Chris Wright

(WOMENSENEWS)–As a 27-year-old high school social studies teacher, Chris Wright was fed up with the way the school system was run. She thought she could do better, but she waited more than a decade, until her youngest daughter had a driver’s license, before she accepted her first job as a school district superintendent.

When Gail Uilkema considered applying for her first superintendent job in the early 1980s, people involved in the search process told hershe wouldn’t get the job because she was too young, female and had a new baby. She applied anyway and proved them wrong.

Stories like these–in which being female affected their early career tracks–are common among the 13 percent of school district superintendents who are women. Early findings from the largest survey of women in educational administration to date shed light on why–even though they compose 75 percent of the school-system work force–few women are making it to the system’s top job. The research suggests that the gender gap stems from a male bias in the superintendent-search process and job demands that make it tough to balance work and family.

Career Path Defined by Men

Final results of the study, sponsored by the American Association of School Administrators, will be presented at the associations’ women administrators conference in November.

So far, the findings revealed that the glass ceiling keeping women from rising to the superintendent’s office is not about qualifications or interest. Women account for 52 percent of the people seeking advanced degrees in education administration. In addition, women hold more than half of the administrative positions in school districts’ central offices, the traditional arena from which superintendents are drawn. Among these administrators, nearly 40 percent aspire to the top post. The problem, say researchers, is that the path to the school chief’s office is defined by men.

A vast majority of women in educational administration are married and have children, according to the study. Among female superintendents, 30 percent said they delayed going for the position because they were raising children. Close to 20 percent said they had a commuter marriage because their husbands did not move with them when they accepted the job.

“Keeping a balance between being a mother, wife and professional is difficult,” said Wright, who served for seven years as superintendent in the Riverview Gardens School District in Missouri before she took the helm of the Hazelwood School District last year.

Long Hours, Many Demands

The superintendent job demands long workdays. District chiefs oversee, not only teaching and learning, but also human resources, budget, transportation, facilities maintenance, building construction, and local, state and federal rules and regulations.

“It’s a tough job. It becomes your life and you have to decide what the trade-offs are with your family,” said Uilkema, superintendent of the Piedmont Unified School District in northern California for 16 years.

When women put off seeking the superintendent post, they may find themselves at a disadvantage because their careers differ from those of their male counterparts, who, by virtue of their majority, set the standards for the profession.

“When head hunters say this is what an average superintendent looks like, they’re describing white men,” said C. Cryss Brunner, an associate professor of educational policy and administration at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and one of the researchers conducting the study.

Brunner’s research revealed that the majority of women follow the same career ladder to the superintendent office as men, but the space between rungs is bigger. They start out teaching, move up to principal and finally serve in the district central office before making the jump to the top rung. However, women teach an average of 10 years longer than men before they enter administrative positions. Previous studies have shown that superintendent-search consultants will discourage school boards from considering candidates who teach “too much” before they make the move to administration.

Gatekeepers Are Male Veterans

Search consultants and school boards may also rule out female candidates simply because they’re women. Uilkema’s story of gender bias may date back 20 years, but more recent accounts suggest that there’s been little change since then.

Many search firms are owned and operated by former superintendents who rely on an old-boy network when it comes to recommending candidates, said Melody Johnson, who became superintendent of the Providence Public Schools, in Providence, R.I., last year. “They favor males. It’s very definitely a network of middle-aged men.” She suspects that’s why many highly qualified women applicants never get called for interviews.

Some women are choosing to work with newer firms, where they feel they have a better chance. But even then, they may face a school board set on hiring a man.

“A few headhunters will have advocacy for women and people of color,” said Brunner. “But most headhunters are out to make money, to give the board what they’re looking for and most boards aren’t ready to hire a woman.”

Early in her quest for her first superintendent position, a search firm phoned Wright to tell her she was selected for the interview pool. The next day, the school board president called her up and said they couldn’t interview her because the central office already had two female administrators.

Challenge Is to Break In

After hurtling that initial gender barrier, Wright established herself as a successful leader. She and Uilkema both said they received a warm welcome in their current districts because their reputation for getting results preceded them.

Johnson agrees that experience makes the difference. “The problem is breaking in. I don’t see the same problem once you’re in and established,” she said. On the job, “competency always speaks for itself.”

In 1988, women made up roughly 4 percent of superintendents. Five years later, that figure had risen to 7 percent and today it is 13 percent. It’s slow progress, but these trail-blazers are forging a better path for other women. Wright says she thinks fewer people think twice about hiring women now, because there are many female superintendents who have served for several years.

“People don’t automatically assume that if you hire a woman superintendent your district is going to fall apart,” said Wright. But, she added, “I will be personally gratified when we get to the point where we don’t have an article about women in the superintendency.”

Shauna Curphey is a freelance writer in Long Beach, Calif.

For more information:

American Association of School Administrators:

Educational Administration Quarterly–“Sexism, Silence and Solutions: Women Superintendents Speak Up and Speak Out”
(Adobe PDF format):

Educational Administration Quarterly–“Unsettled Moments in Settled Discourse: Women Superintendent’s Experience of Inequality”
(Adobe PDF format):