Breaking bias

Australia was recently ranked overall 50th in the global gender gap (including 70th in ‘economic participation and opportunity’ and 99th in ‘health and survival’, but equal 1st in ‘educational attainment’). But while gender remains an issue worth discussing, our discussion needs to move beyond ‘women’ and consider complex structures and practices of power and equity. An article in yesterday’s Guardian by Sisonke Msimang argues that white women’s voices and anger are now being presented as central and as relatable, while the voices and stories of “Aboriginal women, women in hijab, women whose skin is far ‘too’ dark, and women who live on the wrong side of town; who can’t go to university and who will never report from parliament or file stories in newsrooms” are ignored. She adds that “Black women have pioneered the landscape of courage. … everywhere you look there are Black women who continue to be punished for loudly wearing their anger.”

As I reflect on the IWD 2022 theme of ‘break the bias’ I continue to consider how to acknowledge my own biases and privileges, and seek to understand the ways in which I help or hinder the project of diversity, inclusion and equity. I know that posting a blog post, photo or hashtag does little to address existing biases and their impacts on groups and individuals. I know that action and advocacy are needed in micro and macro contexts, and that sometimes appropriate action might be to speak less, take up less space, or question my own way of being in the world. I am proud of edited books such as Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership (which features 19 women out of 25 authors) and Flip the System Australia, but know these are imperfect in their attempts to share a diverse range of voices.

The following blog post is on the WomenEd website as part of a suite of worldwide reflections for International Women’s Day 2022.

Source: @PIRO4D on pixabay

Each year, International Women’s Day is surrounded by questions as to why the day is needed. Yet a dig into data from any country shows that gender equity is far from a reality. Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated gender inequities, as this UN policy brief and this UN technical briefattest. There has been an increase in unpaid domestic and caring duties often taken up by women, an increase in gender-based violence, a decline in the availability of reproductive health services, and lack of women’s representation in pandemic planning response.

The 2022 International Women’s Day theme is ‘Break the Bias’. But how do we ‘break’ bias when it’s unconscious, unacknowledged, or invisible? With so much complexity in the social world, accepting stereotypes, tropes, and assumptions about gender can make the world a simpler place with less cognitive load, easier judgments, and faster decision making. But left unchallenged, biases can block, hinder, and harm individuals and groups in society and in organisations.

The education world should look at how bias might be influencing school communities and students’ experiences of learning, living, and being in the world. In schools, sometimes the racial, ethnic, ability, sexuality, and gender diversity of the staff does not match the diversity of the student and parent community. Sometimes there is a lack of diversity in the community, or in the teaching or leadership staff. Conscious and unconscious biases of those overseeing staff recruitment and promotion can influence who is recruited, who is promoted, and who is overlooked. Biases of educators can affect response to student behaviour.

The questions we ask of ourselves and of others can help us to understand our own biases, to challenge the biases of others, and to encourage different ways of being and behaving. In a recent conversation with Jacob Easley II on my podcast, The Edu Salon, he challenged educators to take the time to explore their professional identities, beliefs, and purpose. He suggests that a place to start is with the question of why a person is entering the teaching profession: “Is it really to work with certain types of students, and not others, those who are more like me, and not those who are different from me?” This is something we should all ask ourselves. How do we respond (to a student, parent or colleague) when someone is not ‘like me’?

We can break open, or splinter bias, if we ask good questions. How about: Do we like to teach those students mostly like ourselves? To what social issues do we draw our organisation’s attention? What and who do we ignore or pay little attention to? Who is visible, celebrated, and recognised? Who is ignored or ridiculed? Who do students see ‘out in front’ at assemblies and events? Who do the school community see in middle and senior leadership?

Do we hire mostly people like ourselves, or do we seek to recruit a diverse workforce? To whom (if at all) do we offer flexible work options? While it may seem fair to apply the same decision-making framework for all people, aiming for meritocracy can perpetuate existing advantage. Is it more equitable to consider the varying needs and barriers of individuals, and to seek to tackle those barriers on a needsbasis? What is our approach to a situation with which we are unfamiliar or to someone whose experiences and perspectives are vastly different from our own? Do we engage in uncomfortable conversations? Do we dismiss or seek to understand concerns?

We can ask these questions of ourselves and others. From there, here’s what else I think we can do.

  1. Interrogate our responses. Be ok with not knowing, with learning, discomfort, and respectful challenge. Be willing to listen and to learn. Work to identify biases in ourselves and our organisations, and the barriers and inequities they create.
  2. Anchor ourselves in our values. Be brave enough to know what kind of individual and what kind of organisation we aspire to be. ‘The community won’t accept this without resistance,’ is not a good enough reason to remain stagnant on issues of equity, social justice, diversity, and meaningful inclusion.
  3. Educate and advocate. Stand up. Support. Resist. For example, when someone is critiqued for their cultural dress or accent, speak out. When someone is not being considered for a role or promotion, question why or point to attributes and experience that may have been ignored.
  4. Implement practices and structures that support mitigating bias, such as transparent and consistent recruitment processes with diverse representation across the decision makers, thoughtful leave policies (including flexible and generous parental leave and carer’s leave), options for flexible working where possible, and an organisational culture in which staff are trusted and professional expectations take into account a diversity of life responsibilities.

We all have influence, and we all have a responsibility to take bias seriously and to engage with its realities and ramifications, even and especially when those biases work in our individual favour. If there is one thing the pandemic has taught me, it’s that we need to work for the greater good over the individual good.

This year’s IWD pose reflects ‘break the bias’.

Challenge is a choice: IWD 2021

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day (IWD) and this year’s theme is ‘Choose to Challenge’, focused on calling out gender bias and celebrating women’s achievements. It is about both speaking up when things are not ok, and seeking out a multiplicity of voices and perspectives, especially those often marginalised, ignored, or unrecognised.

In Australia, activist and advocate for survivors of sexual assault Grace Tame was named Australian of the Year in January. Yet the days leading up to IWD 2021 have been filled with despair and controversy around continuing cultures of misogyny and violence against women. Two Australian cabinet ministers are currently facing allegations of sexual assault, and a petition calling for earlier sexual consent education in schools led to thousands of testimonials of teenage experiences of sexual assault.

I continue to be surprised when panels continue to feature groups of mostly-male, mostly-white speakers, thereby excluding the voices of those less prominent and less privileged. The teaching and school leadership professions in Australia remain far from representative of our population’s gender and cultural diversity. Indigenous Australians are particularly under-represented and Indigenous students are especially disadvantaged by our systems and structures.

How do we ensure that diverse voices, and voices of those not in positions of power, are heard and listened to? How can we each be a part of a world where equity, diversity and inclusion are the norm rather than the exception?

Women authors in Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership

One thing we can do is to work towards diverse representation. The upcoming book I have had the absolute pleasure of editing – Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and Democracy – includes 15 exceptional chapter contributions from 25 authors from the UK, USA, South America, Canada, Europe, Australia, and the Middle East. 19 of those 25 authors are women. This IWD I’d like to celebrate and acknowledge those women: Pat Thomson, Christine Grice, Claire Golledge, Cecilia Azorín, Alma Harris, Michelle Jones, Asmaa Al-Fadala, Suraiya Hameed, Marnee Shay, Jodie Miller, Vivienne Porritt, Karen Edge, Carol Campbell, Eugenie Samier, Liliana Mularczyk, Annie Kidder, Eloise Tan, and Christine Corso. I am incredibly proud to have worked alongside all of the book’s authors. The book’s representation isn’t perfect or comprehensive, but it is part of the ‘working towards’.

In Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education, Jon Andrews, Cameron Paterson and I wrote in the conclusion that “flipping the education system is a vision for … a world in which the privileged few do not eclipse or speak for those pushed to the margins.” We asserted the following.

“Ultimately, education is a political act. We are all activists. We have no other choice. With this comes a responsibility to ensure that we are fairly representing the views, needs and aspirations of our communities rather than the prolific and vociferous few having their views exposed to politicians, sculpting the debate that may well be at odds with those who need representation the most.”

Actually, our every micro action and inaction is a political act. We decide when we look and when we look away. Who we invite. To whom we listen. Whose voices we amplify. Who we ignore. Who we cite. Who we celebrate. Who we oppose. Who we select. Who we defy. When we choose to speak or and when we decide to stay silent.

Choosing to challenge means challenging ourselves as well as others. It is on each and every one of us to choose to think deliberately, thoughtfully, and self-critically about how we can contribute to a world that is equitable for all, and in which a diverse range of voices are heard, even and especially if those voices are different to our own.

In education: To whom should we listen?

X speakers

Today I had the privilege of being part of the ‘Extreme After Dinner Speakers Club’, a main stage event at the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement, held this year in Marrakech.

This session had me sharing the stage with Michael Fullan, Lee Elliott-Major, Cecilia Azorín, Dean Fink, Pooja Nakamura and Jihad Hajjouji.

Pierre Tulowitzki was the compare, revving up the audience and introducing each speaker. We each entered to a piece of music we had chosen, and we each spoke for 8 minutes on something in education about which we are passionate. There were no audio visual supports, and certainly no PowerPoint slides. It was just each speaker under a single spotlight.

I share my speech below. (You’ll need to imagine the strains of Roxette’s ‘Dangerous’ playing as I entered.)

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Teaching can be a personal, political and dangerous act.

I’m an English and Literature teacher, and an avid reader, so I love metaphors as a tool for making meaning. I often find myself comparing education to the worlds of various texts.

One metaphor that’s resonated with me is that being in education can feel like existing in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, an 1865 novel about a girl who falls down a rabbit hole into a fantasy world with strange creatures and absurd goings on. This metaphor is a playful way to consider education reform and examine to whom we should listen in education.

The novel is set simultaneously in Victorian England and in the imaginary world of Wonderland. The characters in the novel are constrained by the worlds in which they exist. The regimentations of Victorian England reflect the constraints of our current education systems. There are rigid rules of the education game, and inflexible, standardised and often externally imposed, indicators of success against which teachers, school leaders and schools are measured.

In Wonderland there’s a lack of equity, with some characters having huge amounts of power, and others existing without agency. The autocratic Queen of Hearts might be seen as the international culture of testing, accountability and performativity. She’s a force for panic and alarm, imposing a narrow focus of right and wrong. Characters race around anxiously in fear of her.

In our education systems, teachers might be seen as the White Rabbit: rushed, watching the time, constantly in a hurry to meet expectations and ever-increasing workloads. Teachers are mostly absent in the formulation of policy, on advisory boards, and on media panels. Often so-called ‘experts’ speak for or about teachers and schools. Everyone has an opinion on education and on teaching. Teachers themselves are often undermined or deprofessionalised.

School leaders could also be seen as the Rabbit, buckling under deadlines, external pressures and challenges to their wellbeing. Leaders might alternatively be conceptualised as the Cheshire Cat, doing often invisible work and empowering others through just-in-time advice as they shift in and out of the spotlight, constantly code switching and operating in multiple contexts almost simultaneously.

In the novel, the Eaglet says,

“Speak English! . . . I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and, what’s more, I don’t believe you do either!”

Education buzzwords can become nonsense language devoid of meaning. Academic writing can seem impenetrable to practitioners. Contradictory advice abounds, and those of us working in schools and in research must make sense of multiple competing voices.

To whom should we listen?

As a teacher, school leader, coach and researcher, I feel a lot like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole and muddling my way through a foreign landscape. Belonging and not belonging. Betwixt and between. Constantly working to make sense of the education world, to sort through a sea of information, and to make my own voice, and the voice of my profession, heard.

I’ve taught in schools—in Australia and England—for 20 years. I’ve been a school leader for almost as long. In middle leadership positions, I shared the voices of senior leadership down, and the voices of teachers up. Now as a member of a school executive, I eke out the voices of teachers, students and families, in order that we can improve in ways relevant to our context. When I speak and write, I am a voice of my profession.

My voice comes from within the education system, yet as a pracademic, I am bestride both the practitioner world of schools, and the scholarly world of research. Alongside my full-time school day job, I am an adjunct at a university. My dual roles inform one another and give me a perspective quite different from those who advise from the sidelines. I am firmly embedded in what it feels like to be a cog in the school reform wheel. What I do every day in my lessons, meetings, professional conversations, and operational and strategic work, influences how I interpret education research. And the research I read and undertake influences my understanding of my daily work at school. In these ways I operate as a bridge betwixt and between research and practice.

Like Wonderland, which seems confusing to the newcomer Alice, schools and education systems are non-linear ecologies of complexity and interlocking relationships. In schools, we navigate competing demands with the needs of our students and the moral purpose of the greater good. In schools, change happens in ways that researchers and school boards don’t or can’t suppose. The work of schools is not easily quantifiable. In fact, measuring and ranking schools and education systems can diminish the humanity of education. Often what we can measure is not what actually matters.

Wonderland was perhaps Lewis Carroll’s way of pushing back against the regimentations of England at the time, a way of embracing chaos, surprise and wonder. Many teachers and school leaders, too, resist external demands or play the accountability game while working hard to protect and serve their students in ways that embrace their humanity.

Metaphors work because of their recognisability, but as I reflect on the metaphor I’m sharing today, I realise that it’s limited and potentially dangerous. There are so many versions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that meaning can get muddied and diluted. More worrying, however, are the biases inherent in metaphor. This metaphor has a Western origin. While the novel has been translated into almost 100 languages, it is a work of English-language fiction. It’s by a white male British author. It’s set in upper-middle-class England. How, I wonder, does this exclude particular views of education? Does it marginalise some from accessing its meaning? Does sharing this metaphor promote a linear, masculine, white and Western view of education, based on hierarchical structures and economic agendas?

So when I think about the question – To whom should we listen? – the answer is manifold.

We should listen to researchers who interrogate what we know about education. We should talk with policymakers who oversee the big picture. We should listen to parents. We should listen to students who are the core of our work and our why. We should certainly listen to teachers.They are experts whose professional experience and judgement should be a key part of education discourse.

In the book Flip the System Australia my co-editors and I worked to include a range of voices. Dr Kevin Lowe, one of our Indigenous authors, pointed out that Aboriginal contributions are often tacked on to the end of books, if they appear at all, as an afterthought. He challenged us to think carefully about not just who we included, but also where we situated particular voices.

We all do need to listen to each other. But this is not enough.

As we consider to whom we should listen in our work in school effectiveness and improvement, we need to carefully interrogate whose voices are being invited and amplified. We need to include those often marginalised by or excluded from the dominant narrative.  We need to embrace diversity rather than homogenisation. We also need to consider the risks to individuals and groups in sharing their views publicly. Often those who are the most vulnerable in our systems feel the least able to speak up and speak out. We need, however, to seek out, and make space at the highest levels, for voices that will move us towards democratic, equitable and inclusive education for all.