Empowering the Next Wave of Female Leaders

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We thank the following leaders, who shared with us their perspectives for this blog post: Stephanie Bell, member of the Alabama State Board of Education; Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the California State Board of Education; Wendy Horman, state representative in the Idaho Legislature; Kim Hunter Reed, Louisiana commissioner of higher education; and Margie Vandeven, Missouri commissioner of education.

Over the last decade, women have made great strides in state leadership positions — and in particular, positions of power related to education policy. Currently, women lead nine states as governor and hold 15 lieutenant governorships and 66 other statewide elected positions. In the 2018 election cycle, more than 2,000 women were elected to state legislatures across the country, and Nevada became the first to have women hold the majority of seats in the state legislature. Beyond elections, women also were appointed to top state education positions on boards of education, in higher education offices and as chief state school officers.

As women continue to expand their representation in statewide offices — and in light of International Women’s Day yesterday — we connected with five female leaders from across the education spectrum to learn more about their political experiences, why they want to see more women like them in leadership and the advice they have for other women seeking higher office.

Perhaps Margie Vandeven said it best when she told us, “Different perspectives make for better policy decisions.” It’s the truth. By including a diverse set of backgrounds and viewpoints in the development of education policy, a much richer and more multifaceted conversation can take place. Policies are better for it, making programs and outcomes for students better for it, too.

Bringing diverse perspectives is one advantage of being a woman in a historically male-dominated field; encouraging those perspectives is another. All five leaders touched on the importance of engaging an array of stakeholders — through coalitions and other avenues — and of collecting verifiable data and evidence to inform policymaking. Wendy Horman advocates for being the most prepared person in the room — preparation that entails having not only sound evidence to support a policy position, but also the outreach to and conversations with constituents who are affected by the policy.

As needs and demands change — in education and in the economy and workforce, more broadly — these leaders stressed the imperative that policy direct the appropriate resources to help students and families thrive. “Failure is not an option,” Kim Hunter Reed told us. “So many people will survive and get better if we can get this right, but we have to keep transforming the thinking at the center of our work.”

It’s this — the impact of policymaking — that drives these women to the positions they’re in today. It’s also the ability to demonstrate to their constituents that they, too, can be in positions of power. When we asked these leaders for advice for women who are considering entering education policy, they all agreed: Do it. Without hesitation, each of these five women encouraged those interested to dive in. They also shared these tips:

  • Focus on your goals and on why you got involved in education policy in the first place.
  • Believe you can make a difference (because you will).
  • Stay connected with those you represent.
  • Find a mentor and others who will encourage you.

The leadership of these five amazing women — and many more who serve in education policy positions across the country and here at Education Commission of the States — is creating the future for our country through meaningful education policies that help all children succeed and integrate into our growing economy. 2018 was a record year for women in politics; we hope 2020 continues that trend.

Author profile
President at Education Commission of the States | janderson@ecs.org

As the eighth president of Education Commission of the States, Jeremy leads a team of more than 55 education policy experts that serve policymakers in all 50 states through research, reports, convenings and counsel. Prior, Jeremy served many elected officials in Congress, governors' offices and state legislatures across the country. When he is not racing from airport to airport to serve state education policymakers, Jeremy enjoys running, mountain biking, skiing and time with his wife, son and two daughters. Jeremy truly believes that the best education policy happens when policymakers are able to learn from each other.

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