Survey Reveals Bias Experienced by Majority of Women Leaders in Education

Standing at a modest 5 feet tall, Uyen Tieu doesn’t command physical presence over others, especially students. When confronted by a superior who deemed her too diminutive for anything beyond an elementary school principal, she acquiesced, lacking support even from her own Vietnamese family. “My father was like, ‘Oh, I’m so surprised that they selected you to be the principal.'”

“A decade down the line, Tieu has not only served as an assistant principal and principal but now oversees student support services for the Houston Independent School District, the eighth-largest system in the U.S. Despite her accomplishments, the Asian, single mother still feels the burden of proving herself in a male-dominated environment.”

“Ensuring her work is impeccable, Tieu dedicates double the time to ensure every output is nothing short of 100%.”

The latest survey by Women Leading Ed provided Uyen Tieu, head of student support services at the Houston Independent School District, an opportunity to shed light on the challenges she’s faced due to gender bias in her career. (Uyen Tieu)

The reference to Tieu’s height and its impact on job prospects is just one of the anecdotes shared by district and state leaders as part of a pioneering survey of women in high-ranking educational roles. Conducted by Women Leading Ed, a 300-member national network, the survey revealed that a significant majority of female leaders, despite attaining senior positions in school systems and state departments, encounter bias and contemplate quitting frequently. Over 80% of the 110 survey respondents, hailing from 27 states, expressed the need to monitor their dressing, speech, and behavior as they are constantly under scrutiny as senior figures.

“In high-profile meetings, I’ve witnessed male leaders disregard me entirely and instead address my male colleagues,” remarked Angélica Infante-Green, Rhode Island’s education commissioner and a board member at Women Leading Ed. She emphasized the urgent requirement for diverse representation in a domain historically dominated by masculine notions of leadership.

Rhode Island education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green visited a robotics lab at the Cranston Area Career and Technical Center last year. (Rhode Island Department of Education)

According to one expert, the survey arrives at a critical juncture where districts could benefit from the unique strengths women bring to leadership roles.

“Women who ascend through this pathway often start as elementary school principals, a factor that may deter their selection as superintendents,” stated Rachel White, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who established The Superintendent Lab to enhance data collection on school system leaders last summer. Given the prevalent perception of high school principals, predominantly male, as authoritative or a preference for candidates with financial backgrounds, White stressed the proficiency of elementary school principals in crucial areas like family and student engagement, curriculum, and instruction.

Nonetheless, female leaders frequently encounter a double standard. “While a male leader’s dedication to coaching his child’s sports team is commended, if I decide to attend my daughter’s dance recital over a meeting, I am seen in a very different light,” noted Infante-Green.

Black, Hispanic, and Asian women in leadership roles face heightened scrutiny regarding their behavior, appearance, and conduct. One participant shared, “I have been told to smile more, to stand a certain way and received comments about the way I should wear my hair.” (Women Leading Ed)

In Houston, Tieu noted that students are often taken aback by a minority, especially Asian, woman holding a position of authority.

“My aim is to reassure these young ladies that aspiring to leadership roles is perfectly acceptable,” she emphasized. “Challenges will inevitably surface, but it’s crucial to approach them with intelligence and extract lessons from each experience.”

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