The Backslide

In “progressive” Massachusetts, men currently hold all top education positions in the Secretariat of Education and the State Universities. Education policy is being discussed, debated, and decided in an echo chamber of all men.

photo credit:  sean Kong , via  Unsplash

photo credit: sean Kong, via Unsplash


How is your state doing? Is your state education cabinet reflective of gender and racial diversity?

If women aren’t making decisions about education, our students — and public dialog — suffer. GenderAvenger Massachusetts funder Andrea Silbert, President of the Eos Foundation, shares her work from the ground in Massachusetts.

Two years ago, I began to study and share data on the education leadership in Massachusetts. I found that not only was there a gross imbalance in gender leadership but also that the number of women had actually undergone a backslide. In the sixty-plus-year history of the Department of K-12 education, there has NEVER been a woman commissioner. To add to that, all four members of the Massachusetts education leadership team are men, including the Secretary of Education, the Commissioners of Early Care and Education, Elementary and Secondary Education, and Higher Education. Women make up 75% of the education workforce in the Massachusetts K-12 system alone. One would expect to see women also leading the field at the top levels of policy, practice, program development, and innovation.

The situation goes from bad to worse.

The situation goes from bad to worse when we take a closer look at the Massachusetts public higher education system. In the past four years, there have been eight openings for state university presidents. Women made up nearly 40% of the finalists, but only men were selected for those roles. Moreover, all ten state universities, including the University of Massachusetts, are currently led by men, compared to 2007 when women held five of these positions. Why the backslide?

In 2017, the Eos Women’s Initiative furthered its efforts to track education leadership openings and the hiring process. We are seeing extremely qualified women passed over each time in favor of the male finalists. In each case, though, women demonstrate having all the necessary experience and qualifications for the job, and yet the men get hired.

This data tells us that there is not a “pipeline problem,” as many suggest, but a selection problem.

We believe there is endemic unconscious bias in the selection process. Also, we are seeing education leaders appointed based primarily on prior relationships and comfort level. This presents a great loss to the field, students, professionals, and families. The message the state is sending is that qualified women need not apply. The Eos Foundation and the women and men of Massachusetts are organizing and urging the Governor and Secretary of Education to take immediate action to address the gender backslide.

Take a look at your own state: Are women being appointed to leadership roles, or is there a visible backslide as we have documented in Massachusetts? Is the country backsliding into severe gender inequity?

Andrea Silbert

Andrea Silbert is the president of the Eos Foundation, a private foundation making charitable investments in efforts to fight poverty and hunger and improve education in Massachusetts.