Mamisma or Machismo: Do Aspiring Superintendents Need Both?


Seven years ago, I accepted a position to oversee the United Community School District near Ames, Iowa, becoming one among the estimated 18 percent of women superintendents in the nation. At the time, I did not think much about mamisma or machismo.

After working 27 years at the school level and in several administrative roles, I understood that while some women are seen as too aggressive in pursuing leadership roles, others are considered not strong enough to handle the job’s demands. My style is a caring, feminine one, but I also am highly goal-driven and able to gently pressure others to reach successful outcomes.

Pauline SampsonPauline Sampson

Gender Traits

Now, five years removed from the superintendency and working as a university professor preparing the next wave of education leaders, I question whether school boards are more willing to hire women as superintendents today, and if so, what women must do to be successful in attaining this position. Do they need mamisma or machismo?

Mamisma, according to Harriet Rubin, author of The Mona Lisa Stratagem: The Art of Women, Age and Power, can be defined as the feminine nature of maternal qualities such as acts of love and trust as well as the building of relationships rather than the traditional exercise of power in a leadership role. It is the maternal and emotional use of language that gives this sense of hope in a leader’s clear plans. It is building the trust and collaboration in relationships while providing the hope for a stronger school district.

Machismo is defined in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary as “a strong sense of masculine pride” and “an exaggerated sense of power or strength.” And, I would add, drive.

A certain amount of drive is necessary for individuals to secure a superintendency, and school boards tend to respond to assured leaders, individuals brimming with aplomb. Most school boards want a superintendent who can lead confidently, knowing their schools will be successful if they do. In essence, the school boards want to know their choice of superintendent will recommend strategies and guide the district to higher levels of student achievement. And superintendents perform best when they have the support of others.

Proper Balance
My ascendency into the superintendency came after observing other women whose drive was perceived as strongly aggressive, while my characteristics were deemed more feminine. I left the superintendent position for higher education because of a desire to be closer to grandchildren in another state, perhaps mamisma at a personal level.

Some women are not able to find the balance between mamisma and machismo, while others are. The latter women have successful tenures as superintendents. One such example is that of a strong woman leader from a large urban community in Texas, where as superintendent she moved her school district to exemplary status. While pushing hard for excellence, she supported those who needed her guidance in a caring manner. She made her districtwide goals clear and expected the principals to find ways to reach them.

As a superintendent who demonstrated in visible ways that she cared, she modeled what she expected of central-office staff in serving principals and the campuses. Her demeanor and attire were professional and feminine, yet she could inspire others by riding into an in-service meeting on a Harley-Davidson.

Another woman who has led her school district in rural Texas to increased levels of student achievement shows her strength of leadership in pursuit of performance goals while encouraging her colleagues to think outside the box and take risks. She supports their ideas if they are well-developed and logically presented for the school board’s approval. Through her visible efforts, this superintendent has developed a reputation that is highly regarded for attracting families with school-age children.

She moved a community that previously had a negative reputation toward one where the community supports its school board and leadership. Her honest and direct approach has helped bring fresh ideas to the public forefront while generating grassroots support to the district level.

Better Expectations
Certainly, not every picture is as rosy. I have also observed situations where women superintendents were treated with extreme respect because of their work ethic, but one I knew still had to deal with male colleagues making underhanded comments to the effect they had “let her do the work.” These colleagues meant she could spend time away from her district and advocate for all the superintendents instead of them doing the state-level advocacy. She was seen as having great machismo when needing to deal with situations outside her school district, but exhibited mamisma while nurturing her staff to work as a collaborative team.

In the future, as women pursue top-level leadership positions in even greater numbers, they may increase their chances of success by better anticipating situations and behaviors of others during their job interviews. This strategy also applies once women are on the job. It may work best for women candidates for the superintendency to try to understand the board dynamics, how to communicate with the public, and the change process and the politics involved.

Whether a woman exhibits mamisma or machismo depends on the situation and the needs of the district. At times, a school district needs someone to inspire them to be great and guide them in a caring manner to achieve that hope. At other times, a district requires a stronger approach with more direct leadership, which can be seen as a display of machismo.

An effective leader needs characteristics of both mamisma and machismo and the capacity to recognize which to use in the complex organization of a school district.

Pauline Sampson is an assistant professor of secondary education and educational leadership at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. E-mail: