To a female: “You’re so smart in math, you should be a teacher.”
To a male: “You’re so smart in math, you should be an engineer.”
These messages are systemic. Generations of women and men have been given these messages (and more like them) by their parents, teachers, coaches, professors, and other adults in their lives.
These messages represent a fixed mindset. When they represent a collective belief, and are pervasive and institutionalized, they represent systemic fixed mindsets. Thanks to Carol Dweck and other researchers we now know the negative consequences of fixed mindsets: fear of mistakes and failures, avoidance of challenges, unhealthy perceptions of ourselves and others, decreased productivity and achievement, stereotype threat, stress and anxiety, achievement gaps, impostor syndrome, and perfectionism.
For the past several years I have led professional learning in growth mindset and social and emotional learning (SEL) for a variety of education professionals. Since about 75% of K-12 teachers are women and 90% of childcare and preschool teachers are women, my workshop participants are predominately women. It’s interesting to note, however, that less than 25% of superintendents are women.
During these learning opportunities, we often explore the question: Where do our beliefs about our intelligence, skills, abilities, and talents come from? Inevitably, a common story emerges and it goes something like this:
- “Well when I was ____ years old my _____________ always told me _____________. I didn’t think I could be a ___________ so I ended up becoming a ____________.”
- “I entered college to become a ______________, while I was there my __________ kept telling me _____________ so I ended up going into teaching.”
It makes you wonder, as a result of systemic fixed mindsets, how many women “ended up” in professions like childcare and education? What is the impact of so many lives held back and altered? What is the collective lost potential? What are the consequences of systemic fixed mindsets on women in these professions?
To understand the consequences of systemic fixed mindsets on women in the childcare and education professions and how we can move forward, we need a place to start. To begin, we can:
- Identify and name it. Systemic fixed mindsets negatively impact women in the professions of childcare and education.
- Acknowledge the hurt, pain, and shame this has caused. In many cases the hurt, pain, and shame spans a lifetime.
- Hold a growth mindset for ourselves and expect others to hold a growth mindset about us. Growth mindset is a protective factor.
- Acknowledge that women are not alone; men play a key role in moving this conversation forward and taking positive and productive action.
- Exercise bravery. We are brave, we need to own it and grow it.
- Be vulnerable and authentic.
- Get real and have hard conversations. Raise your hand and voice.
- Learn more about it. Exercise our critical thinking skills. Ask and explore questions.
- When others hold a fixed mindset about you how do they tend to act? How do you act?
- How do systemic fixed mindsets manifest? In policies? Conditions? Practices? Organizational cultures?
- What is the relationship between systemic fixed mindsets and sexism? Systemic fixed mindsets and sexual harassment?
- Listen closer to women’s experiences and stories. For example, when a kindergarten teacher expresses concern over not being able to meet all of her students’ needs because she has 26 five-year-olds in her classroom, ask yourself these questions:
- Are these inequitable conditions a consequence of systemic fixed mindsets?
- How do the consequences of systemic fixed mindsets for women play out in our programs, classrooms, and schools?
- How might these conditions lead to teacher stress and burnout?
- Read books and articles that enlighten our collective thinking and increase our collective intelligence:
- Dweck’s updated edition of Mindset (reread it through the lens of systemic fixed mindsets)
- Brene Brown’s Braving the Wilderness, Rising Strong, Daring Greatly, The Gifts of Imperfection
- Valerie Young’s The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women (the title is misleading as the book is for women and men)
- The Dark Side of Resilience by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic & Derek Lusk
- How Stereotypes Can Drive Women to Quit Science (NPR)
- Time Person of the Year 2017: The Silence Breakers
- Collectively ask ourselves (women and men):
- How might we improve the overall conditions for those who serve in our profession?
- How might we use our individual and collective experiences to change the conditions for future generations?
I personally have committed to this journey by listening, observing, reading, researching, and talking with others about mindsets and women in our profession. As a result, I am writing a book to better understand it ALL. I imagine a world where systemic growth mindsets positively impact women and men in our profession. We know we can’t change the past, but the future is ours for the making. Considering we are welcoming a new year, there’s no time like the present to begin.
Dr. Kendra Coates is a mom, learner, Director of PreK-3rd Education, adjunct instructor, consultant & professional learning specialist, and entrepreneur. She is the author of Mindset Works’ Growing Early Mindsets (GEM) curriculum—a literacy-based instructional approach that integrates growth mindset and social and emotional learning (SEL) for PreK-3rd grade learning environments. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow her on Twitter @DrKendraCoates.