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Proud to be on the Women's Team

At the national conference, empowered female ESPs share 'Big Girl Minutes' and learn to advocate.

By John Rosales

Last March at the NEA ESP conference, Minnie Porter was bursting with vim and vigor despite sitting through a four-hour workshop. She said she could hardly wait for the second session of "For Women Only—We're Just Going To Deal With It," being offered the next morning.

Another 50 women had already signed up for that one, too.

"I think every woman should attend the workshop to appreciate their strengths and weaknesses," says Porter, a secretary in the counseling office at Reed Henderson High School in West Chester, Pennsylvania. "Due to decades of cultural conditioning, some women might think they are inferior, or may be perceived to be inferior by unenlightened men. We dealt with that."

The workshop was developed to address women's issues in the workplace and to emphasize female empowerment. Almost 75 percent of NEA's 492,000 education support professionals (ESPs) are women. This figure jumps to 90 percent in the job categories of paraprofessional, food services, clerical services, and health and student services.

When it comes to bus drivers and others in transportation services, women are 62 percent of the workforce. Security services, skilled trades, and custodial and technical service groups are disproportionately male. Though there are more female ESPs than male, most leadership positions at schools and locals are held by men.

"We talked about that," says workshop facilitator Kathie Oakes, a UniServ Director with the Michigan Education Association (MEA). "There was a lot of sharing and strategizing, but no male bashing."

The session was developed by Oakes and three other female UniServ directors in 2004 for MEA conferences. Oakes says the coordinators restricted the workshop to women so participants would be more open about personal issues.

"It's much more of a haven this way," says co-trainer Wendy Heinig. "Our male colleagues have shown nothing but respect [for the women-only mandate]." 

Participants discussed male-female interaction, woman-to-woman conflict, and ESP confidence issues.

"ESPs look at what they do as a supportive role," Oakes says, "and they don't always see themselves as having the empowerment to be strong advocates."

In addition to addressing specific workplace issues like verbal and nonverbal communication and dressing for success, participants were encouraged to break free from stereotyping feminine behaviors, which can sabotage careers.

"Instead of being negative about our traits, we need to understand and celebrate them," says workshop participant Sandie Carner-Shafran, a teaching assistant from Saratoga Springs, New York. "If someone is a talker, let's work with that strength and give her a voice and opportunity to be on the negotiating team . . . instead of judging her in some cookie-cutter way."

This is not as easy as it sounds, says Carner-Shafran. When participants were shown photos of women, some participants couldn't help but make assumptions about the women by what they were wearing.

"When I look at women now, I'm not going to judge whether their handbag matches their shoes," she says. "I'm going to think about what they bring to the table."

The workshop's original title, "Put on Your Big Girl Panties and Deal With It," was toned down for the national conference. "We've never had anyone offended by the title," says Oakes, "but we agreed to change it."

The sessions were organized in discussion blocks. Each hour featured a "Big Girl Minute" where participants stood and shared success stories and secrets.

"I told the group about negotiating a higher rate of pay for my clerical aides when they did extra work," says MaryAnn Miller, a New Jersey secretary and vice president for secretaries of the Woodbridge Township Education Association. "I learned to advocate more assertively for my members."

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