Women Lead Few School Districts
The path to the superintendent's office can be difficult.
by Kayce T. Ataiyero, News & Observer, January 7, 2004
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in her chair, Orange County schools Superintendent Shirley
Carraway reflects on the path she took to her corner office in
Hillsborough. The journey of a few paces from the front door was
years long, navigating through male-dominated territory and
leaping hurdles of preference, prejudice and perception.
It's a voyage that many women don't get to make.
"I get more surprise, like, 'Wow, you are the superintendent.'
Some are pleasantly surprised," she said. "Even though people
know we exist, there are so few."
Traditionally, the ideal candidate to lead a school system was
someone who had experience supervising large staffs and managing
big budgets. Someone who had been a coach and who knew the ins
and outs of school construction. You know, a man.
But some say that it's time for a new tradition, one in which
women -- who make up about 75 percent of the national school
system work force -- assume more superintendent positions and
are more widely recognized as being capable of doing so. They
say that on the route to a superintendent's job, women should no
longer walk alone.
"There is still a belief out there that won't go away that women
in tough leadership positions are not equipped to handle that.
Some school boards are in the dark ages and are not ready to
move forward," said Margaret Grogan, chairwoman of the
Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the
University of Missouri-Columbia. "I think that the more women
who are successful and the more their stories are out there, the
more school boards will say the gender issues don't matter."
Gender has always been an issue in the hierarchy of school
system leadership. Grogan said many women don't speak publicly
about the gender-related challenges they face for fear of being
perceived as weak, or of wanting preferential treatment or
hand-holding. But privately, they recount anecdotes about
conversations with colleagues and community members in which
gender bias was clear.
There's the story of the woman who would be asked by reporters
about her jewelry, dress and whether she was dating. Or the one
who was questioned so much about whether she was really the
superintendent that her staff bought her a T-shirt that read,
"Believe it or not, I am the new superintendent."
Culture of inequality
Carraway, who became Orange superintendent in June, recalled an
instance when she first got to the district: A parent was
concerned about her capabilities. That is, until Carraway's
former boss voiced his support of her.
Many women speak of the need for male endorsement in their quest
for the top job.
"As much as we think things have changed, you have to have that
white male say it's OK to get that validation," she said. "When
a woman does the same thing a man does, she is something other
than a nice word."
Nationally, there are 15,000 school districts. About 17 percent
of the leaders of those districts are women. In North Carolina,
19 of the state's 117 school superintendents, about 16 percent,
According to research by Texas A&M University, male public
school teachers are 20 times more likely to advance to a
superintendent's post than female teachers.
Some blame a professional culture that fails to fully recognize
the attributes of women and denies women the same encouragement
to pursue tops jobs that it affords men.
Anna Hicks-McFadden, assistant professor in the Department of
Educational Leadership and Foundations at Western Carolina
University, said that in many cases the result is that women
don't view themselves as contenders for the top schools job.
"Some women never even consider the possibility. I was brought
up to believe that you can be a teacher. I had never even
considered a male position," she said.
In fact, researchers say, many women who eventually become
superintendents never intended to do so. That was the case with
Ann Denlinger, school superintendent in Durham. But that is
where the similarity between her story and those of some other
Denlinger got the idea of being a superintendent from the
support and encouragement she received from her peers, both male
and female. And although she is aware that gender has been an
issue for some women, it hasn't been for her, she said.
"I applied for two superintendencies and got two
superintendencies, so I had a very positive experience with
that," she said. "I did not feel like my gender was an issue,
either positive or negative."
'A little traction'
Change could be on the horizon, one that could work in women's
favor. Many women who hold central office positions are involved
in curriculum and instruction. With the increased national and
local focus on accountability, testing and No Child Left Behind,
educators say women could be well-positioned to become
superintendents as school districts seek candidates with strong
"I think school boards today and communities in general see that
we need experts who know about the delivery of instruction, and
we are finding women are getting a little traction," said
Grogan, the Missouri educational leadership chairwoman.
Educators also cite the example that current female
superintendents are setting as an indicator that more doors will
open for women.
Robert Logan, superintendent of the Asheville city schools,
participated in a study about female leadership in education. He
thinks the perception of women in the field is changing because
of the strides they are making.
"Attitudes and norms are slow to change, and it will take
continued time. I think there is a greater acceptance [of female
superintendents] on the basis of the work females have done to
prove they are very capable," he said. "Some good trailblazing
has been done."
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