School & District Management

Women Superintendents Credit Support From Colleagues

By Bess Keller — November 10, 1999 5 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

If women educators are to increase their representation at the top levels of their profession, they must have help from those who have gone before. That was a central lesson that emerged from a recent interview with three Seattle-area superintendents who form part of that state’s unusually large cadre of women school administrators.

In addition, all three—Paula C. Butterfield of the Mercer Island district, Barbara Grohe of Kent, and Marlene C. Holayter of Shoreline—have been active at the national level in promoting the cause of women schools chiefs.

The interview came during a recent gathering of superintendents in the Puget Sound area."One of the things we talked about at lunch is how can we mentor and help identify people we think could become administrators who aren’t even thinking about it yet,’' Ms. Butterfield said.

That’s important if women are going to lead districts, Ms. Grohe added, because men often go into education thinking about an administrative career, while women see only teaching—or, at least, that has been the pattern.

“I sure didn’t think of it,” said Ms. Butterfield, who began her career in Maryland. “I got called into the area superintendent’s office and he said, ‘Have you ever thought about being an administrator?’ ”

When she said she hadn’t, he asked to know why she was getting her doctorate. That exchange helped lead Ms. Butterfield to a high school principalship, the first held by a woman in the Frederick County, Md., schools.

But, the 51-year-old administrator says, it took more than an invitation to get her into the superintendency. It took a mentor.

Stewart Berger was the superintendent in Frederick County when Ms. Butterfield became an assistant principal. “I was an assistant principal, and the next thing I know I’m a principal, and he just kept moving me up,” she said in describing Mr. Berger’s role.

That pushing can be important, Ms. Grohe said, because unlike men, who expect to learn on the job, women tend “to think they have to have all the qualifications before they get there.”

Late Start

Marlene Holayter had trouble thinking of herself as a professional at all. Following a path well worn by women, she postponed college and a job until her three children were in school.

“I came into education late,” she said. “I was the PTA mom, the instructional assistant, a volunteer.” A principal in Renton, Wash., where Ms. Holayter worked as a teacher’s aide, persuaded her to make the jump to teacher.

After she herself became a principal, she thought she would stay one forever, especially when remarriage took her from the West Coast to the East in 1981. Instead, after starting as an elementary school principal in the Fairfax County, Va., schools, she wound up as an area superintendent overseeing 27,000 students.

Working closely with superintendents, especially Robert R. Spillane, then the schools chief in Fairfax County, made her want to pursue the job herself.

Last year, at the age of 58 when many male superintendents are thinking of retirement, Ms. Holayter took the top job in Washington’s 10,000-student Shoreline district. She is currently running for the president of the American Association of School Administrators, hoping to become the second woman to head the 14,000-member organization.

Mother and Superintendent

With two grown children and married still to Joe Grohe, her husband of 29 years, Barbara Grohe wants younger women to know they can manage the demanding job even when their children are small.

“When I had my first superintendency, I was 36 years old, with two babies,” she recalled. “Taking that job was a tough decision to make at the time.”

Throughout her career, she has tried to pass on the experience she has gained to other women.

“Part of what I did for the first decade of my superintendency is I accepted any invitation to come and speak to groups of aspiring administrators or superintendents,” the 53-year-old Ms. Grohe said. “I wanted to prove to people you could have a normal married life, two young children, be a superintendent ... and be a normal human being.”

Though the superintendent’s job—for men as well as women— can mean divorce or marital friction, “you don’t have to destroy your family to do this,” Ms. Grohe said.

For a start, she said, a superintendent’s family has certain issues to discuss. For example: Are the children ready for the first time their superintendent-parent makes an unpopular decision?

“Maybe it’s the same when it’s your dad, but I had the feeling that it was just a little different when it was your mom,” Ms. Grohe added. “They took it harder when people talked negatively about me.”

Running on Empty

The women say they view the criticism that inevitably comes with the top job as potentially corrosive, not only to a career but also to the superintendent’s health. Perhaps the best antidote, they say, is a satisfying life outside the job.

Paula Butterfield learned that lesson through bitter experience.

Her district fought a three-year battle with a former assistant principal who claimed a wrongful firing. The dispute, settled last June after four appeals, the last to the Montana Supreme Court, turned her life nightmarish.

“I didn’t have outlets, I didn’t have hobbies,” Ms. Butterfield said. “My job was my life, so when I was criticized, it was devastating.” She eventually landed in the Mayo Clinic, where she was diagnosed with stress- related lupus, a chronic disease with a wide range of symptoms.

She resigned from many of her civic activities, began to paint and sculpt, and started talking publicly about her breakdown.

“I think it’s the story of many women I know,” Ms. Butterfield said. “I ran on empty until I finally got sick.”

When she decided last year to leave Bozeman, she searched for a location where she could be happy. She defied her mentor’s dictum that a superintendent always moves to a larger district and chose Mercer Island with 4,000 students. The Bozeman schools enrolled 5,100.

“I do a lot of personal things here that probably fulfill my needs as well as theirs,” she said. “I like a smaller district.”

If the women have learned that they have to pay attention to their private lives, they also have become adept at navigating what remains a male-dominated professional culture.

Ms. Holayter recently attended a national conference for suburban superintendents, which included a break for golf. Many of the men left for the links, but many of the women hung around with looks on their faces that said to Ms. Holayter: Now what do I do with my time?

Ms. Holayter’s story prompted a laugh from Ms. Grohe, who said she would sacrifice a lot to be a successful superintendent, but she drew the line at golf.

“Oh, I don’t know,” objected Ms. Butterfield, who had just played her first-ever rounds of golf at a retreat for Mercer Island school officials.

“They had always played golf, and that’s what my predecessor did, so I said, ‘Why not?’”

A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 1999 edition of Education Week as Women Superintendents Credit Support From Colleagues


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