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'The Case of the Disappearing Headmistress'

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When the National Association of Principals of Schools for Girls was formed in 1915, all of its members were women. Today, 200 of the organization's 268 member schools are run by men.

The decline in the number of women heading independent schools has been so sharp in the last 15 years that many refer to it as the case of the "disappearing" headmistress.

Officials trace the shift to the 1960's, when enrollment dropped in independent schools and a number of boys' and girls' schools merged or became coeducational to bolster ailing bank accounts. Since then, boards of trustees at school after school, including all-girl schools, have named men to their top posts--some say, because they believe that men cope better with finances and administration than women do.

In the last few years, the shrinking number of women leaders has become of such great concern to national organizations like the napsg that they have passed resolutions, organized conferences, and arranged workshops to try to help women move into school administration and give them the skills they need to stay there.

This month, for example, the annual conference of the National Association of Independent Schools focused on the role of women faculty members and the place of women in the curriculum.

The Isolated Few

Of 680 schools responding to a study now being completed by the nais, 457 are headed by men and 83 by women, according to Adele Q. Ervin, director of external affairs.

As of February 1984, women ran only 19 of 270 coeducational schools for grades K-12 and only six of 185 coeducational high schools, according to nais figures.

There is still not a single female head of a boys' school, Ms. Ervin says, and Barbara R. Barnes of the Putney School in Vermont is the only woman in the country running an independent coeducational secondary boarding school.

Moreover, statistics show that the situation has become less favorable for women in the last decade.

The nais recently compared 1972-73 and 1983-84 surveys of non-Roman Catholic independent schools. (Most Roman Catholic girls' schools are run by nuns.) In 1973, women ran 111 of the 781 independent schools. Of those, 44 were coeducational and 67 were girls' schools.

By 1984, the number of female heads had declined by 45 percent. And 24 of the girls' schools had merged, become coeducational, or closed.

Today, men run 44.1 percent of the 111 girls' schools belonging to the nais If the organization's 34 Roman Catholic girls' schools are excluded, that figure jumps to 58.4 percent.

Men are at the helm of such prestigious girls' schools as the Madeira School in Virginia, the Foxcroft School in Virginia, and the Ethel Walker School in Connecticut.

'Giants of the Past'

In an earlier era, the statistics--and the personalities--were dramatically different.

From before the turn of the century until just after World War II, most girls' schools, and some coeducational schools, were run by women who, according to their present-day counterparts, had a reputation for being powerful and charismatic autocrats.

These "giants of the past," as one former headmistress calls them, "did it all." They were managers, business officers, curriculum developers, and teachers. Many had founded the schools they served. Most had no boards of trustees, or, if they did, were themselves the boards' chairmen.

The headmistresses of the past were usually single. They were also politically savvy and, according to present-day observers, usually handpicked their successors from the faculty before they retired.

The "second tier" of women who followed these giants were often better educated and more professionally oriented, according to Ms. Ervin, but "didn't see themselves as replicating themselves." Consequently, as more and more of the founders of girls' schools died--and as more girls' schools became coeducational or merged--their "lineage" died with them.

'Social Baggage'

Another reason cited for the paucity of women leaders in independent schools is the recent migration of women from teaching to professions once closed to them.

Moreover, educators point out, women interested in becoming heads of schools face an "awful lot of social baggage" in their climb to the top. According to Ms. Ervin, beliefs that women cannot handle budgets, are not tough enough to hire and fire faculty members, and are not equipped to fundraise among male alumni of what were once all-boy schools are still prevalent.

Such stereotypes are compounded by the fact that independent schools are more complicated businesses to run than they once were. Before the mid-1960's, most independent schools did not have "development officers" for fundraising, said Anne S. Lenox, who is probably the country's only female search consultant for independent schools, at the nais conference. Today, that is a position few schools would be without.

A recent nais survey suggests the preference for male leadership. It found that although women heading institutions spend more time than men working with their school's faculty and parents to improve education, they are paid less and receive fewer benefits. (See related story on this page.)

A Wife and Two Kids

Boards of trustees and search committees tend to be conservative and traditional, according to educators. As one woman administrator puts it, "The conventional view is that you need a headmaster with a wife, two kids, a dog, a sports car, and a station wagon."

Trustees willing to consider a woman are usually looking for one who is either single or happily married, Ms. Ervin says. Yet, as she notes, most female heads today--except those running religious schools--are divorced and have children.

Search committees frequently ap-ply different standards to men and women applicants, said Ms. Lenox.

"I resent the questions that a search committee asks me about a female candidate that it never crosses their minds to ask about a man," she said. "It's as though, if a woman is divorced, there is a skeleton in the closet, but if a man is, 'she obviously left him."'

Mary L. Kelley, the head of the upper school at Cincinnati Country Day School in Ohio, said at the nais conference that it took her three years to find her present job and that being a young divorced woman raised questions. It was not until the third year, when she remarried, that she was "flooded" with employment opportunities.

Women also note that the trustees who are often most important in the job search--and who can be hardest on women candidates--are female. Most are older women, says Ms. Ervin, and many are the wives of alumni or are women who have done volunteer work for years but have never held a full-time job. According to several administrators at the nais conference, such trustees often have little sympathy or understanding for professional career women.

"We must get to these trustees and talk to them," Ms. Lenox told nais colleagues, "because they can be of such great, great help."

Although boards of trustees are changing, Appleton A. Mason, another search consultant, says that female candidates still stand their best chance for headships at girls' schools.

Shortage of Female Candidates

Yet even when trustees are willing to hire a woman, the shortage of female candidates often hampers the best intentions. In the last few searches, Ms. Ervin says, for every 12 candidates, about two were women and 10 were men. "So the numbers aren't there to effect real change. It's much easier for a search committee to say, 'Oh, to hell with this business of finding a woman. It's too hard.' When there are so many qualified men out there, you can't blame them."

Lack of Experience

Lack of experience is also cited as a major stumbling block for women. Women in middle-management positions sometimes do not acquire the requisite skills needed to be a school leader, says Blair D. Stambaugh, head of the Baldwin School in Pennsylvania and of the Council for Women in Independent Schools.

Even women who head lower, middle, or upper schools, she says, may not manage the budgets for their divisions and may have no control over the hiring and firing of staff.

In many schools, agrees Mr. Mason, women "don't reach out and get that kind of experience, or it's not offered to them."

"Search committees don't necessarily feel they need to have someone who's been the head of a school," he adds, "but they need to have someone who's been actively involved in the hiring of faculty, the evaluation of faculty, and the preparing of budgets."

Nathan O. Reynolds, headmaster of the Westlake School For Girls in Los Angeles, is currently looking for good women candidates for the job of assistant head. "I find that I'm interviewing a lot of very good women," he says, "but they may be five years away just in terms of their experience and age. There are not many women in that 35-to-45 age range."

Demands of Job

Independent-school educators are worried that in the future there may be fewer still, as women teachers and those in middle management decide that the job of school head is simply unattractive.

A lot of women like teaching, say Ms. Ervin and Ms. Stambaugh, and do not want to confront the hassles, the minutia, and the 24-hour-a-day demands of the headship.

"The higher you go, the less personal and private life you have," said Ms. Lenox, adding that the job of a school head involves both "great rewards and great sacrifices."

Often, it also requires the willingness to uproot a family and move to a distant and frequently isolated setting. For some, it means living miles away from a husband and seeing him on weekends.

The nais survey found that heads of schools work approximately 58 hours each week--about the same number of hours reported by the executives of the nation's largest companies. According to many women, that does not leave much time for family life.

Even with a husband who is willing to put up with such work pressures, says Linda Bryson Lucatorto, director of the upper school at the Holton-Arms School for girls in Maryland, "one has to ask periodically, 'Is this a sane life?"'

"I think some women may get to middle management and the stresses and strains in those positions are so great that they actually make a conscious choice not to go any further," she adds. "I have seen women get to middle management and respond by saying, 'I want out."'

'Triple Threat'

Women say that whether they teach or work in administration, the job demands in independent schools are tough on females--particularly in more traditional settings.

At some of the nation's most prestigious boarding schools, most of which became coeducational 10 to 15 years ago, men still outnumber women on the faculty by approximately 3 to 1. There are some 26 women and 90 men on the faculty at the St. Paul's School in New Hampshire; at the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, there are 26 women and 120 men; and at the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, there are 23 women and 85 men.

Women at these schools talk about the "triple threat" that faces educators "in the classroom, in the dorm, and on the playing field." That "threat" is the traditional institutional pattern that teachers make themselves available to supervise students in all three settings, a demand that takes a substantial toll, the women say.

High Turnover

In part because of those pressures, the turnover among young faculty members in general and among women in particular is high at such private schools. Although the proportion of women faculty members at St. Paul's has remained at a steady 25 or 26 percent, said Roberta C. Tenney, college adviser there, "the problem is that it's not the same 26 percent."

At the Millbrook School, a coeducational boarding school in New York that was all male until about 10 years ago, Rita V. McBride, a history teacher, is the only full-time female member of the faculty to have been there for six years. Most women, she says, only stay for two or three years.

But the price of her longevity has been high, Ms. McBride notes. Because she carries a full teaching load, attends meetings at night, sits in study hall, and lives on campus, where she is "on call all the time," she finds she must use her vacation time "to make mends in the fabric of my family life."

Although the situation is much the same for men, she thinks the cumulative stress is greater on a woman. "I work the way any man here does, but I don't have a housekeeper or someone to mother my 10-year-old child."

Elinor S. Griffin, director of personal counseling at the Milton Academy in Massachusetts, noted at the nais conference that a "paternalistic tradition" that keeps power in the hands of school heads and boards of trustees--including undisclosed salary schedules, lack of maternity benefits and child care, and the provision of housing as a perquisite to offset low salaries--adds to the uneasiness felt by women faculty at independent schools.

'To Be Pleasing'

In addition, many private-school faculty members and administrators say, women still are not educated in a way that prepares them for leadership.

"Our whole approach is to be pleasing and to please," said Ms. Lenox. "It's not good training for an administrator."

"The thing that I've struggled with terribly," adds Terry L. Macaluso, head of the upper school at the Colorado Academy in Denver, "is just the perception I face constantly that people are dissatisfied all of the time. It's not that they're angry with me. There is in a school community ... always a kind of exponentially growing dissatisfaction. But I think that because women are more conditioned to be responsive to dissatisfaction, it leaves us in a curiously pressured position."

When she first became an administrator about four years ago, Ms. Macaluso says, she began as "too much of a nurturer. I overhelped, I oversupported, and I made myself an incredible slave of the institution--which is what I would venture to guess the majority of women do who find themselves entering into decisionmaking roles in schools. There was an expectation that Iel20lwould do everything, and I responded to that expectation by doing it."

What was worse, she adds, was the praise she earned. "The thing I was praised for was not starting to develop a curriculum, not learning to delegate responsibility--the thing I was praised for was making people happy."

Few Mentors

Ms. Macaluso says that the lack of female mentors to advise and encourage her was a problem.

"If, as a woman, you want a woman for a mentor, you're up a creek," concurs Ms. Lucatorto of the Holton-Arms School. "Throughout my entire career, all my mentors have been men because there were not any women ahead of me."

Even when women are in positions to be mentors, educators say that some of them are less likely to fill that role than are their male peers.

Ms. Lenox speculated that unlike many men--who see the advantage in having a faculty member promoted, even if it means that he or she will leave the school--some women are so afraid of losing good faculty members, and of having to replace them, that they do not encourage them.

Several years ago, she said, she received more calls from male heads than from female heads recommending women for advancement. Only in the last few years has that begun to change.

"I think women heads are becoming much more conscious of the need to encourage young women," says the Putney School's Ms. Barnes. She adds that she is "doing that much more consciously than I ever did before," by pushing young women to get ahead, encouraging them to publish articles and attend conferences, and working with them on professional skills.

Change Coming

Gloomy statistics notwithstanding, the potential for change exists, some educators insist. Because most independent-school leaders do not stay in their jobs for more than five years, schools are always searching for new ones. And educators at the recent nais conference agreed that boards of trustees are becoming more willing to consider women for these posts.

The Council for Women in Independent Schools, a division of the nais that is dedicated to women's issues, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year; it has developed local counterparts in every region of the country.

The National Association of Principals of Schools for Girls has established an ad hoc committee to study how recruitment and placement procedures in independent schools, as well as psychological and social factors, may discourage women from assuming positions of responsibility. The committee will also look at training and support programs to increase the number of women heads, according to Nancy Kussrow, the executive director of the napsg

This summer, the organization will sponsor a conference at the Garrison Forest School in Maryland to address the concrete skills women need to advance their prospects in the search process, according to Ms. Stambaugh. The conference will explore leadership styles, how to put together a good resume and conduct a good interview, and how to negotiate salaries and benefits. In addition, she adds, "we're going to spend a full day on financial planning."

A summer conference, sponsored by the cwis and the Independent Schools Association of the Central States at the Wayland Academy in Colorado, will focus on professional development, personal growth, and changes to make the curriculum more sensitive to girls' and women's issues.

"Increasingly, I think you are finding wonderfully good women at the coeducational schools in middle-management levels," says Ms. Ervin. "It's just the Chinese water torture--drip, drip, drip. It's happening out there, but in very slow increments, and in our major boarding schools it isn't happening well at all."

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