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Female, Minority Superintendents Face Double Inequity

A study of ten urban female superintendents shows that although race and gender have played a role in their careers, strong role models and family support helped them.

Women who become successful school superintendents have mentors and role models. According to a dissertation presented at a conference of the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS), they also enjoy support from their families as they pursue their career goals.

Dr. Marie Latham Bush reached those conclusions while conducting research for her doctoral dissertation at the University of Toledo. According to some of the female superintendents Bush interviewed for her study, a female school administrator has a tough time getting female subordinates and other administrative peers to take her seriously. Generally, what people expect of female minority administrators is different from what they expect of male administrators of all ethnic groups, Bush found.

Bush presented her findings at the fall conference of the CGCS, an organization of superintendents who work in large, urban school districts. At that time, 11 of the 54 members of the council were women. Two declined to participate in the research, Bush said, and an interim superintendent was added to the pool.


Highlights of Study

For her doctoral dissertation, Marie Latham Bush studied ten female superintendents of urban school systems and found some common characteristics:

*The superintendents are either African American or Hispanic.
*Nine of ten are between 50 and 55 years old.
*They have doctoral degrees in education.
*Nine of ten are married and better educated than their husbands.
*Eight of ten have children.
*All have strong family support.

Bush also listed four common obstacles female administrators who belong to minority groups have to overcome:

*lack of mentors
*lack of role models.

"It reaffirmed what I thought," Bush, who is African American, told Education World about her research. "Race and gender do have an impact [on female superintendents' careers]. More women would be superintendents if they had role models and mentors, Bush added. "They need mentors to navigate the old boys' network."

The superintendents Bush interviewed had been classroom teachers before they moved into central administration roles. Eight of the women had been elementary school principals, which is a typical career path for women administrators, according to Bush. In contrast, about 60 percent of male superintendents nationwide at one point had been coaches, according to information Bush discovered during her research.

Although the women Bush interviewed said they did not think race and gender were barriers to their selection as urban superintendents, they did say that both race and gender had affected them at some points during their careers. It was unclear to them whether the issue had to do with race, gender, or both, according to the report.

In her own career, Bush said, she has experienced some racial and gender issues but was more surprised when people responded negatively to her because she is a woman. In the 1980s, Bush was an assistant principal in a junior high school. When she attended an administrators' meeting at which she was the only woman, only one person spoke to her, Bush said.

Bush also noticed the way promotions were awarded in some cases. Although a woman might have an administrative title, she really had little authority.


Two of the superintendents who participated in Bush's research talked with Education World. One, Diana Lam, is the superintendent of schools in Providence, Rhode Island. She said that like Bush, she was surprised that some people reacted more strongly because she is a woman than because she is Hispanic.

"People expect you to work harder because you are a woman," Lam told Education World. "There is a higher standard for women. In some school districts, I followed a male superintendent. Then, all of a sudden, I couldn't do enough to prove my competency or commitment."

While principal of a Boston middle school, Lam said, she experienced the attitude that women could not do the "tough" jobs in administration. After she hired a female director of instruction, administrators told her the third member of her administrative team -- the assistant principal -- had to be a man, even though she had selected an African American woman. In response, Lam filed a complaint with the Boston human rights commission and left the position vacant. Several years later, the commission ruled in her favor. "There were administrative teams that were all male," Lam noted, which no one questioned.

Darline Robles, who has been superintendent of the Salt Lake City (Utah) schools for seven years, is also Hispanic. She said people can have unreal expectations for superintendents who are female and members of minority groups -- particularly from other members of their ethnic groups. "They think you are a queen and can make things happen by edict," Robles said. "They don't realize you have to work within a political system."

When she was a principal, Robles explained, female teachers tended to treat her less formally than they would a man and not take her as seriously when she issued directives. "I had one female teacher tell me 'You're acting like the principal!'" Robles said. "I said, 'I am the principal.' I had fewer problems supervising men."


Both Lam and Robles said that becoming a superintendent had not been a long-term goal but a natural extension of their desire to help children. Lam said moving into administration did not appeal to her at first, because she loved teaching so much. Then she was asked to be a district supervisor. She thought, "My sphere of influence would be greater. I wanted to do for children what someone had done for me."

Robles also said she never thought of being a superintendent when she began teaching: "Administration was not a thought in the early 1970s." She received encouragement from the principal and assistant principal in the school in which she taught because they were interested in developing teachers into administrators. "In my fourth or fifth year as a teacher, I decided I wanted to be an administrator -- I received mentoring from the building administration. I began thinking of being a superintendent during my second principalship."


Both women said they had good mentors -- both male and female -- and solid family support on the journey to the superintendent's office.

Robles said she was fortunate to work for a female superintendent when she was a principal and also learned from a male superintendent with whom she worked. "At the time, I didn't realize the model he was giving me," Robles said, speaking of the superintendent's relationship with the board of education. "He taught me about respecting who [board of ed members] are as elected officials and participating with the board as a team."

As for Lam, her husband and two children moved several times so she could take superintendent positions in Iowa and San Antonio, Texas, before she accepted the Providence job. "My husband has been very flexible," she said, "and I have two very adaptable children. Moving as much as I did is unusual. Most women superintendents tend to stay in the same area."

Mentors also surfaced in the school districts and communities in which Lam worked. "They were good listeners," she said. "They helped me qualify my thinking, provided encouragement, and helped me remain focused on the mission of education, which is children."


Bush, whose research brought information about women superintendents to CGCS attention, said she is eager to see how the council might use it. Henry Duvall, director of communications for the council, said he sees the group's role as publicizing the study, first through discussions at the fall conference and now through posting information on its Web site, Urban Educator.

Bush's research raised important issues, but urban school districts have a better record of hiring women for upper management positions than the business world does, Duvall said. "There probably still is a glass ceiling [in the educational field] but not as much as in corporate America," he said. "[Being a superintendent] is like being CEO -- only it may be harder."

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
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