Survey Studies Barriers To Women Leaders

By Jeff Archer — March 05, 2003 7 min read
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For Chris Wright, the final ticket to the superintendency was a driver’s license. Not hers, but her daughter’s.

The former high school history teacher had all the right work experience. She had been an assistant principal, a personnel director, and an assistant superintendent.

But it wasn’t until her youngest daughter was old enough to drive that Ms. Wright felt she could take on the demanding life of a district schools chief.

In weighing such factors in her career moves, Ms. Wright was hardly alone—at least among the estimated 12 percent to 15 percent of district superintendents who are women. Initial results from one of the largest surveys ever conducted of female administrators in U.S. education suggest that the dearth of women superintendents relates more to the conflicting norms of society and the profession than to any lack of qualifications or interest on the part of candidates.

“The whole thing was, she had to be able to get where she needed to be, and generally that had been my responsibility,” Ms. Wright said of her daughter’s pre-driving days. Since 1995, Ms. Wright has served as superintendent in two districts and currently heads the 20,000-student Hazelwood, Mo., schools in suburban St. Louis.

Investigators evaluating the data outlined their work here last month at the annual meeting of the American Association of School Administrators, which sponsored the research. The study is the AASA’s first to be based on questionnaires sent to virtually all of the country’s nearly 2,500 female superintendents, as well as to all women deputy, associate, and assistant superintendents. In all, the project polled 5,500 women leaders, of whom 1,350 responded.

“One of the reasons were doing this is, obviously, women face some barriers,” said C. Cryss Brunner, an education professor at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

An expert on women’s issues in education, Ms. Brunner co-leads the study with Margaret Grogan, who chairs the department of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Their complete analysis, based on surveys sent out last summer, is expected by the fall, after which they plan to publish a book on the findings.

A detailed examination of education’s “glass ceiling” is long overdue, say many women administrators. At the AASA conference, held Feb. 20-23, female superintendents described numerous hurdles they had to overcome to reach their positions. Among them: bias in the superintendent-search process, male-dominated professional networks, and the frequent clash between their roles at home and at work.

Many also cited outright sexism. Ms. Wright recounted getting turned down by a district that had already hired two female assistant superintendents. She said one board member explained: “We just can’t have all women in the central office.”

While much of what confronts a district leader is gender-neutral, women clearly face their own set of challenges.

“I think if you look at the 14 percent of us across the nation, you’ll find that 99 percent of us are risk-takers,” said Mary Summers, the superintendent of the 590-student Salt Creek School District 48 in Illinois. “We’re the ones who had the guts to take on a superintendency as a female.”

Major Adjustments

Part of what makes the issue urgent, educators say, is that so little has changed. Although rebounding from a dip in the 1970s, the percentage of superintendents who are women remains close to what it was a century ago. And yet, women not only dominate the teaching force, but also account for about one-third of all assistant superintendents, the traditional pool from which district chiefs are drawn. (“Women Superintendents: Few and Far Between,” Nov. 10, 1999.)

Preliminary findings from the AASA survey confirm that a woman’s climb to the top rung of district-level administration often means reconciling professional expectations with her personal life.

Final figures aren’t yet available, but an analysis of about half the 1,350 returned questionnaires shows it’s not uncommon for female superintendents to have delayed their moves into the position because of child rearing, or to have a “commuter marriage,” in which the spouses live in different cities.

Although a vast majority of respondents were married, the survey didn’t ask how many of those marriages followed a previous divorce. Many women superintendents agree that the heavy time demands of the job require major adjustments for their families.

“My daughter wound up taking care of me in many ways—starting dinner, making sure we sat down and ate together,” said Barbara Moore Pulliam, the schools chief in the 4,300-student St. Louis Park district outside Minneapolis.

Libia Gil, the former superintendent in California’s Chula Vista elementary district, said she hasn’t even tried to keep her life in balance. “I gave that up long ago,” she said. “I’ve accepted that, but so does my family.”

After leading the 25,000-student San Diego-area district for nine years, Ms. Gil is now the chief academic officer of New American Schools, an Alexandria, Va.-based group that promotes school improvement models. She commutes by plane each week between her job and the West Coast, where her four grown children and husband of 26 years still live.

Given the juggling act most women superintendents face, the researchers working on the AASA study say they’re not surprised to find that women are generally older than men when they first become superintendents.

That likelihood has a host of ramifications. For one, it means that women tend to hold the job for fewer years before they become eligible for retirement. Also, Ms. Brunner contends that many consultants who do superintendent searches for school boards favor applicants who have taught for just a few years.

She recalled a workshop at a previous AASA conference at which one such consultant said his ideal candidate was someone who moved on to administration after three to five years in the classroom—a profile more likely to match that of a man.

“The reason why women enter late is because you’re taking care of children—and isn’t that what education is all about?” Ms. Brunner said. “But you’re penalized for it because you don’t fit the norm.”

Golf Trouble

Not all search firms hold the same view. Many female administrators say they quickly find out which will actively promote them and which want their applications just to show that women were included in the pool.

“We all know if you really want to have a chance at a good job, which ones you would work with,” Ms. Wright said.

Certain networking traditions for those who get to the superintendency also are seen as favoring men. Many female administrators point out that meetings of their professional associations often revolve around golf—a sport more popular among men than women. Ms. Wright, who says she’s the first female officer in her state’s administrator organization, agrees. She was struck by the central role the sport plays in the group’s gatherings.

Ms. Gil says it’s a major issue in the field: “Golf is a very serious gatekeeper that people don’t realize.”

But there is some good news. The AASA-sponsored study suggests that most women superintendents plan to stay in the job for at least five more years, and that more than one-third of women who hold other top central-office jobs aspire to the position. Ms. Grogan of the University of Missouri said she expects those figures to shift only slightly once all the results are compiled.

“It confirms that there are women out there who are definitely interested in the superintendency,” she said of the study.

Virtually all the women interviewed at the conference said the field seems more woman-friendly than it did a decade ago. Shortly after she became a schools chief in 1993, Ms. Summers said, she attended a regional meeting of superintendents at which all the male administrators at a table got up and left when she sat down.

“It’s much easier to make inroads right now,” she said. “You’re a peer with the men.”

In fact, she and other women superintendents say the times may be changing in their favor. The emphasis on instructional leadership could lead more boards to actively seek out candidates with stronger backgrounds in curriculum and instruction. If so, that could spell an advantage for women, who tend to have more years of classroom experience.

And as Ms. Wright of Missouri’s Hazelwood district explains, some of the most significant factors chipping away at the glass ceiling lie outside the sphere of education. “I cannot imagine [my daughter] thinking that it was her responsibility to take care of everything in the home,” she said, “whereas with me, I was raised to understand that it was my role.”

Coverage of leadership issues in education—including governance, management, and labor relations—is supported by the Broad Foundation.


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