Creating an Equitable, Gender-Inclusive School: Guiding Yourself and Your Team

According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2016, 89% of elementary school teachers identified as female. In the elementary school where I work, there are 73 people who identify as women who work there full time. There are 8 people who identify as men.  

About 90% of the people who work in my school are women. 

About 10% are men. 

And about 50% of the time, I have to put the seat down. 

Now, I’m a reasonable person. I acknowledge that if I am in the gender minority, I might need to put the toilet seat down before going to the bathroom. That seems fair to me. A little gross, but nothing that some soap can’t handle. But when I am in the STRONG, OBVIOUS gender majority, this feels ridiculous. And though I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the annoyance of having to put the seat down is outrageous, I will say that it’s a slippery slope. 

In fact, what’s really outrageous about about participating in a work force that is by far comprised of mostly women, is how unresponsive it is to the needs of the gender. Beyond the fact that in 2016 male teachers made about $2500 more per year than their female counterparts with the same experience and education level (according to the U.S. Department of Education, no less), our workplaces should be bonafide Themysciras, responsive to the needs of the almost all-female population, riding on our horses, flexing our strength. That is, until Chris Pine shows up and ruins our estrofests by bursting our bubble with his stubbly jawline, leaving the seat up, and being asked from his first year on the job if he is considering administration, meanwhile some of us have been steadily turning in results for 15 years and have never been asked that same question.  

While we’re at it, let’s also talk about the implications of participating in a work force that is by far comprised of mostly white women teaching mostly non-white children. Female teachers of color are silenced into assimilation or altogether discouraged from sticking around the school systemDr. Lawrence Brown, associate professor at Morgan State University here in Baltimore, is one of many academics to study this phenomenon. In his 2018 lecture, Ongoing Historical Trauma in Education: The Quest for Racial EquityBaltimore City public schools have a student body that is about 92% students of color, and specifically 80% students who are Black. In 2005, 62.2% of teachers in Baltimore City Public Schools were Black, more accurately reflecting the student body. Yet, in 2018, less than 30% are.  

It takes mettle and courage and tenacity to keep showing up each day, and as a white woman, I am positive that I wouldn’t have the drive to need to prove my expertise day in and day out to the co-workers who should ideally support me. It’s my white privilege that expects and knows I will be championed. The indignities my Black female co-workers have endured at the hands of whiteness is incorrigible. It’s not just having to put the seat down. It’s being told that you’re showing up with attitude at faculty meetings. It’s having someone touch your hair because they think it’s funny when you’ve asked them not to. It’s having all of the kids with the most challenging behaviors put into your class because you are so good at connecting with “those kids.” It’s seeing white teachers around you unintentionally infantilize students’ caregivers by speaking to them like there is no possible way they will understand the jargon of a guided reading level. It’s watching an administrator not bother to call a parent for an IEP meeting because “that parent never picks up.”  

It is up to the school’s administration and faculty to acknowledge the gender composition of their school, be socially aware of their racial makeup, and openly strive to create responsive cultureLet’s acknowledge the intersection of race and gender in our faculties and openly create a race-gender responsive workplace.  

Many educators may wonder how to go about creating such a workplace and the truth is that it requires a heightened sense of self-awareness and critical self-interrogation. To do this work, consider making these key shifts to your school’s culture: 

  • Encourage your colleagues, especially those who identify as women, to avoid apologizing for taking up space or for asking questions, as well as unnecessary exclamation points and smiley faces in email communication. Reinforce that it is okay to be a professional, professionally asking for the resources you need, to be direct, to not apologize for existing, all without having to soften your requests or feel the need to say “I’m sorry” for taking up time. 
  • At the same time, encourage genuine apologies when educators harm each other, especially if it comes from an act of whiteness, regardless of their race, and denigrates women. If we have the courage to recognize when our intention and our action didn’t coincide, then we can apologize and learn to be better. 
  • Aim to build healthy connections at staff meetings that go beyond a quick sharing of who recently got engaged and who is pregnant and who is about to be a grandma. These meetings don’t need to just be transactional, they can be foundational. Honest conversation about a topic that relates to our intersecting identities is a powerful way to begin a meeting or professional development. Acknowledge that romantic milestones and motherhood status, while important, are not all that women have to offer or all that we have upon which to build a connection. Ask questions like “What is on our hearts and minds?,” “What are we feeling in our gut?,” and “How can we support each other so that our minds, hearts, guts, and spines are all aligned?” 
  • Outlaw the all too common “Devil’s Advocate.” Linguist Dr. Deborah Tannen has provided seminal work on the communication differences between men and women, and in her 1994 Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work, she provided the research that supported what we had all been feeling but didn’t feel comfortable saying. Devil’s Advocate is a male conversational ritual, designed to one-up the other and establish dominance. Female conversational rituals center around connection, not correction. Encourage questioning and perspective-taking in your faculty and staff. Realize that there is no need to establish dominance in the way that dominance has been modeled to us by male leaders. Staff members should aim to be direct and gentle and assertive.  
  • Intentionally discuss of gender-specific and race-specific research. This can be done by discussing racial and gender disparity within your faculty, for example. At the same time, be mindful to not expect the few Women of Color who might be present to speak for all women or for all people of color. Do not expect any woman of color to want to serve on the school’s equity committee.  
  • Implement periodic bathroom breaks for all staff members, ensuring that there is always at least one “floater” around campus to relieve teachers. In a recent study, conducted by the American Federation of Teachers and Badass Teachers Association which surveyed 30,000 teachers across America, ¼ of respondents mentioned insufficient time to use the bathroom throughout the day. an especially prevalent problem for women who often report suffering from health conditions, such as UTIs, from insufficient bathroom breaks.  
  • And speaking of bathrooms and gender inclusivity, ensure that bathrooms are equipped with features like pads, tampons, waste baskets, tables and hooks. If your bathrooms are single-stall, then there is no reason to gender the bathrooms. If your bathrooms are not single-stall, ask your faculty if they’re comfortable with gender neutral bathrooms to maximize efficiency. If they are not, though, be sure that the ratio of female to male stalls are reflect the ratio of female to male faculty/staff members. 
  • Learn to assume that most women in your school have been the victims of sexual harassment, sexual assault, racial harassment, and racial assault. According to a recent report released by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a government agency tasked with enforcing the laws that make harassment at work illegal, a stunning 25% of women (and sometimes up to 85%) in all workforces experience some form of sexual harassment or assault. Be mindful of colleague’s interactions, language used in emails, games played during professional development, metaphors/similes that have sexual or racial undertones, jokes and pranks, among other things. When these incidents occur between staff and students, such as a male student yelling or belittling a female teacher, or a student saying a racial slur to a teacher, be quick addressing those conflicts check in with those affected, as they can be particularly triggering. 
  • In professional development, acknowledge the history and current data on the gender and racial disparity in education, between teachers and who they teach, between school leaders and the communities they work with.  
  • Encourage staff members who identify as male to continue to make space for female voices. 
  • Furthermore, encourage white teachers to make space for black and brown voices and leadership. Set an expectation that all men and white women be mindful of when and whom they are interrupting, how much physical space they are taking up at a table, if they are always sitting in the center and toward the front of a room leaving marginalized faculty members to literally sit on the margins, how often they are speaking and offering their “two cents,” how much “wait time” they are giving at faculty meetings for everyone to respond, how often they’re volunteering to be in charge of an event or a committee, and how often they are inadvertently taking credit for someone else’s idea,   
  • Provide leadership opportunities and training sessions for female staff members, focusing especially on training white, female teachers to receive training in followship 
  • Ensure that faculty merchandise, such as t-shirts, sweaters, and other gear, comes in a variety of shapes, sizes and cuts in order to accommodate all staff.   
  • And for the last time, let’s put the seat down. 

Written by

Cara Jeanne is a veteran teacher in Baltimore, Maryland. She teaches 5th grade Language Arts and Social Studies at the same elementary school she attended as a child. She is pursuing her phD in Instructional Leadership for Changing Populations at Notre Dame of Maryland University, where she also received her Masters degree and a certificate in Equity and Cultural Proficiency. Cara completed her undergraduate work at St. Mary’s College of Maryland where she studied Psychology and English. Cara was a finalist for Baltimore County Teacher of the Year and is honored to serve on the Equity Team and Faculty Council at her school.

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