Washington state education leaders celebrate Women’s History Month

March is Women’s History Month, and there are so many women in Washington state who have played a significant role in our state’s history or are working hard to write a new history for communities across Washington.

As we advance solutions to help more students pursue their postsecondary aspirations across Washington state, we’ve been inspired by a number of women leaders working in education. For Women’s History Month, we caught up with a few of these leaders to learn about the issues facing women and girls in education and their own inspirations.

Dr. Lori Hunt

Provost – Community Colleges of Spokane

What does Women’s History Month mean to you personally?

Women’s History Month is a valuable time to showcase and highlight the incredible contributions and achievements of women throughout history. However, it is important to remember that these celebrations and recognitions should continue throughout the year. Women’s stories are often not shared due to the belief that they may not be as interesting as others, but the unique experiences and narratives of women have the potential to inspire others in ways we may never know. It is important to amplify and uplift these stories, as they have the power to create change and pave the way for future generations.

What do you think are the biggest issues facing women and girls in higher education?

I strongly advocate for increased participation of women and girls in career fields that are often labeled as “nontraditional.” It is time to eliminate gender bias and stereotypes associated with certain professions, such as welding and piloting, and celebrate the fact that career opportunities are available to everyone. Although it may require significant effort and inclusivity from industries to achieve this goal, the benefits of a more diverse workforce are immeasurable. Enabling young women to dream beyond gender boundaries is an essential step towards creating a fair and equitable society.

What advice would you give to young women and girls who want to work in education?

Do it! Education needs strong leaders and voices to shape a brighter future. Education, in all its forms, creates opportunities for students to break free from generational obstacles and pave their own paths to success. While its inspiring to see young girls aspire to become teachers, it’s also essential to encourage them to consider leadership roles in education, such as educational administrators or college presidents. By taking on these positions, students can become advocates for change and impact institutional evolution. When we hear young women say they want to be college presidents, we will know that we have made significant strides in promoting gender diversity in leadership roles that have traditionally been dominated by men. Let’s work towards a future where everyone has the opportunity to excel in their chosen field, regardless of their gender.

Is there a woman (or two!) who inspires you?

I am deeply inspired by the strong women in my life, particularly my mother and older sister. Although my mother chose to be a stay-at-home mom, she was a skilled “domestic engineer” who provided invaluable life lessons and nurtured our growth, shaping us into strong and independent leaders. My sister, on the other hand, is a highly driven and successful elected official who serves as a role model for me in my career journey. Her support and guidance keep me grounded and motivated to pursue my goals. Drawing from their examples, I strive to balance my responsibilities as a full-time college executive and a mother, aiming to find the best approach to create a full-filling work-life balance. I am incredibly fortunate to have such inspiring women in my life, and their paths have provided me with invaluable guidance and support.

Dr. Sheila Edwards Lange

Chancellor, UW Tacoma

What does Women’s History Month mean to you personally?

It’s a time to reflect on the unique contribution women have made to the history of the world. As a Black woman I am especially proud to reflect on the strengths and gifts of women of color. Sojourner Truth’s speech at the Ohio Women’s Convention of 1851 remains one of my favorites as it so eloquently points out the intersectionality of race and gender in the women’s movement. In my work advocating for the inclusion of girls in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, I have to constantly reiterate that girls of color are to be included in this effort.

What do you think are the biggest issues facing women and girls in higher education?

While women have been equally represented in higher education enrollments since the 1980’s, they continue to be underrepresented in many STEM fields and in leadership positions. In our region, where STEM is such a large part of the economy, lack of access to STEM fields has real economic consequences. We need to do more in our communities and at the K-12 level to bring attention to this issue and broaden access. If girls are not exposed to STEM possibilities and prepared early during their education journey, most will not be interested in studying STEM when they get to college.

What advice would you give to young women and girls who want to work in education?

Follow your passion, and be relentless in seeking out experiences that will expose you to mentors and opportunities. Sometimes that means your peers may not be excited about your choices, and you may often be one of the few girls in the room. That’s perfectly fine if you are doing what gives you joy and purpose.

Is there a woman (or two!) who inspires you?

I am inspired by women who get up every day and do what’s right for their families and our communities. Doing the little things that add up to big things. Taking care of aging parents, ailing spouses/partners, raising their own or other people’s children. Women who speak out about injustice anywhere, and then those who fight to correct those injustices. The grandmother who advocates for better gun laws. The auntie who pushes for better outcomes for foster children. The sister who volunteers with Special Olympics to be a part of her sibling’s journey. Those are the women who inspire me.

Dr. Sue Kane

Director, STEM Initiatives & Strategic Partnerships, NCESD

What does Women’s History Month mean to you personally?

This spring has been a personally challenging one, and Women’s History Month was an invitation to reflect on the past, present, and future conditions of women in the United States. I am truly grateful to be in this moment in time and I am deeply optimistic about the ways that women will continue to progress in our future. In the lifetime of my grandmother, my mother, and myself, we’ve seen incremental progress on women’s issues. I currently have the right to vote. I was able to purchase my own home and own property. I’ve earned a graduate degree and published research in my own name. I chose my spouse. I waited until later in life to begin a family. I get to experience these aspects of my life as if they are a natural part of the design of our society, but that’s simply not reality. None of these changes for women happened by chance; these are the results of collective intentional efforts to change the system that we live in. Despite this progress, I also recognize that the privileges I have are not the same for so many women and that there are still deeply rooted societal conditions that work to maintain gender inequities. There is still so much more work to do.

What do you think are the biggest issues facing women and girls in higher education?

There are so many ways to answer this question and, in a matter of days, I’ve changed my mind about which one I consider the “biggest” multiple times. I’ve landed ultimately on one that I consider the deepest because it connects with all sorts of other surface level impacts that affect women in education. In many ways, education is a sector that enjoys an abundance of women. I’ve seen many young girls pretend to be teachers and imagine what that role might feel like and, on the whole, women are well represented in the education workforce.

Still, there are a few aspects of challenges that are worth calling out. The first is that within the sector of education, there are still roles and disciplines, like engineering or computer science, where women are still significantly underrepresented. It’s no coincidence that these same fields struggle to maintain female students.

This observation actually points to the greater issue. There is a mental model that is commonly held by our community about what it looks like to be successful in education. Mental models are formed by our prior lived experiences and the patterns that we subconsciously draw, and they have a powerful effect on what we see, how we experience things, and what we think is possible. The mental model we hold as Americans about teachers and educators, in general, is one that many women find quite natural. But I can’t help but wonder if the biggest issue is that the mental model is too narrow, and it keeps people from considering a career in education, because they might not see themselves in that very defined box. I get excited when I think about what we might not yet be seeing, and what might be possible if different kinds of men and women thought about careers in education. I wonder what new ideas, learning models, and impacts we could make and how it might transform the educational experience for young people in the future.

What advice would you give to young women and girls who want to work in education?

Go for it! If you have a love for learning, and a strong desire to share that passion with others, then education could be the perfect career for you.

Build a strong foundation and then keep learning: Careers in education often include earning a degree, and gaining teaching experience, but be ready to keep going back for more education. We are still just at the beginning of learning how to help support diverse learner needs, and your strong foundation is just the ground floor of the things you will learn in this field!

Build strong relationships with female mentors: Seek out experienced educators who can offer you guidance, support, and advice as you navigate your career. These mentors can help you identify your strengths, improve your teaching skills, and provide you with valuable networking opportunities. Gain practical experience: While you're still in school, look for opportunities to gain practical experience in the classroom. Consider volunteering at local schools, tutoring, or participating in a teaching internship program. These experiences will help you build your skills, gain confidence, and make professional connections in the field.

Be open-minded, flexible, and adaptable: Education can be a challenging field, and it’s important to be open-minded and flexible as you navigate your career. Be willing to try new things, take on new responsibilities, and adapt to changing circumstances. Some of the teaching assignments I ended up enjoying the most were unexpected and challenged me to lead students to a new level or subject. When you first start out, all experiences are open doors, and the more flexible your mindset, the more you might find joy and value in these unique experiences!

Embrace diversity and inclusivity: Education is a field that serves a diverse group of students, each with unique needs and backgrounds. It’s so important to recognize and value these differences and work to create an inclusive learning environment.

Believe in yourself: Finally, believe in yourself and your ability to make a difference in the lives of your students. There is actual research that shows that teachers who believe that they can make a difference are statistically more likely to impact the learning of their students. Don’t just hope, know, that you are capable of having a profound impact on the lives of the students you connect with!

Remember, the field of education is constantly evolving and there's always something new to learn. Stay curious, stay committed, and enjoy the journey!

Is there a woman (or two!) who inspires you?

I’m fortunate enough to live in a close-knit, multigenerational family with several strong matriarchs whom I love and respect. They have, in various ways, carved out the most intimate traditions of my own family, and are still a big part of our day-to-day lives. These women have given me examples of what it means to hold space for family, friendships, and careers.

And I’ve been blessed to form a network of friendships with women that I trust and admire. These women have been generous with their encouragement, challenged me to be courageous, and to cultivate curiosity about the world, taught me to find humor and share joy, and how to heal when I’ve experienced trauma. These women are inspirational to me!

Zoe Higheagle Strong, PhD., Nimíipuu (Nez Perce) tribal member

Vice Provost for Native American Relations and Programs & Tribal Liaison to the President

Associate Professor, Educational Psychology, College of Education

Director, Center for Native American Research & Collaboration Washington State University

What does Women’s History Month mean to you personally?

In life, it’s easy to fill our lives up and remain busy, neglecting to focus on the good and the progress made in our communities and throughout history. Women’s History Month provides a moment in time to reflect on several strong and resilient women who paved the way for their children and for other women. I am fortunate that I don’t need to look too far to find these examples. My mom, with extreme health conditions, raised me and my siblings, two of whom have autism. Although she didn’t get to live out her personal and young adult dreams, like working overseas in the Peace Corps, she fought for my siblings’ education and development. Today, both have good jobs, are hard-workers, and are very loving human beings.

What do you think are the biggest issues facing women and girls in higher education?

Perhaps one of the biggest issues facing women and girls in education is the ability to develop a healthy identity that does not limit what they believe is possible. Although much progress has been made in the education systems, there are still several college and career fields that tend to push women out for various reasons—often certain STEM related fields. Additionally, some women and girls battle the intersection of multiple identities that have been historically marginalized and were mistreated in the education system—like race, citizenship, and socioeconomic class.

For instance, Secretary Deb Haaland released the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Report in May 2022 that details the atrocities that American Indian and Alaska Native children endured in educational systems, like being beaten, taken away from families, and stripped from practicing their culture or speaking their language. Thus, it’s our responsibility in the education system to reform policies and practices, and help “our hearts” to repair, heal, and advance the possibilities for these women.

What advice would you give to young women and girls who want to work in education?

Working in education is rewarding and extremely difficult, especially as a Native American woman in leadership. I would advise women to gain a vision of what they hope to accomplish, stay true to their values and work ethic, develop a strong community of friends, family, and colleagues, and rely on their faith to accomplish the work. I was kicked out of high school and barely graduated, then failed in my initial attempts in college. Once I gained a vision to advocate and support Native youth in the education system, this vision motivated me to persevere all the way through college until I earned my doctorate in Educational Psychology. My faith, values, and family/friendships have helped me navigate all the difficulties of women in leadership.

Is there a woman (or two!) who inspires you?

There are several women who inspire me, as mentioned earlier, my mom for her sacrifice and resilience and Secretary Deb Haaland for tackling the emotional difficult work of hearing story after story of boarding school experiences. However, I would like to highlight one woman in education that I deeply admire as a role model and mentor: Patsy Whitefoot, a member of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation. She has been instrumental in advancing Native American education in Washington State and beyond and addressing the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in crisis. She is an elder and “retired,” but remains serving on numerous state and national boards with little to no payment. As we look back at many Indian education policies and transformative practices throughout our state and region, and the vital advocacy for missing and murdered Indigenous women, I guarantee she was at the forefront or greatly contributed to the work.

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