Is education leadership a 'rigged game'?

Dr. Jennie Weiner to speak about systemic obstacles facing women in leadership roles.

Daneet Steffens '82
March 19, 2021

Exeter’s series of author talks ahead of next month’s symposium with feminist icon Gloria Steinem concludes Sunday with a discussion on equity in education leadership.

Dr. Jennie Weiner is a professor at the University of Connecticut whose research focuses primarily on educational leadership, school reform and education reform. Before coming to UConn, she worked for the Rhode Island Department of Education on issues of school turnaround and capacity building, and was a senior research associate for the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP) at the Milken Family Foundation. She is driven by the belief that education can be a means to enhance equity of opportunity and outcomes, and teaching is her passion. Her op-ed in The New York Times, “I Refuse to Run a Coronavirus Homeschool,” ran during the early days of the pandemic, generating more than 1,000 comments.

Weiner will discuss educational leadership in a conversation at 4 p.m. ET, Sunday, March 21. Her virtual visit is the last in a series of discussions before a two-day symposium, “From ‘Studying Her Absence’ to Finding Her Voice: 50 Years of Coeducation at Exeter," to be headlined by Gloria Steinem.


Q: Your session topic is “The Double Bind for Women,” in terms of leadership in schools and other organizations. Why is this topic important to you and why should it be to us?
A: My work focuses on trying to reframe how we think about leadership in general, and specifically within education. Education, as a sector, seems to be a bit behind in terms of thinking about these things: there’s long been an orientation toward heroic leadership — a “great man” model of leadership — where someone comes in to save the day. This is problematic for a variety of reasons, one of which is that it does not match what effective leadership looks like in situ; that kind of leadership does not actually produce good effects, particularly in the kind of schools and organizations I’m interested in which are ones that have been chronically underperforming.

Second, because of the way leadership has been created and thought about, it tends to favour whiteness and maleness. Moreover, because those ideas about good leadership are deeply situated or saturated in our collective psyche, they impact not just how we describe good leaders but how we prescribe leaders. In other words, these beliefs impact who we grant access to leadership opportunities. Now overlay this operating belief system with an industry, education, where more than 80 percent of the teachers are women. To be a principal — at least in a public-school system — you need to have teaching experience, and to be a superintendent, somebody who oversees a group of schools, you need to have principal experience. But if you look at career trajectories, you see that you have more than 80 percent female teachers, but only about 54 percent of principals are women — most of whom are concentrated in elementary schools — and that just above 20 percent of superintendents are women.

I think our construction of leadership is problematic because it doesn’t produce great outcomes; in addition, we’re underutilizing a tremendous amount of our human capital because of discrimination — which is problematic to say the least.


Q: What will you focus on primarily during your discussion?
A: I’m talking about the double bind in the context of education, but the work that I use for this is actually leadership work, organizational work, so it will also be applicable to people outside of the educational space. Basically, the double bind is about the ways in which we have societally constructed what good leadership looks like, that it tends to favour male-dominated or male-stereotyped characteristics. When women come into that space, they are put in a double bind: One, they can act as supposed “good leaders” do and embrace their stereotyped masculine traits, and then be framed as a bitch, aggressive, uncaring, not smiling — basically they get boxed in by all these kinds of tropes. Alternatively, they can embrace their gendered identity of being more stereotypically female — kind, compassionate, caring — and then be deemed ineffective to the parameters of expected leadership because they’re too weak, too sensitive, too emotional to meet the expectations.

I hope by talking in this way, I am pushing us away from a “lean-in” orientation which suggests that there’s something women can do or are not doing that would produce a better outcome. My argument is that in fact it’s the structure that’s set up to make women’s success and efficacy in leadership quite difficult: basically, they’re playing a rigged game. You can’t actually win a rigged game; you have to change the rules.


Q: What do you hope the audience takes away from your session?
A: I don’t know that people always have the words necessary to identify systemically what’s happening. I’m hoping that our talk together, our conversation, will facilitate a different way of thinking, will help us question whether or not the way we have thought about good leadership actually perpetuates discriminatory ideas about who gets to lead, and why.


Q: Is part of your work about generating a new vocabulary for us to discuss this double-bind topic?
A: I hope so, yes. I’m rejecting the lone hero model, but I’m also promoting and trying to create a vocabulary around leadership as a set of behaviors, leadership that facilitates others to do their best work. That approach takes away the idea of charisma as a primary driver of leadership and instead says, “I’m an effective leader because I enact leadership by creating cultures and infrastructure to support other people’s ability to thrive.” From my research — and from others’ research — we know that those are the people who make organizations sing, those are the people who make change happen by helping others to learn and grow.


Q: How do you see your session addressing the symposium framing question of what does it mean to create an equitable environment for women and girls instead of just allowing them to join a school community?
A: I hope it challenges us to look beyond negotiating or tinkering within the confines that we’re currently in; I hope we can radically redefine what “good” is when it comes to leadership and how we enact it. A concrete example in the context of creating an equitable environment for girls would be moving from thinking, “Now that we have girls enrolled at this school, let’s make sure that girls have spots in leadership positions,” and towards an even more radical re-imagining that might be something like: let’s actually look at the way we’re defining leadership in this space, and discuss whether or not just opening the door for a few more people is actually creating equity. What about changing the space itself? Why do we rely on a model where we have a study body  president, for example? That’s quite hierarchical in structure. Why would that be a preferred model? Does it actually enable many students to engage leadership and create voice in this space? Or does it just reinforce the idea of one special person who is supposed to get other people to listen to them? I don’t know what the exact answer is, but I would say it might be worth thinking about if we really want things to be different than they are.




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