Gender and Power

In my last entry (“Power and the ‘Big Six’”), I introduced six factors that influence how power plays out. I’d like to spend some time reflecting on the first factor – gender.

To begin, a disclaimer: I’m a white, heterosexual male talking about gender issues; I am writing not as an expert, but through the lens of my experience. That said, I think my own experience is telling. I became a vice principal at the age of 26 and a principal of a school of over 400 students at the age of 29. Looking back, I believe my “maleness” played a significant factor in my movement into leadership – into positions of power.

I can think of several female principal colleagues who had a much longer and more challenging journey into leadership. About ten years ago, board representatives and I were interviewing a very strong candidate for the position of vice principal. As we talked through the candidate’s resume prior to her interview, one board member commented that “although she would no doubt do a very good job in the role, she has children and should stay at home and be a mother.” In my parents’ generation, comments like this might have been considered normal. However, I was naively surprised that a board member, a female I might add, would so boldly state something like that. When I’ve applied for positions, I doubt that comment was ever directed toward me, even though I also had very young children when I first became a principal (and I have wondered if I had stayed at home with two young daughters for a few years how much better of a leader I might have become).

The reality is that perceptions and opinions on the appropriateness of males and females in leadership positions are very much at play. In the example I noted above, the bias was explicitly stated. How often are those perceptions at play implicitly, lurking just below the surface? How often are women limited in their access to power AND in their exercising of power by such perceptions?

I owe much of my vocational success to my partner, who freed me up to take on the responsibilities of extra meetings and evening commitments while she engaged in the less exotic but exceptionally important emotional labor at home. How many of us male administrators would be able to do the work we have done without that core support? Now flip that scenario. Most of the female administrators I know who have families do not have stay-at-home spouses, and these women also shoulder most of the emotional labor of parenting in their homes. I think this is important to highlight as we lead our staff teams, as we work with males and females who are often not on a level playing field in terms of their total responsibilities, and who often do not have equal access to power because of it.

I hope some of this resonates with you as you reflect on your leadership, and that you recognize the influence that gender plays on the power dynamics in your school.

Finally, let me emphasize that it is important to remember that the language we use matters. Our beliefs, values, and worldview are often most clearly shown in the day-to-day manner in which we talk and reference reality around us. If our staff rooms are places where sexist commentary is permitted, that says something about what we believe the kingdom of God to be all about. I have overheard staff room conversations that included phrases like “hits like a girl” or “he sure has a big set of balls to do that.” What does that say about what we believe it means to be male and female in the kingdom? Thankfully, I have also spent time in schools that honor all colleagues equally, and I believe that honoring trickles down effectively to the student population. As Christian school leaders, our role is to work toward the flourishing of all in our buildings: staff, students, and families.

If you sit back at your next Christian leadership conference and do the math, I think you’ll find that one of our biggest challenges moving forward is to empower, support, and facilitate women into leadership. As you lead your school, whether you are male or female, I encourage you to reflect on how you do this with your own staff.

– David Loewen


Filed under Governance, Personnel Issues

2 Responses to Gender and Power

  1. I substitute at schools and there are female as well as male principals. In today’s world, in secular schools, the problem is no longer male or female but that children are not taught respect.

    • David Loewen

      Thank you Cheryl for engaging the topic. I would agree that we could do a better job of educating for civility, I was reminded recently that knowledge alone has pretty significant limits if gained outside of a growth in morality, values and character. In fact, it could even be detrimental to society if gained in such isolation.
      However, I would also say that the topic of gender and power hasn’t quite moved into the ‘no longer’ stage. My evidence for that would include the current examples of degrading comments towards females made by national politicians. I don’t believe such rhetoric is received as neutral to our students and therefore needs to be named and engaged from a Biblical perspective. Blessings, Dave

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