to all of us, and I hope it will inspire others to tell their stories and fight for greater equity in the profession.
The book feels like it belongs to all of us, and I hope it will inspire others to tell their stories and fight for greater equity in the profession. — Jennie Weiner
Q: Who can benefit from the book, and how can educators utilize it?
A: We wrote the book with the hope that it would help female educators and all those who wish to see them thrive (i.e., everyone!). To facilitate this outcome, we structured each chapter to include cases of real women’s stories to illustrate how different and often overlapping forms of discrimination impact their daily work. Along with these cases, we include questions for discussion. The thought was that people may want to read the book in a community (book clubs, etc.) and share their experiences and insights. We believe that telling our truths, such conversations can be a starting point for deeper connection and action.
Q: What were some interesting surprises from your interviews with women educational leaders?
A: One surprise, sadly, was that many of the women who confided in us felt a sense of shame or embarrassment regarding how they had been treated – as if it was somehow a personal failure to experience discrimination. At the same time, it was also clear that after sharing their stories, many women expressed a sense of being unburdened. When they understood that their story was unique to them and simultaneously reflected larger patterns, it helped them feel more connected to others and in ownership of their narrative.
I am not sure surprised is the right word, but I am in awe of the women I spoke to. Their incredible dedication and ability to keep going even under the most difficult conditions inspires me to do all I can to help them achieve their goals. I see the book as an extension of these efforts and hope they and others will, too.
Q: What are some recommendations for women’s empowerment in K-12 education, and how can this bias be corrected?
A: First and foremost, I want to move the conversation away from changing women or their orientations and more toward looking at how the policies, rules, procedures, etc., of schools and systems tend to promote a version of leadership that elevates maleness and whiteness. For example, discussed in the book is the need for districts and schools to audit their pipeline practices and ensure they are using equity-oriented hiring practices. This would include moving away from “fit” ideas and toward articulating specific skills and knowledge required in the position. It also means incorporating information-rich hiring practices and paying women fairly for the same roles. There is also a need to build mentoring and support systems for women and women of color to help them succeed and to connect them with others who understand their triumphs and challenges. While I think you can get more traction for change by shifting structures to reshape how people behave (i.e., incentive structures), training on gender bias and gendered racism must also be widespread and incorporated into leadership training programs. While I could go on, I would suggest looking at the book and considering what you might do in your organization to make it more equitable and just.
Leadership is hard, but it should also be joyful and fulfilling. You deserve that, and if your position does not have these characteristics – you deserve more. — Jennie Weiner
Q: Are there external factors that have empowered this issue and, if so, what are they?
A: The rash of legal decisions denying women’s bodily autonomy, the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on women’s time and work trajectories, and the lack of movement on longstanding issues regarding women’s health and well-being (e.g., maternal care, affordable and high-quality childcare, paid family and medical leave, pay inequity, etc.) have all made it even more critical for women to understand the nature of discrimination and how it functions in society – educators included. Moreover, I have argued elsewhere that the current attacks on public education and teachers are directly linked to its history as a feminized profession and the lack of respect paid to educators and their work. Enough is enough.
Q: What would you tell female colleagues interested in K-12 administration?
A: If you want it – do it! We need you, your talent, and your passion. I would also tell them, per the recommendation of Ibarra, Ely, and Kolb, you will not succeed if likeability is your goal. Instead, take some time and think about what precisely you are in the work for and how to orient others to understand those goals (i.e., create an anchor). This orientation would include discussions on the front end with your supervisors regarding how you will be evaluated and the nature of support available to you along the way. I might also suggest setting norms from the beginning regarding feedback and the nature of your reporting relationship – you need to be held accountable for agreed-upon outcomes and appropriately rewarded for the work you do.
Ensuring that those in your community have a strong sense of how gender bias and gendered racism operate in organizations and how to combat it may also be useful, as would finding a group of allies that understand this and will disrupt such discrimination. Finally, I would say do what feels right to you – too often, women ignore warning signs regarding a bad fit or toxic environment. Yes, leadership is hard, but it should also be joyful and fulfilling. You deserve that, and if your position does not have these characteristics – you deserve more.