Three Reactions to the Labyrinth

Editor’s Note: The School Administrator invited three recognized authorities on women in the superintendency to provide their reactions to the labyrinth metaphor described in the accompanying article by Alice Eagly and Linda Carli.

Krista Parent
Superintendent, South Lane School District 45J3, Cottage Grove, Ore.
and 2007 National Superintendent of the Year

In my first year as a superintendent, my two kids were 6 and 3 years old, I was building a new house and a new high school, and I had just started my doctoral program. In their article, Alice Eagly and Linda Carli referred to “women generally exerting more effort and navigating more carefully to overcome obstacles.”

Krista ParentKrista Parent

This was an extremely familiar concept to me! I quickly learned that balancing the demands of motherhood and being at the helm of a school district was a difficult task at best. There were times then, and still today, that I have guilt about time spent away from my family.

Eagly and Carli carefully set aside the notion of a “glass ceiling” and bring to light a more plausible explanation for why women are underrepresented in leadership roles. Two factors they identified – family issues and lack of social networks -- are partial reasons why the path to leadership is often complex and circuitous. These reasons rang true for me and other women I have observed throughout my career. Without tremendous familial support and plenty of financial resources to provide suitable child care, it is extremely difficult to play the role of mom and CEO and feel good about it.

The power of social networks is another critical factor identified in the article that is promising for women aspiring to leadership roles. Not only being mentored by quality men, but developing a network that includes both men and women can smooth the path to leadership roles and, once there, make the work doable and enjoyable.

In my state, several of the younger male superintendents sought me out as a mentor and close colleague early on in my career. Unknown to all of us at the time, we were building a strong social network that has positively benefitted us in our roles as superintendents. We frequently call each other to discuss our professional development initiatives, we meet together and work on our budgets, and we support each other for county and statewide leadership assignments. Others outside our social network have been drawn to our group and eventually became part of the network.

Early in my administrative career I experienced a number of situations that made me aware of the gender disparity in leadership positions. When I attended my first statewide athletic director’s meeting I was sure I’d shown up at the wrong meeting. There were three women in a sea of men 55 and older. I had a similar feeling when I walked into my first statewide superintendents meeting many years later. This time there were a dozen or so women from among the 198 school districts.

Both experiences had such an impact on me that I wrote my dissertation on women in the superintendency. In this decade, women superintendents in the state of Oregon have bounced around from a low of 10 percent to a high of 20 percent, but there had not been a steady, sustainable upward move. This is still appalling when you consider more than 75 percent of the K-12 educators in the state are women.

I definitely agree with Eagly and Carli regarding “attitudes toward women leaders becoming increasingly positive over time.” If my children’s generation is the yardstick for progress, there is cause for hope. Midway through the football season, I asked my 10-year-old son if he had noticed any other moms coaching their sons’ football team. He paused for a moment and then nonchalantly said, “I guess not, but I never really thought about it.” His friends don’t think twice about Kory’s mom being the coach for tackle football, basketball or Little League baseball, although new parents on the scene are sure I’m the “team mom” until I blow that first whistle.

The Net Generation seems to hold a lot of promise for the future, including their nonsexist views of women. These attitudes will continue to weaken or maybe even stop gender stereotypes.

C. Cryss Brunner,
Associate Professor of Educational Policy and Administration,
University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Minneapolis, Minn.

Alice Eagly and Linda Carli have appropriately replaced the glass ceiling metaphor with the metaphor of the labyrinth. After reading their article, I find that much of what they have written aligns with recent studies of women in the superintendency and central office (see the AASA-supported publication “Women Leading School Systems: Uncommon Roads to Fulfillment,” by C. Cryss Brunner and Margaret Grogan, 2007).

Cryss BrunnerC. Cryss Brunner

First, while women make up the largest percentage (approximately 70 percent) of teaching ranks, only 20 percent of superintendents are women. So, yes, education positions are segregated by gender and, yes, women superintendents, on average, have lower salaries than their male counterparts in similar positions.

Second, women in the central office and the superintendency face the same barriers that Eagly and Carli highlight related to family and children.

Third, most notably perhaps, Eagly and Carli write about the difficulties that women face because of the cultural stereotypes that paint “women as the nicer, kinder sex and men as the assertive, directive sex.” In my own work, I contend that such perspectives are about power and who may have it. Clearly, power is not defined as niceness or kindness; it is more commonly thought of as assertive and directive. Thus, women, who are expected to be nice and kind, are not allowed power over others or things, and if they claim such power, they are criticized, commonly disliked, and often do not get hired in the first place or get fired if they do get hired. Women who share power with others, in contrast, have far more opportunities in career advancement.

But the most powerful observation from Eagly and Carli is their notion of women’s complex and circuitous career experiences and paths. In studies (published in 2009) that make comparisons across the career paths of women and men superintendents and aspiring and non-aspiring women central-office administrators, Yong-Lyun Kim and I found that men’s career paths to the superintendency were vertical -- that is they move straight up through line-administrative positions to the top seat, while women superintendents move vertically and horizontally, occupying both line and staff positions (thus taking a bit longer to get to the superintendency).

We also found that aspiring women administrators moved in the same patterns as did women superintendents -- that is they moved both vertically and horizontally. In contrast, however, non-aspiring women central-office administrators move almost exclusively horizontally (directly opposite to men superintendents’ paths). In other words, seated women superintendents and women who aspire to the superintendency, quite literally, travel in a circle to get there, a pathway that we believe to be experience rich and possibly superior to others. The labyrinth metaphor works perfectly.

Sarah D. Jerome
Superintendent, Arlington Heights, Ill.
AASA President, 2007-08

Alice Eagly and Linda Carli, in “Navigating the Labyrinth,” have provided an insightful lens for women on the rise. They give us the numbers and the reasons for the inequitable distribution of women in high-level leadership roles. The labyrinth metaphor fits.

Sarah JeromeSarah D. Jerome

The authors describe the impediments and obstacles as well as provide some universal truths for women determined to land in the corner office. The double-bind tightrope, going the extra mile to prove one’s worth, and the challenges of developing networks are familiar territory for women superintendents.

While the number of women superintendents has grown from 6 percent in 1992 to nearly 22 percent in 2006, the leadership gap is still huge. Because the population is gender balanced in nature, it has always seemed puzzling to me that leadership roles wouldn’t also be balanced – except for that ever-present gender stereotyping and sex discrimination so aptly described by Eagly and Carli. Gender bias is an ageless practice and culture well-documented throughout the ages and in every part of the world. And while we may feel discouraged at the difficulties women face in the United States, the worldwide situation is much more extreme and dramatic.

The fact 14 countries, among nearly 200, are run by women presidents or prime ministers may look pretty good in comparison to the record in U.S. politics. Even the fact nine of the 189 ambassadors to the United Nations are women according to UNESCO may seem like a victory of sorts, but sadly two-thirds of the 771 million illiterate people worldwide are women, the majority of them in India and China. Many female children in underdeveloped and developing nations are prevented from attending school. When they attempt to attend school, they or their families are threatened or punished. In other cases, countries require school fees to attend school that families in poverty simply can’t afford.

The work of UNICEF embodied in the Millennium Development Goals include two powerful statements: (1) Achieve universal primary education and (2) Promote gender equality and empower women. UNICEF recognizes that gender equality and universal primary education are inextricably linked. Educating a girl dramatically reduces the chance that her child will die before age 5, and it improves her prospects of being able to support herself and have a say in her own welfare and in society. The UNICEF theme is A World Fit for Children.

The dire conditions for women worldwide may seem distant and unrelated to the messages in the Eagly/Carli article. But actually they are directly connected. Like no other time in history, we are intertwined globally. What happens to women in China, India, Africa and Brazil matters to us and vice versa. Because we are tied together economically, we are also tied in social and humanitarian ways. And what happens to U.S. women in the most progressive, powerful and influential country in the world will matter to men and women around the world. Our role models and equitable behaviors matter worldwide.

In creating a world fit for children, we start at home. We teach by providing role models so every child can see what he or she can become. You have to see one to be one. So we superintendents may best be able to help all the children we serve see developing leadership up close by helping nurture leaders-to-be, by mentoring, by establishing open recruitment and objective evaluation criteria and by creating family-friendly work settings and networking venues that Eagly and Carli describe. These authors state, “Research shows that people are more inclined to desire opportunity when they have a realistic chance of attaining it.”

From the worldwide perspective where conditions for gender equity and universal education are so dire, this quotation must channel our energies to political and economic strategies coupled with the diplomatic work of United Nations, UNESCO, UNICEF, Global Peace Initiative of Women and the World Council of Women Spiritual Leaders.

We can also say thank you to the enlightened mentors, male and female, who have helped us get where we are. No one climbs the ladder without support and guidance from others. Borrowing a lyric from Susan Osborn’s “Circle of Life:” “We step lightly on the backs of those who’ve gone before.”

From a worldwide perspective, we have an incredible amount of work to do to bring gender parity to full acceptance. What an opportunity!

Sarah Jerome’s “Must Reads:”
1. Succeeding As A Female Superintendent: How to Get There and Stay There by Suzanne Gilmour and Mary Kinsella

2. Women Leading Education Across the Continents: Sharing the Spirit, Fanning the Flame edited by Helen C. Sobehart

3. Women Leading School Systems: Uncommon Roads to Fulfillment by C. Cryss Brunner and Margaret Grogan

4. “The State of the American School Superintendency: A Mid-Decade Study” by Thomas Glass and Louis Franceschini

5. UNICEF Childinfo: Monitoring the Situation of Children and Women

6. Doctoral dissertation, “Rules of Engagement: Navigating Gender in the Superintendency,” by Linda Boggs, Washington State University