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Woman Administrators: Leadership Means Going for the Top

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Copyright 1981, Editorial Peggy E. Gaskill, a middle-level administrator in the Detroit public schools, was among the finalists for the superintendency of a mid-sized, suburban school system not far from Chicago. Her hour-and-a-half interview with the city's school board was shorter than most, but nonetheless grueling.

The openly fractious board, with a recent history of troubled relations with its superintendents, comprised five men and three women, including a self-described "liberal housewife," a mayoral aspirant, a conservative businessman, a former English teacher, and an official of the city's chapter of the naacp Amidst bickering over appropriate questions, the board grilled Ms. Gaskill on her views on educational issues and her administrative experience.

What did she think about hiring blacks and women? Should a basic-skills program begin at the high-school or the elementary-school level? Wouldn't such a program stymie child development and wouldn't the "minimum become the maximum" in student achievement? Would she computerize the school system's budget? Did she support a merit-pay system for teachers? What was her experience with programs of evaluation and student assessment? With collective bargaining, school finance, grantsman-ship? Would she be active in politics? Didn't she think that bilingual programs might be a "political charade?" Would she sit at the bargaining table? Were her children in public school?

And, of course, living in another community with a husband and children, well, ah ... would she--and they--be prepared to move?

To this last, possibly illegal, question, Ms. Gaskill replied evenly that she had discussed moving with her husband and her children, and they were prepared to make the change.

Observers later gave Ms. Gaskell high marks for such crisp and straightforward answers and the "good eye contact" that characterized her performance. Seemingly unruffled by the open disagreements among board members, she drew on her background as a math teacher, her expertise in a reading assessment program, and her job as a regional training coordinator and staff leader for the Emergency Schools Aid Act in Detroit, as well as on her doctoral training, to illustrate her experience and how she would approach unfamiliar issues.

Limited by 'Line Experience'

But she failed to call board members by name, she rarely expressed her own views and philosophy, and, like many women educators, she could offer only limited "line experience" as an administrator.

Did those drawbacks prevent her from winning the superintendency?

Ms. Gaskell does not know. She is not, in fact, seeking the superintendency of "Midwest City Schools"; it is a made-up name for a mock interview that was an exercise. Conducted by a "school board" of education professors, superintendents, and other school officials, her interview took place before some 80 onlookers at the first national conference of the Women's Caucus of the American Association of School Administrators (aasa). Organized five years ago to promote the election of a woman to the executive board of aasa--an organization with some 17,000 members--the caucus fosters the professional advancement of women in education. "We exist," says Susan Kaye, president of the caucus, to "jar sensibilities, to keep people alert, to build networks, to learn, and to promote the gathering of statistics."

Meeting for the first time apart from the association's annual convention, the caucus drew an estimated 100 participants--most of whom paid their own way--to Arlington, Va., for two days of workshops and seminars on "effective leadership for women."

Such leadership includes occupying school systems' highest administrative positions, and the conference's main session, "Middle Management to the Superintendency" (of which the mock interview was the focus), evinced the changing status and special concerns of women administrators.

In panels and in interviews a number of participants echoed Ms. Kaye's assessment: Women in education are no longer "fearful of competition, and they are gaining skills."

Still, women aspiring to rise through the ranks in the public schools face obstacles, says Ms. Kaye. In the recent past, sex bias and job discrimination have been chief among them. In addition to that legacy, the women now face difficult economic and demographic conditions, as well as complicated cultural and personal issues, she adds.

If, for example, Peggy Gaskill were seeking a superintendency, it would be difficult, Ms. Gaskill says. Her academic credentials are in order, but she does not have the requisite "line" experience to be a part of Detroit's "eligibility pool" for superintendents.

To get that experience she would have to be part of an eligibility pool from which she could compete for a "line" job that would provide it. But the urban Detroit system, with the ubiquitous problems of declining enrollments and shrinking budgets, has fewer administrative jobs to offer. As schools close, Ms. Gaskill points out, "excess administrators get first placement."

And, nationwide, the majority of senior administrators are men. Current statistics for most administrative positions are hard to find, but in 1979, the minority-affairs office of the aasa reported that "only 13 percent of the more than 173,000 administrative positions in U.S. schools today are held by women, and statistics show women losing two percentage points a year in the administrative race." Effie Jones, the office's director, believes those figures have not changed significantly.

Currently, the number of woman superintendents remains tiny, despite a marked upward trend since 1974. Of some 16,000 district superintendents in 1980, 154--less than 1 percent--were women, according to a recent report of the presidentially appointed National Advisory Council on Women's Educational Programs.

This fall, that figure rose to 186, according to the aasa If seniority has become an increasingly important qualification not only for getting but for keeping administrative posts, caucus participants nevertheless pointed to optimistic signs.

A good deal of resistance to hiring women for superintendencies has broken down, according to John Brubacher, chairman of the department of educational administration at the University of Connecticut. As a result, says Mr. Brubacher, who is also a consultant to school boards, "there are tremendous opportunities."

Ms. Kaye, who is director of pupil personnel services and grants for the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District in New York, shares that view: "There is no way to ignore women as candidates." Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 has opened doors, and women, she says, are becoming better and better prepared to walk through them.

In 1980, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 484 women earned doctorates in educational administration, a nearly sixfold increase in nine years. "Women are learning," says Ms. Kaye, citing attendance at the caucus and annual meeting of aasa, and they will offer stiff competition for administrative positions.

"Women are coming to the caucus to meet leaders, to become visible, to network," she says. And these days, "they're bringing resumes, pulling out business cards, making appointments." Their attendance at sessions on administration and school finance, she believes, is indicative of change. Despite the few women in school business posts and the traditional perceptions about women and money, "they're not afraid of the budget."

According to Ms. Kaye, "Title IX is important because it has given women a crack at these jobs." But "with reductions in force, there is more competition. Men are experiencing it too, but there is certainly sex bias operating also."

In a tight job market, "the phrase 'the most qualified' can be used in so many ways to the detriment of a woman--for example, the woman who took time off to have children, and therefore is behind on the ladder," she contends.

Mr. Brubacher concurs: "There still are community biases about who should be an administrator."

"Schools reflect the most traditional values in society," Ms. Kaye suggests, "and the role of women has historically been that of the nurturer. A superintendent embodies a community's values."

Although there are changes working to the advantage of women--such as the growing number of women on school boards who are not threatened by other powerful women--Ms. Kaye believes that many communities still look for male leaders for the schools. "The boards often reflect and value power as it is represented by masculinity."

Studies, she adds, show that the typical superintendent is thought to be "a highly qualified 'he', a white, tall, man. That's a power figure!"

In addition, few women hold principalships--the traditional route to higher policy-making jobs. In 1978, according to the national advisory council, women filled 14 percent of the elementary, junior, and senior high school principalships, and at the elementary-school level the proportion of woman principals had declined from 55 percent in 1928 to less than 20 percent in 1973.

At the secondary-school level, according to a 1980 article in the Bulletin of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, women constituted less than 3 percent of the principals.

In the past, women in education have not been success-oriented, says Ms. Kaye. But the statistics also reflect social notions of suitable work for women, Ms. Kaye adds.

A woman could be a leader at the elementary-school level "where there are very young children who need to be nurtured, because that's what women are thought to be suited to do. But when you get to the secondary schools where it's thought that the serious work begins, men have been the principals."

In terms of the degree and form of sexism, education probably does not differ from other professional enterprises, Ms. Kaye believes. But the professional aspirations of women are undermined by what she terms "a problem of communication--language that by inference and value, puts a woman down."

Among her examples: The propensity of male administrators who themselves prefer to be addressed as "Dr." to call women by their first names; sexual innuendoes in conversation; and differences in how the same behavior in a man and a woman is described. "Where men will be commended in a confrontation with an admiring, 'boy, you really held the line on that,' women will hear, 'you really know how to be aggressive, don't you,"' she says.

There are times when a good professional must be assertive, she points out, but women "come to these administrative situations afraid to be assertive for fear of being 'aggressive'."

'Objective Measures of Accomplishment'

Women in business have an advantage that women in education do not, suggests one conference participant. "In business there are often more objective measures of accomplishment. Surpassing a quota can be the criterion for advancement," says Jane Dofflemyer, who shortly will become assistant for regulation development for the Montgomery County (Md.) Schools.

Ms. Kaye does not entirely agree. "Teachers are accountable. They don't teach in isolation, and recognition comes through success of the teacher's client--the student."

But there are other points of comparison with business practices, she believes. One is the acceptability of women and men working closely together. In circumstances in which administrators work late hours together--school districts' central offices, for example--women may not be seen as desirable colleagues, she says.

"This is a very real issue," she adds. "I think we are more accustomed to the idea of businesswomen traveling" than to the idea of men and women together in the schools. As a result, a male superintendent is less likely to hire a woman as an assistant superintendent. "It puts the superintendent in an awkward position," she says. "Communities talk, especially if one person is single."

Leaders of businesses are also more accustomed to identifying and developing talent in their staff members, according to Ms. Kaye. They are more likely to be mentors because "it's a matter of maintaining profits--superintendents aren't in the habit of looking for quality and potential to bring along, even among men."

If "not enough men in leadership positions in the schools are taking a mentorship role for women," she says, women themselves need to recognize that "it's a two-way street."

A woman must decide whether she perceives herself in a decisionmaking role, and whether she is willing to put in the extra, uncompensated time to serve on committees, Ms. Kaye adds. Excellence as a teacher can be "translated into interest in administration, but she has to show administrators she is interested."

However, making the transition from teacher to administrator can be especially difficult for a woman who may have to seek a new balance between family and professional life, suggest a number of conference participants. In addition, women tend to "wait to be selected," says Ms. Kaye. And because there are few female role models, there is a tendency for a woman not to identify her own skills and to fail to recognize when she is qualified for a job.

Assessing the potential of a particular job is especially important, suggests Mr. Brubacher. "A lot of women get shunted down blind alleys" into Title I jobs or into specialist positions, for example, as directors or program coordinators.

"These positions are limited when it comes to being a building head,'' he adds. "It's like becoming an admiral, you need broad-based, line experience."

A significant hurdle for women, according to Ms. Jones, who is also associate executive director of the aasa and director of the Ford Foundation-sponsored Project aware (see story on this page), is learning to be part of a team.

From an early age, boys learn to play with people they don't like, "to separate likes and dislikes from the bottom line of winning." Women, on the other hand, have been rewarded for individual achievement; they need to learn how to participate as part of a total team effort, adds Ms. Jones, whose workshop addressed teamwork.

Learning To Depersonalize Defeat

Part of working on an administrative team, says Ms. Kaye, is learning not to personalize defeat. "Women tend to say 'I failed,' instead of 'the team failed,' or 'we chose the wrong process for a difficult situation,' or, 'next time we'll try a new strategy."'

By virtue of their traditional role in families, women also have managerial and administrative skills, Ms. Kaye points out, adding "but how many women negotiators do you see?" As women have become personnel directors, she maintains, the position has been downgraded, and men are hired to do the negotiating.

Women are also excellent judges of who to hire, and they "are taught to moderate, sense, and anticipate through their family roles, but these leadership skills go unrecognized," she argues.

However, one of the biggest mistakes women make, according to Ms. Kaye, is to spend too many years in the classroom.

"Women assume that when men become superintendents, they know everything," she asserts. "They don't realize that men simply know to hire people to do what they can't do, that men have learned or accepted what they don't know. Because women tend to think they must learn everything about everything, they think, 'I'm not ready,' but they will never be ready."

Part of being ready is being active, suggests Ken Underwood of the college of education at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. "Write for professional journals, get yourself known professionally," he counseled caucus participants. Networks, he added, are an important part of professional mobility. "Sure there are old boy systems, but there are old girl systems--just look around this room."

Concerning the questions posed to Ms. Gaskill, conference panelists offered some advice:

Steer clear of partisan alliances with board members, and look for chances to "sell yourself," suggested Edward L. Whigham, chairman of educational leadership at the University of Alabama. For example, he said, such thorny matters as merit pay and collective bargaining offer a chance to demonstrate an approach to issues, and to draw out the school board itself.

Questions dealing with bilingual and basic-skills programs offer a candidate the chance to discuss her own educational philosophy, Mr. Brubacher pointed out. Most questions sought information about the candidate's "line experience," he added, but any applicant has gaps in experience, and "to say, 'I don't know, I haven't been involved in negotiations' is a marvelous answer."

Too many people, he continued, look for "a district in good order. But following a superb administrator is sometimes the hardest situation to be in." In a district with the problems demonstrated by the Midwest City school board, he said, "there is a lot of room for improvement, you can show what you can do."

Women candidates, several par-ticipants observed, may also face a hidden agenda. Although it is unlikely that a school board would risk questions based on the candidate's sex, it is essential that the candidate be prepared to handle subtle inquiries, such as the question posed to Ms. Gaskill about her family, said Mr. Whigham.

Competence and Mobility

A woman must even volunteer information about competence and mobility, believes Lee Etta Powell, an associate superintendent in the Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools, to answer the unasked questions about "her emotional and physical stamina."

Doubts about women leaders notwithstanding, Ms. Kaye believes that schools cannot afford to ignore women candidates. "Some superintendents have told me that the applications they are receiving from women are better than those from men in terms of background, qualifications, experience, and style."

These characteristics mean that more women are being interviewed, she says. It's true, continues Ms. Kaye, that many women are used as "compliance applicants" and dismissed as "not the most qualified." But just as often they are getting the jobs, she adds.

"That's the change that Title IX has brought about. The more superintendents I meet, the more I feel schools are really looking for quality; they know they will be unsuccessful if they don't."

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