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Walking The Tightrope As District Office Barbie

Early on in my administrative career, I was asked to speak on a panel that would be live-streamed to the community. It was my first experience participating in a televised, live event. What I remember most, however, was what happened afterwards.

At my desk the next morning, I came across an email from a community member that read:

“Dear Jenna,

I remember you from when you were [an administrator] at the high school. Just wanted to say that I saw you on the panel last night and your hair looked great. You had a lot of good things to say too…”

I laughed out loud. Someone had taken the time to write me an email about my hair, and, as an afterthought, noted that I had “good things to say too.” While the email was amusing, it conveyed a powerful, subtle message: As a female leader, my appearance would be noticed first and my performance, second.

Sure, some will say that appearances are the first thing anyone notices. That’s true…but it’s also true that none of my male colleagues on that panel received emails about their hair.

An image of Dr. Jenna Rufo inside a lifesize pink Barbie box,  She is smiling, standing with one hand waving artificially and the other on her hip.  Dr. Rufo has long dark hair and dark eyes.  She is smiling and wearing a pink shirt and black shorts.

For my remaining 12 years as an administrator, that email was always in the back of my mind. I took great care in the way I presented myself - tailored suits that were fitted, but not too tight; jewelry that was classy but not too big; high heels that

complemented my outfit but weren’t too “matchy-matchy;” just enough makeup so that it didn’t look like I was trying too hard.

Yet, I recently realized when watching the Barbie movie, that my experience was akin to District Office Barbie. America Ferrera summed it up in her powerful monologue:

“You have to be thin, but not too thin…You have to have money, but you can't ask for money because that's crass. You have to be a boss, but you can't be mean. You have to lead, but you can't squash other people's ideas. You're supposed to love being a mother, but don't talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman but also always be looking out for other people…You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line.”

This tightrope was one I walked frequently. I found my leadership scrutinized in ways that my male counterparts did not. If I acknowledged challenges, it was proof of my failure; if I highlighted accomplishments, I was out of touch. My positivity was even dubbed a “gumdrops and lollipops show” by a patronizing individual who shared his thoughts in the union newsletter. (I was sure to serve those in my candy dish from that point forward).

One would think that the experiences of female leaders would be different in a field like education, where the majority of professionals are women. Sadly, even in the teaching profession where there are three Barbies to every Ken, problematic representation in education leadership positions mirror that found in most fields.

While 75% of teachers are women, we make up less than 30% of superintendents nationwide. The odds are even more staggering if you're a woman of color - non-white women comprise only 3% of the country's superintendencies (Superville, 2023).

I have heard many explanations as to why women might choose not to pursue these leadership roles...they don't want to sacrifice their work/life balance, they prefer to stay in the classroom over the politics of the superintendency, they like having summers off with their kids, and so on. Nonsense. A 45% gender-based gap in representation cannot be explained away by a matter of personal preference. Women in education must work harder to even sit at the same table as male leaders.

There were a number of times in my female-dominated profession when I was the only woman in the room. At a particularly tense meeting involving lawyers and principals from nearby schools, one attorney began the meeting with, “Let’s get started, gentlemen…” I thrust my arm across the table to shake his hand and added, “And ladies.”

I have also been in many a meeting, and even a graduation ceremony, where my male colleagues were addressed by their proper titles of “Doctor,” and I was simply, “Jenna.” When I wrote a blog about this topic several years ago, I received emails stating that my coworkers probably didn’t realize I was a doctor and that I “should get over it.” The implication was that my perception about a personal experience could not possibly have been accurate, and that I must be overly sensitive and self-important.

Of course when anyone decides to be a leader or to share their experiences publicly, they open themselves up to criticism. I am fully aware of that. But to dismiss the difficulties that women leaders experience solely because of their gender is not only callous, it’s gaslighting. As Ken quipped in the Barbie movie, education is still very much “doing the patriarchy well.”

Looking back at my time as an administrator, I’m proud of the way I led and what I accomplished. However, it would have been a lot less stressful if I didn’t have to worry so much about what my hair looked like on televised school board meetings. But while I loved leading schools and supporting students, I love what I’m doing now more.

These days, I’m no longer District Office Barbie. I’m my own boss.

That means I zealously speak about my passion for inclusive education without fear that I will upset one of many stakeholder groups. I have my voice back. I am not confined to a box where I am expected to act or look a certain way. If people want to work with me, they hire me. If not, they don’t. I’m me - take it or leave it.

I don’t bother with makeup or hair for my Zoom meetings. My high heels are retired and, most days, I don’t even wear shoes. When I provide in-person trainings, I often find myself marveling at the fact that for 20 years, I did hair, makeup, and accessorizing every morning. I don’t miss it.

I’m all Boss Barbie now. I have my own company. I say what I want and wear what's comfortable. I hire individuals whose philosophy is compatible with my vision. I work across the country with amazing people who share my passion for creating equitable outcomes for students. I’m happy.

Yet, despite all this, moments of worry set in when I think about what the future holds for my own daughters. Will they experience the same challenges I did? Will they be confident enough to go after their dreams? Will they find their own happiness?

In one of the final moments of Barbie, Rhea Perlman's character reflects, “We mothers stand still so that our daughters can look back and see how far they've come."

One day, I will be standing still and my girls will be looking back. I hope they will say that their path was slightly easier because of me. I pray that their road is less rocky than the ones that I, and so many other great women, have traveled, and that we left the world a little better for them.

Until then, we’ll keep breaking the pink ceilings.

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