New affinity group supports women

Advocate for an environment with equal authority for staff

Long before girls earn their first paycheck, their relationships with their female peers can serve as a valuable source of encouragement. As these women enter the workforce, the differing experiences between male and female staff create a greater emphasis on the need for a supportive community of women.

   After nearly a year and a half of postponement, the Women’s Affinity Group at Acalanes High School assembles to work toward an improved school environment for female staff and students.

   Rising demand for a female support group led to women on campus laying the groundwork for the Women’s Affinity Group in late 2020.

   “It had been bubbling up all year that we wanted to have a women’s group deal with ways to improve the culture on campus. And we had approached people at the district office and [principal Travis] Bell and [associate principal Andrea] Powers and we were just about to launch a women’s affinity group when we went into shelter-in-place,” Acalanes English and French teacher and co-coordinator Cathy Challacombe said.

   Following students’ return to Acalanes, the Women’s Affinity Group held their first meeting 17 months after the club’s planned start prior to distance learning.

   “Mrs. Challacombe and Dr. [Vicki] Zalewski were the first ones to reach out … We knew this was something we were going to try back in 2020, and it seemed like a good time to start this, so they sent out an email and invited everyone together,” Associate Principal Powers said.

   Teachers note the large staff support the group received during its first two meetings in mid-September.

   “When we put out our first lunch invitation, it was surprising how many people came. I think they’ve been hungry for it, we just didn’t know how much everyone wanted it,” Challacombe said.

   For some members, the enthusiasm for the Women’s Affinity Group stems from female staff’s desire for a closer community of women on campus.

   “It’s like how girls often go to the bathroom together. It’s just that you feel safer and you feel a little bit more sure of yourself as a woman when you’re with friends and supporters and people that are experiencing the world with a female perspective,” Challacombe said.

   This demand for a safe space on campus drives the primary goals of the Women’s Affinity group.

   “The whole point of an affinity group is to come together and have a space where you can share and support one another, and help provide professional growth. And we want to make sure that there’s a space where that exists,” Powers said.

   To support all participants, the Women’s Affinity Group aims to listen and respond to all individual inputs. 

   “We don’t really know what [our goal] is yet. We’re asking people to fill out surveys to synthesize everyone’s thoughts, and then we’re going to see what emerges to find a common [goal] that we want. We at least know for sure that we want our voices to be heard more readily,” Acalanes math teacher and co-coordinator Vicki Zalewski said.

   Despite women’s large numbers in Acalanes staff, some female staff voice concerns that their authority remains far less prominent than that of their male coworkers. Some participants in the Women’s Affinity Group emphasize that the group must push to create an environment that gives all women a greater say in the decisions made on campus.

   “I think that we have to change something. More than 60 percent of the faculty are women, yet I would say the voices of men loom so much larger and that is a disparity that we have to change,” Dr. Zalewski said.

   Women participating in the group raise concerns that a lesser influence over decisions on campus creates an environment that overlooks basic necessities for female staff.

   “We had a bathroom change upstairs for the two-gender bathroom, and even things like trying to get little cans for women’s sanitary products was overlooked. For the people that worked to switch the stall doors, it just didn’t occur to them. So, I think that is how a lot of [support for the Women’s Affinity Group] comes up. Sometimes it’s just daily things, like we really need to put feminine hygiene products in the bathroom,” Challacombe said.

   Part of the Women Affinity Group’s purpose is to advocate for an environment with equal authority for staff, regardless of gender. Some teachers comment on the ways that they feel gender affects their influence on campus.

   “Men are treated in positions of power, and often they’re being handed power. I feel like women have to prove that they are powerful, over and over and over again, whereas men are just handed that easily,” Dr. Zalewski said.

   Women on campus are not the only group to notice this disparity. Male staff members also raise concerns about the different behaviors that teachers receive from students depending on their gender.

   “I’ll talk to my female colleagues, and they’ll tell me, ‘this person does this and this and this in my classroom.’ I think, ‘wow, they never do that with me.’ And I know it’s not because I’m a better classroom manager. It’s not because I’m better, or stronger, or something. It’s just because I’m a guy and they just act differently. They think they can get away with more with women, they’re more willing to push boundaries with women,” Acalanes English teacher Erik Honda said.

   Students on campus also witness visible contrasts in how students regard male teachers compared to female teachers. 

    “There’s also a difference between the level of respect [different teachers receive]. Male teachers are usually given more respect from students right away, but female teachers usually have to earn it, which isn’t fair,” Acalanes junior Colin Norstad said.

   The Women’s Affinity Group aims to change women teachers’ relationships with students, as well as set an example for female students on campus.

   “[The Women’s Affinity Group] is not just about the working conditions and our relationships with other staff on campus but also how to help our female students and how to do some modeling for them,” Challacombe said.

   The Women’s Affinity Group not only offers support on a teacher-to-teacher level but serves as a model for student groups, including Acalanes’ Feminist Club. 

   “I think the Women’s Affinity Group could definitely be a role model for the Feminist Club … It seems like we have similar objectives and purposes, and I think it is nice that we have a more professional adult version of the club to look up to and relate to. It’s validating,” Feminist Club Co-President and Acalanes junior Sophia Acuff said. 

   While students recognize that gender discrimination has digressed over the years, some claim that silence has replaced what was once blaring favoritism. These groups aim to push back against that silence. 

   “I think the problem isn’t what our school is doing, but what it isn’t doing. No one ever teaches us what feminism is or why it’s important to reject gender stereotypes, and I think a lot of the things said or done on campus are a result of people being uneducated,” Acuff said.  

   There is a common goal between the female-focused groups of creating an environment that all women can thrive and feel comfortable in. Through such groups, female students and teachers can feel connected by their shared experiences and experience a mutual sense of empowerment. 

   “I think it’s super important for females to have groups to support each other,” Co-President of the Feminist Club and Acalanes junior Sofie Foster said. “Without it, it’s hard to progress in today’s fight for women’s rights. It helps women lift each other up and gives them a space to vent about their experiences as a female whether that be in the workplace, school, at home, or in public.”