• Educating Gender

Barbara Wagner and “Macho” Education



Everyone is a giddy fan of someone.  Some people have Arianna Grande or Bono, some have Venus Williams or Lebron James.  Me? I have Barbara Wagner.

For years and beyond in Los Angeles and nationally, Barbara was the Lebron James of independent day school education.  During my years as head of school at a large independent day school, I had the opportunity to speak to her concerning the minor and major issues of running these types of schools and the two characteristics that stood out more than anything else was her authenticity and clarity.  She said what she meant and never dodged an answer in order to give some politically acceptable response. There was always such disturbing competition between the schools for reputation and status that Wagner rejected and her candor was like finding an oasis while walking in the desert.  You always felt as if you were having THE conversation not a conversation.

Wagner ran the Marlborough School in Los Angeles for 25 years, a well regarded all-girls independent day school.  It has a long history for Los Angeles and has always been considered a place of excellence, particularly in academics and learning.  So, why do I have such admiration for Barbara? Because she took an already terrific school and made it better. She crafted and molded the institution so it better cared for the educational needs of its students and fulfilled its mission.

I am not going to spend time getting knee deep into the arguments regarding mixed gender versus single gender educational experiences.  Which is better? Which serves students’ needs better? Does it solve the gender issue? Firstly, the discussion has always been politically loaded which ultimately gets in the way of discussing the real matter of learning and how to truly improve our schools.  And second, from a gender standpoint, it is also a red herring.

In speaking to Wagner about her experiences at Marlborough, you will see why.

When she first came to Marlborough and the following year took over as head of school, she inherited a school culture which she defines as ‘macho.”  She felt as if she had come to a school which was coed just without the boys. There was a “raw testosterone feeling” throughout the curriculum and programming.  With its zealous commitment to sports teams and curriculum which had very little female representation or role models; there was a clear confusion between mission and the way the school was functioning on a daily basis.  Bias was, as Wagner states, “ringing through the school and that bias existed in other ways” because it was an all girls school. Educational leadership structures were largely paternalistic and hierarchical, with extensive remuneration imbalance and employment equity issues favoring male faculty members.  Even at Marlborough, one of the premiere girls school in the country, she found that 90% of its math and science teachers were men as was much of its leadership structure.

The value proposition at a place such as Marlborough was to allow a young woman to find her voice and as importantly, to focus on each student, to know them well enough where their gender becomes the second or third issue -- the learning needs of individual students come first.  

When girls were asked to draw pictures of a scientist, they overwhelmingly drew portraits of men, with crazy hair and glasses and lab coats, but still men.  The same patterns of allowing girls to remain passive, unengaged and unassertive were practiced in classes. “What the hell was the purpose of these small class sizes,” Wagner observed.  She would regularly hear from a small minority of girls frustration that they were the only ones to raise their hand in class to answer questions. There still remained a very strong culture of don’t ask, don’t tell, even in an all girls environment supposedly committed to empowering young women. “Just because you are single gender environment does not mean you take care of all those (gender) issues.”  And, there is evidence to support Wagner’s claim. A large comprehensive study of private schools which consisted of 20 all girls schools, 20 all boys schools and 20 co-educational schools indicated that the same patterns of gender discrimination existed similarly in all three environments. The report not only took into account data on post graduation results and attitudes of students, but also classroom observations which focused specifically on gender interactions.  “...in studying the classroom interactions, Lee and her colleagues found teachers initiated similar types and frequency of sexism in all three types of schools. The sexism ranged from teacher’s encouragement of sex stereotyping to teachers’ use of offensive uncensored, sexist language.”* (See Source Below)

Wagner’s goals at Marlborough became clear: to create gender balance in the faculty (because that would benefit the students most) and place a high emphasis on girls feeling confident and competent in math and science. The move was also to change the faculty culture to be more collaborative and create collaborative experiences for the students.  Wanger and her faculty also looked hard at facilities, “how do the classrooms support different learning styles and differences regarding gender and the individual needs of students?” The theory was that “if it is good for girls, it is probably good for boys too.” The value proposition at a place such as Marlborough was to allow a young woman to find her voice and as importantly, to focus on each student, to know them well enough where their gender becomes the second or third issue -- the learning needs of individual students come first.  

What Wagner is expressing is using gender differences as a gateway to better aculturating and training schools to be more sensitive to the individual differences of any learner, regardless of gender.  As Jeremy Caplan and Paula Caplan put it, “when sex differences are found they are regarded as the canary in the mine. When miners ventured deep into the the earth they knew when the canary died that they had reached a point where the air was dangerous.”  The discovery of sex differences and their relation to learning are more often not casual but correlative; they indicate the variables which play a direct role in diminished educational outcomes, such as “stereotype threat, locus of control, anxiety, parent and teacher influences and math related experiences.”** (See Source Below) The goal for the educators is not to focus on the sex difference, but to use it as a doorway to tackle the true variables that deter learning from occurring.

“Mostly,” she states, “people who go into education tend to be traditionalists. They live within the lines, we follow the rules.” The problem is, “the lines in this country have a strong bias toward men and males in all ways.”

When I had the opportunity to speak to parents who had sent their girls to Marlborough under Wagner’s leadership, they all reiterated the same powerful sentiment in many different ways that, upon graduation, their daughters were ready to tackle the world. They seemed confident in ways that indicated a sustained overcoming of previous obstacles and an environment that stayed focused on them as individuals.  That sentiment sounds "macho" to me but in an entirely different way.

What Wagner was tackling at Marlborough is what I call the myth of male learning.  We have these very cliche’ ways of viewing the act of learning or discovery. It typically revolves around an individual, either in a lab, or reading some text or in front of some computer screen and they have discovered something, solved some long nagging problem that everyone around him has been waiting to be solved. The most important word here is “him.”  We rarely see a woman in this eureka moment and we imagine that brilliance is a siloed experience. The learner, in our imagination, has something deep within their own resources, which leads to enlightenment and understanding.

The truth about learning could not be more disconnected from this mythology.  We are all rather deeply interconnected to one another in ways that we cannot even fathom.  All sorts of human interactions, inputs and outputs, neural connections which extend beyond our own physical bodies are necessary and essential for learning. In fact, our brains are not only tied into constant and never ending learning cycles, but teaching cycles as well.  We are literally designed to teach what we have learned to someone else. Our survival as a species had much more to do with our ability to pass on what we know to someone else, to instruct someone how to build, craft a tool, hunt, weave, gather than to learn or discover it on our own. However, as this myth perpetuated itself and we saw these towering visions of male invention become the false idols of learning, our schools began to take shape inside of such constructs.  Instead of teaching students to educate each other and learn from each other, we, as teachers, sat behind desks at the front of rooms, said a bunch of stuff and imagined that learning was just going to magically spring out of children.

Wagner struck out against that male mythology of learning, not because she was the leader of an all girls school, but because the learning would be better; thereby, meeting the needs of her students in more productive and authentic ways. “Mostly,” she states, “people who go into education tend to be traditionalists. They live within the lines, we follow the rules.” The problem is, “the lines in this country have a strong bias toward men and males in all ways.”

Wagner’s restructuring of her school to better the educational experience for her students was not based on what girls needed, it was based on being able to access the individual strengths and challenges of her students so they could be their best selves.  She was looking and searching for the anomaly AS the rule: that we all learn differently. When we apply gender cliches and biases to learning, we miss entire opportunities to educate students in more student-centric ways. Students should be able to feel like they are more than just their prescribed gender profile.


*Arms, E. (2007) Gender Equity in Coeducational And Single-Sex Environments. In: Klein, S.S. (2007). Handbook for Achieving Equity Through Education. New York, NY.: Routledge.


*Caplan, J.B. Caplan, P.J. The Perseverative Search for Sex Differences in Mathematics Ability. (2005). In Gallagher, A.M. Kaufman, J.C. Gender Differences in Mathematics: An Integrative Psychological Approach Cambridge University Press.

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