• Educating Gender

Y2K and School Leadership: Rebooting our Priorities


Remember Y2K?

When the culture assumes one set of principles (male definitions of leadership) and disregards the other (female) then how do you break through? What puts the wheels of change, particularly of perception, in motion?

By applying the same old gender biases and then having them thrown in your face, of course.


By 1999, Y2K, as a concept and as a fear, was on everyone’s lips. The coming of the new millennium was mixed with a sense of excitement, anticipation and widespread panic. The issue was that with all of our technological brilliance, had we not foreseen a potential disaster with the arrival of a year with all those zeros at the end of it? The millennium bug was supposedly a calendar problem. Would machines and systems and software, accustomed to reading years by the final two digits, understand that the new year was 2000 not 1900 or 1200! Would our water systems start to shut down? Would planes be falling out of the skies? Would cash machines just start spewing out 20 dollar bills when the clock rang 12am on January 1st, 2000?

However, all of this populist fear did not initially inject itself into the ecosystem. In fact many tech companies saw it originally as a dilemma of low priority, not worthy of devoting much resources and not worthy of using their top tier talent to solve. So, to whom did they give the task to solve? Women, of course. Women were given the task of leading teams to eventually solve the Y2K problem. As we moved closer to the date and these companies and the general population became more alarmed by the possibility of technological apocalypse, they discovered that the people leading the charge to fix a potential disaster were women. And, after all of the smoke and noise cleared, many men and women who were on these teams found the skills and approaches to leadership that these women had brought to their work were much more effective, far less top down and far more empowering. Some of these skills included:


• Ability to identify relationships and dependencies

• Ability to nurture relationships and partnerships

• Ability to embrace the whole

• Ability to work effectively in flat, self-organizing environments

• Ability to manage multiple, highly detailed, co-evolving issues

• A willingness to lead while being publicly vulnerable

• A willingness to lead from not knowing

• A willingness to lead from a process perspective, rather than a system perspective

• A willingness to lead favoring flat, self-organizing webs rather than hierarchies

• An emphasis on respect, dignity and integrity*


Y2K, particularly for the tech industry, became a wake up call, not about the coding of years and dates, but shattering mythologies and cliches regarding leadership.

The assumption is the “women cook, but men are chefs” syndrome, that women are teachers but are not capable of shaping the priorities or needs of our country’s educational system, that this work is too important for women and should be left to men.

The most damning disparities in both status and leadership opportunities regarding gender is in the field of education. While the pay inequity and opportunities for leadership throughout industries and professions is well documented by now, how is it that the field of education, where such a disproportionate amount of its workforce is women, also suffers so acutely from such imbalance? Approximately 77% of the teaching profession is made up of women and in 2004 research in leadership positions in public schools indicated that of the 13,724 districts in the country, female leadership is in only 18.2% of those positions, a near direct inversion to who populates the field in regard to sex.** This is a form of insanity. Women often go through more training, receive more advanced degrees than their male counterparts, but still find themselves on the margins of school leadership and decision making. The assumption is the “women cook, but men are chefs” syndrome, that women are teachers but are not capable of shaping the priorities or needs of our country’s educational system, that this work is too important for women and should be left to men. Because of this leadership imbalance, we are left with educational systems with a bias toward male constructs and male oriented priorities.


In your daughter or son's was school, wouldn’t you want the above list of leadership skills and ways of interacting as a significant and integral part of their educational program? We need our own Y2K moment in the field of education.


* Frautschi, M. Culture, Gender, Leadership and the Year-2000 Problem., 1999.


**Shakeshaft, C. Brown, G. Irby, B. Grogan, M. Ballenger, J. Increasing gender equity in educational leadership. pp. 104-105. in Klein, S. Handbook for Achieving Gender Equity through Education. Routledge, 2007.


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