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Article of Interest - Leadership

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Bridges4Kids LogoNC 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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Leaning slightly 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, are women.

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 women end.

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 curriculum-based backgrounds.

"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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