The Powerful Women in America's Schools

Invisible, gender-defined rules govern who can become leaders in education.

Students wearing rain boots walk on desks across their flooded classroom.
Romeo Ranoco / Reuters

A few years ago, a former administrator whom I greatly admired gave out career advice to me and several of my colleagues. We all sat around a table as he went around telling each of us how he viewed our places in the world of education. I was the only woman in the group. He made his way around the table, starting with my colleague to my left.

“You’ll make a great principal someday. You’re great at building relationships with tough kids, and that will suit you well in this role.”

Then the next.

“You’ll be a great administrator, too. You’re really data-driven and organized. Just what we need in our office. Why don’t you make some calls to the university to get started on your certification?”

And the next, a security guard at our school.

“Why are you not a teacher yet? You’re so good at classroom management! You will be on the fast track to admin.”

Finally, he came to me. I waited—hoping, really. I trusted him. He was going to tell me I am also a leader; I, too, needed to make some calls to universities. Instead, he said, “Ashley, you will make a really great mentor-teacher someday.”

And I believed him. I believed that, because I was the “creative,” “kooky” teacher who got emotional over kids and never showed the slightest interest in managing data, I was not suited to be a school leader. And maybe I am not, but what was particularly difficult about this moment was that I was a young female teacher in a profession with predominantly male leaders and couldn’t really disagree. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why or how his judgment was wrong because it was unspoken. I did not live up to some invisible rule for the requirements of becoming a school principal—namely, because I was creative and emotional—so I must have been unqualified for the position.

This administrator did care about me, and I do not blame him for this judgment. But I realized that although all teachers in my state with the same experience and education credentials generally make the same salary, I was not offered the same opportunities as men in my position. The men at that table were given a symbolic pat on the back, a “welcome to the boys’ club” badge that I did not receive. If I had signed up for the same principal-certification classes as my colleague, I would have been viewed as delusional. Joking comments would have likely been made in the copy room and at happy hour. If I had chosen the path to a school-leadership position, it would have required just a little more assertiveness and confidence than the men at the table. And because there were no explicit degrading comments made, I really couldn’t complain. Nothing really happened in that moment that was visible to the outside world. But I, and my male peers, received a very clear message.

Just before the election on Tuesday, Samantha Bee did a segment on her show, Full Frontal, that illustrated similar moments for Hillary Clinton when she was a young professional. The video clips from the program show Clinton being interviewed and asked why she chose not to take her husband’s name initially in her career, just as Clinton tries to discuss policies. The video illustrates Clinton taking blame for her husband’s policies as governor of Arkansas and for her husband’s affair; heartbreakingly, they also show Clinton transforming from a smart, highly educated, brunette, and bespectacled young woman to a blonde, more “appropriately” coiffed and attired First Lady.

I watched this segment, as other women must have, with clenched teeth. These scenes are all too familiar for many women. The moments are small moments, really. If Clinton had claimed she had been treated unfairly, it would have been difficult to call it out, and it could have harmed her professionally. Similarly, if I had stormed away from that table and made a stink with my administrator, I would have validated the belief that I was unfit for any leadership role. It is difficult to argue that an action is sexist or racist or homophobic when it is subtle.

I am currently teaching George Orwell’s 1984, and early in the novel the reader discovers that although there is a Ministry of Love, or a Ministry of Law and Order, there are no real laws in this dystopian society. So I recently asked my students: “What’s the point of a ministry to keep law and order when there are no laws?” Ultimately, many of them came to the conclusion that not having any laws was scarier than having many strict ones. At least with strict laws, they reasoned, the citizens would know where they stand. When the laws are unspoken, the citizens are constantly on alert that they may be breaking them.

This is often what it feels like for me as a woman in education in America. If I’m nurturing to the kids, I’m not tough enough. If I’m strict, I’m too tough. If I raise my hand too much in meetings or hang around too much in the front office, I’m ambitious, manipulative, and untrustworthy. If I say I’m doing a job well, I’m a braggart. If I don’t say anything, I’m overlooked. All of this may seem meaningless to those outside of education, but when teacher evaluation is conducted by administrators, students, and peers, a teacher’s perceived image and brand within the school culture can be the difference between tenure and a pink slip.

And female teachers aren’t the only ones balancing unspoken rules. Each year, I watch as young females question their bodies, their behavior, and their interaction with males when the dress-code rules are enacted. Girls are sent to the office for showing their shoulders even though the hallways are lined with images of previous female graduates wearing the standard black drape of senior pictures and flaunting bare shoulders. How can a school system tell a young girl showing her shoulders is off limits during the school day, yet immortalize young girls’ bare shoulders in pictures on the walls? The line between what is right and wrong is blurred for them, and ultimately the difference is how they are expected to behave when young men are around.

I feel these blurred lines as a female educator every day, and I see my female students try to balance them. But I am struggling for ways to offer guidance when the lines are so unclear and seem to be smudged by women themselves. President-Elect Donald Trump has a long list of women accusing him of sexual assault, and he has openly bragged of doing so. And yet, 53 percent of white women voters helped to elect him.

My female students complain that the dress code oversexualizes their bodies and shames them into believing that by existing in the room with young males, they are somehow at risk of accidentally tempting them. And I agree with their arguments. But now, how can I guarantee that it is commonly understood (even if not always obeyed) that groping, oversexualizing, and assaulting women is wrong when the highest held office in the country is occupied by someone accused by multiple women for doing just that? Or send them to the office for showing bare skin when the country’s new First Lady has posed nude for GQ? Or tell them that if they can just figure out the unspoken rules and navigate them, as Hillary Clinton has done her entire life, they will find success at the end of the tunnel? I am at a loss right now with how to clarify that message for them and myself. The rules have always been blurred, and now it feels just as scary as it did for Winston in 1984 to worry that the rules do not exist at all.

Regardless of one’s politics, being a professional woman can often come with baggage. The scene around the table with my male colleagues and boss is not a rare one. My evaluators are generally white males, the faces of my leaders are mostly white males, and I often find myself in the position of asking for advice or permission from white males. And when these scenes occur, I commiserate with my female peers who understand the need to manage the same situations—or I save the scene in my mind as an example for a young female student searching for guidance. But now I wonder whether my words will ring true for a young girl who hears them but sees a very different kind of leadership in the Oval Office. Just as it was difficult to prove that questioning Obama’s citizenship and calling him a Muslim was racist, it will be difficult now to prove that Hillary Clinton’s loss was sexist. And as professional women continue to find ways to navigate the invisible rules that have always been there, it is now even more difficult to know when they have been broken. For female teachers and students, this is a new kind of lesson to learn.