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Beyond Barbie: Women Defining the Future of Education in Pittsburgh

Audrey Russo

I don’t think many of us in the non-academic world have seen the adoption of AI/ML occur with such rapid fire across every business, as we have over the past 12 months. 

Time waits for no one. But what I did not see coming was the remake or resurgence of Barbie! Nope, did not see it. America Ferrera captures in her monologue in “Barbie”:

“It is literally impossible to be a woman. You are so beautiful and so smart, and it kills me that you don’t think you are good enough. Like we must always be extraordinary, but somehow, we are always doing it wrong. You must be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but you must also be thin. You must have money, but you cannot ask for money because that’s crass. You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. You must lead, but you cannot squash other people’s ideas. You are supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time. You must be a career woman but always looking out for other people. You have to answer for men’s bad behavior, which is insane, but if you point that out, you’re accused of complaining. You’re supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or threaten other women, as you are supposed to be part of the sisterhood.

But always stand out and be grateful. But never forget that the system is rigged. So, find a way to acknowledge that but always be grateful. You must never get old, never be selfish, never fall, never show fear, never get out of line. This is hard and contradictory, and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you. And it turns out that you are doing everything wrong, but everything is your fault.”

Who saw this movie coming? While heavily marketed and not representative of all women, this one slice of art brings a sense of kitsch. Nonetheless, it speaks to the complex challenges that many of us face in life and work, which go beyond lines of diversity. Today, in this issue of TEQ, we celebrate that we have four women leaders in education who are leading us through what education is and will be as we navigate AI/ML, alternative modalities in learning for careers, rising costs, new skills that we never imagined would be baked into the basic curriculum, defunct career options, and the sensational wind of opportunities to define purpose and impact. Whew, it’s a whirlwind, and we have new leaders to bring with them the views that must be represented to ensure our next generations, as well as those who want to reskill, which is intergenerational.

While strides have been made to break down gender barriers, there is still a significant underrepresentation of women in leadership positions within the education sector. More women are leaving primary education.

“According to the American College President research, only about one-third of college presidents are women, a number that has been stagnant for years. This is at a time when 60% of college students are women, and they graduate at higher rates than men.” (Forbes, Aug 1, 2023).

Women bring a unique perspective and skill set to the table when it comes to education leadership. Research consistently shows that diverse leadership teams yield better outcomes, improved decision-making, and greater innovation. By having more women in leadership positions, we can ensure that the voices, experiences, and concerns of women and girls are effectively addressed in education policies and practices.

Moreover, women leaders in education serve as role models for young girls, inspiring them to dream big, pursue their passions, and break down societal barriers. By having visible female leaders in schools and educational institutions, we send a powerful message that positions of authority and influence are not limited by gender. The Tech Council and its nonprofit arm, FortyX80, have been reaching high school girls through our LAUNCH Program. This program ensures representation of girls across the Pittsburgh MSA (never one geographic or school focus) and transforms the natural curiosity of high school girls, in grades 10 and 11, into a voice of leadership in the STEM industry. Through our comprehensive program, high school girls gain insight into their leadership style and are equipped with the confidence to pursue a successful career path in STEM.

To address mid-career women seeking leadership roles in technology, the Tech Council offers the EDGE program. It offers unconventional solutions to conventional problems, unleashing potential and engaging mid-career networks. Having an EDGE-inspired program geared toward education could be a solid start!

Women leadership in education is not just a matter of representation; it is a catalyst for change. It is essential that we collectively work to create an environment that supports and encourages women to take on leadership roles in education. Only then can we truly unlock the potential and shape a more inclusive future for education. I’m thrilled to take this time to feature four regional executives, who, in our cover story, are truly shaping the future of education not just here in Pittsburgh, but across the country. They each lead jobs that require dramatic change against headwinds, which we can help support. While they run their institutions, it is all of us who can help them. Support them. Reach out. See how you can accelerate their strategies. Hire their students. Volunteer to support faculty. Understand the research and find ways to shine the light on their work.

This is an exciting era for Pittsburgh in higher education. Tip of the hat to the University of Pittsburgh, Carlow University, Chatham University, and Pittsburgh Technical College for betting on these leaders to change our region and our world.

[Reference] The following chart conveys the growth of female/male enrollment in higher education since 1947: