School & District Management

In Washington State, A Welcoming Hand For Women Chiefs

By Bess Keller — November 10, 1999 2 min read
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Women Superintendents:
Few and Far Between
In Providence, a Superintendent Follows Her Dream
Women Superintendents Credit Support From Colleagues
In Washington State,
A Welcoming Hand for Women Chiefs

The number of women named to head school districts in the state suggests that it is at least outpacing other states when it comes to the chief executive’s job.

Currently, 17 percent of Washington’s 296 districts are headed by women, according to the Washington Association of School Administrators. Estimates put the national figure at around 12 percent.

Moreover, a third of Washington’s nine educational service agencies are headed by women, and eight of the state’s 24 largest districts.

“This state has really done very well in seriously considering and hiring qualified women candidates” in every kind of district, said Gay V. Selby, the director of search services for the Washington School Directors Association, the state school boards’ group.

The hiring pattern has held fairly steady at least since 1996, which was the high point in recent years of success for female candidates. That year, 13 of the 44 superintendent vacancies were filled by women.

Within Washington, the Puget Sound area near Seattle seems to have been a particularly good recruitment territory for women. Of the 35 districts that make up that service area, 12 or, almost one-third, have women at the helm.

The recent hires of Paula C. Butterfield, Barbara Grohe, and Marlene C. Holayter in districts near Seattle rang a bell for Bruce Hunter, the longtime federal lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators. The three women bring national reputations to their districts, and exemplify “the smart, able, very progressive, very student-oriented” women who are entering the superintendent’s office, he said.

The three superintendents have also helped clear the way, by working with groups such as the Women’s Caucus of the aasa, for other women leaders, Mr. Hunter said. They form part of the nucleus of what he calls a “strong network of high-profile, high-powered” women, which itself may attract more women to the job.

Strong Recruitment Efforts

Ms. Butterfield and Ms. Holayter were recruited by Ms. Selby of the state school directors’ group and Paul Plath of the executive- search firm pnr Associates, based in Chicago. The wsda is called in by local boards for about 60 percent of the superintendent searches statewide, Ms. Selby said.

When she became a superintendent in 1984, Ms. Selby was the first woman in the state to head a district with an enrollment over 2,000. Since then, she said, the situation has improved measurably, and Ms. Butterfield and Ms. Holayter praise her for helping make that happen by striving to match the needs of both district and candidate.

Ms. Selby says she simply looks for the most qualified candidates. But sometimes, she adds, she uses her own experience to allay a board’s fears about hiring a woman. Board members will sometimes ask if women can handle difficult personnel issues, or if the community will be accepting of a female superintendent.

The state seems to be gaining a reputation for its growing mastery of equal opportunity—at least where women are concerned, said Mike Boring, the assistant executive director of the Washington School Administrators Association. “Washington has become known as a state that’s been open to women superintendents.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 1999 edition of Education Week as In Washington State, A Welcoming Hand For Women Chiefs


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