Feature

Domestic Relationships of the Superintendency

A Research Study Examines the Impact of the Superintendent’s Husband on Her Career by Krista Ramsey


For 20 years, Sue Fulmer’s career path followed the twists and turns of her husband’s employment as he moved from teacher to language arts coordinator to education consultant.

Six years ago, it was Sue Fulmer’s turn to lead.

Her success as a teacher and mid-level administrator led to a desire to become a superintendent. When a position opened 40 miles from their home in the upstate New York community of Bolton Landing, her husband urged her to jump at it.

"It was time for me to be fair about it," Bob Fulmer says. "I wanted her to have the job satisfaction. I’m an education consultant. I can work anywhere."

The couple moved to Putnam Station, N.Y., and Sue has spent the last six years as superintendent of the Putnam Central School District.

Bob Fulmer, still Sue’s strong supporter, has learned to adjust along the way.

"It’s had a major impact on my life," he says. "Sue’s in the office at 7. If she has evening meetings, sometimes she doesn’t come home for the evening meal at all. It’s not unusual for her to put in 16-hour days."

At home, Bob takes care of cooking and grocery shopping and is in charge of planning and executing "one entertainment thing" a year for Sue’s school board and faculty. At social events, Bob has no trouble taking a secondary role when everybody wants a word with the superintendent.

If his wife ever wants to move on to another district? "I’d be absolutely flexible," Bob says. "We’d make the decision together."

Sue Fulmer says her husband’s encouragement has played a key role in her professional success. It has allowed her to freely respond to time demands, focus on career matters, and rely on her partner’s understanding and interest in her job.

"If you don’t have the support of your spouse, you can’t be very successful in this job—not if your marriage comes first," she says.

Greater Scrutiny

A new piece of research suggests that the Fulmers may exemplify an unexplored issue in educational administration. A husband’s support may have a powerful effect on females entering the superintendency and, to a lesser degree, succeeding in it.

While the opposite may be equally true—that male superintendents rely as strongly on the support of their wives—some observers say a spouse’s attitude has greater affect on the career path of females.

Women may have to fight harder, wait longer, and undergo more scrutiny to become a superintendent. Because they remain a minority in the profession (less than 10 percent), they often have smaller professional networks. Thus, the support of family, friends, and colleagues has added importance.

In addition, because many women continue to hold greater responsibility for family and domestic matters, the demands of the superintendency may cause more family adjustments for female superintendents and their spouses than for male administrators.

"Women absolutely have to have a healthy primary relationship, that trust and love, to take on a challenge like the superintendency," says Charlotte Sawyer, an 11-year veteran in her second superintendency in Newfane School District near Niagara, N.Y. "The men need it, too, but I think many times they operate out of macho and don’t realize how miserable they are without it."

Such issues were of special interest to Phyllis Hensley when she served as superintendent of Laurel Common School District on Long Island, N.Y. As a doctoral student, she took the topic on as a research project, conducting case studies of 21 female superintendents in northeastern New York State.

Her thesis, titled "Husband of the Superintendent: His Impact on Decisions Regarding Her Job Acceptance, Performance and Retention," is the topic of considerable professional interest.

The study showed all of the married respondents (7 of the 21 were divorced or single) entered the job with strong support of their spouses and said it was necessary for undertaking the role.

"I think (my husband) had the greatest impact," said one superintendent, in a phrase echoed by many. "He was the driving force from day one."

Even so, most respondents said the move to the top spot was not easy. It came at the price of family time, privacy, and role changes within their marriages. The majority of the women said they would not relocate for another superintendency.

Uncomfortable Connection

Supporters of the work of Hensley, now an assistant professor at University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., say it offers a look into the private concerns that affect the female superintendent, the tradeoffs she and her family make, and the outside factors that may affect her ability to be successful.

A failure to consider such things, says Gerry House, superintendent of Memphis City Schools, can lead women out of the profession. "They decide they shouldn’t have aspired to the CEO level, that there’s a mismatch between being a top executive and having a family," she says.

But some critics are uncomfortable with the emphasis on spouses and domestic concerns.

"I’d question the basic matter this study asks—what is the effect of the husband on the female taking and performing in the superintendency," says Marilyn Tallerico, an associate professor at Syracuse University who has studied females who leave the superintendency. "Would we ask the same question of male superintendents? That’s how we get into the invisible bias that permeates society."

Other experts believe women are less place-bound or limited by family issues than Hensley’s research indicates.

"Women aren’t as concerned with their family situations as they used to be," says Jake Abbott, a consultant who recruits superintendents for California school districts. "I’m seeing more situations in which the husband is willing to relocate.

"And more female candidates are starting to really move out," he says. "For years, you’d find women in smaller districts and in the same geographic areas where they’d started their careers. Now they want the larger districts and they’re willing to relocate to get them."

Hensley defends the research as an open, if limited, opportunity for female administrators to talk honestly about concerns they usually share only with each other. Family issues are a common topic, she says.

No one prepares females for the effects the superintendency will have on personal relationships and lifestyle, she says. And she points to herself as an example.

When her husband, Gordon Hensley, a professor, retired from his career in Pennsylvania so she could take her first superintendency in New York, she thought the transition had gone fine. Then her graduate school professor asked Gordon to speak on life as the superintendent’s spouse.

"Gordon said, 'I live in a fish bowl. I’m no longer Dr. Hensley. I’m the husband of the superintendent. I don’t have any identity. I’m alone most of the time,'" Phyllis Hensley remembers.

She felt angst over what the move had done to her marriage and realized it had torn apart her own support network as well. She recognized the couple’s timing—her taking the most pressured, time-consuming position in her career just as he retired—was ill-considered. And she wondered why no one had pointed out such relatively predictable pitfalls along the way.

She knew her thesis topic struck a cord with other women when "I’d sit down and talk with these superintendents and three hours later, they’d still be talking," she says.

Gender Distinctions

Across the country, many female superintendents are equally eager to talk about the dynamics of spouses, families, and the demands of the superintendency.

"These aren’t side issues," says Cheryl Ernst, superintendent of Carlsbad Unified School District, 35 miles north of San Diego. "To be successful as a superintendent, you have to have a balanced life and a healthy relationship with your family and spouse.

"And there is a difference in how it affects men and women," she says. "Women have higher self-expectations. They don’t give up their concerns over being a wife and mother. They just add to them, and now they have to jump a little higher. Men don’t agonize over it as much, and they aren’t expected to."

Many female superintendents say they were considerably affected by the impact their career step had on their spouses and families.

Charlotte Sawyer’s career climb meant considerable changes for her husband. To move with his wife, he left one principalship for a challenging role as principal of an alternative high school and put his own dreams of the superintendency on hold.

Like the couples in Hensley’s study, the Sawyers weren’t totally prepared for the intense time demands and public scrutiny of the superintendency.

"Initially, I think my husband was shocked and dismayed," she says. "It puts the relationship right into the pressure cooker."

Everyday actions—grocery shopping, attending football games or church—became the topic of public attention. Couple time diminished rapidly. And social situations presented new dilemmas.

"Where there are conversations off-site, in a casual meeting, the conversation is usually directed toward the chief executive officer, as opposed to including or even making eye contact with the spouse," says Sawyer. "It was very embarrassing to me because I recognized that kind of behavior sent darts to his heart. I think it would be very difficult for some men to deal with."

Difficult Adjustments

Educational researchers, such as Arthur Blumberg, a retired professor at Syracuse University, have pointed out that husbands of female superintendents must adjust to the demands of the profession, and learn to "share" their wives with the public. As with any dual-career couple, problems arise if the husband is highly competitive, has high power needs, has traditional views of gender roles, or shows little support for his wife’s career, according to 1988 research by Lucia Albino Gilbert.

Problems in her personal relationships can make some women curtail their career aspirations, experts say. For one woman in Hensley’s study, it meant leaving her superintendency.

"Both the aspiring superintendent and her husband have to be realistic about the demands of the job," Hensley says. "Both of them have to be at a place in their lives where they can adjust. He has to be secure enough to let her take center stage."

At least one husband in the study could not make such adjustments.

"He wanted me around when he was home. He wanted me available for his business functions … he wasn’t willing to share me with the public," the superintendent told Hensley. "He liked my status, but not the responsibilities that went with it."

The woman believed her job led to irreconcilable differences in her marriage. The couple divorced.

Asked how they would handle it if they saw a similar situation unfolding in their own lives, four of the married superintendents in the study said they did not know if they would terminate their marriage or their careers. But 71 percent said the job would go first.

Charlotte Tucker, a superintendent in Carroll County, Tenn., who was not in the study, agrees with those respondents.

"My primary responsibility is to my family," she says, "and the needs of my family could take me out of the superintendency."

The mother of a high school student and preschooler, Tucker shares domestic duties with her husband, but still views herself as primary care-giver for the children.

"My husband has several businesses and is very busy. He’ll do what I ask," she says, "but the children’s care is primarily my responsibility."

The dual roles have come at a cost. Tucker has no hobbies and "no time for me."

"If my husband wasn’t supportive, I don’t think I would have taken on the superintendency," she admits.

In Hensley’s study, only two superintendents had school-age children. Because they generally enter the superintendency at an older age than men, female superintendents are less likely to have young children, experts say.

In a demographic study by the New York Council of School Superintendents, the typical male superintendent entered the superintendency in his early to mid-40s and is the father of school-age children. The average female superintendent entered at 50, is new to the job, and has no school-age children.

Child Influences

Some observers say parenting issues, more than spouse issues, may play a crucial role in shaping the female superintendency. They can dictate how much time a woman commits to her job, how conflicted she feels about her private and personal lives, and when--and even if--she enters the superintendency at all.

"Children are so much more of a factor than is a spouse because women feel strongly about spending time with their children," says Ernestine McWherter, a former Tennessee superintendent who now directs the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. "I would not have wanted to take it on when my daughter was young. My daughter would have been the more important of the two decisions. She would have come first."

Females make up nearly 60 percent of the educators attending the annual statewide conference in New York for aspiring superintendents. According to Claire Brown, associate director of the state’s council of superintendents, child-raising issues are often a key factor for women considering the superintendency.

"Many of the women say, ‘My family is too young for me to take this on.’ These women are saying I’m interested, but I’m not interested now," she says. "I haven’t heard that as much from men."

Family issues also affect a female superintendent’s mobility, Brown says. Typically, they are reluctant to move while their children are in high school. Or they’ll only take a job in a neighboring community so their family doesn’t have to move at all.

Some superintendents, like Jane Carrigan, superintendent in Mooresville, N.C., found strategies to combine parenting and their professional demands. "I dealt with it by volunteering to chair the committees I served on. That way, I’d be in a little more control of the time and could decide when meetings were set. But being a parent and a superintendent is never easy," she says.

Making spouses a priority is even harder. "The job conflicts with the relationship," admits Carrigan, who is divorced. "You may plan time for the two of you as a couple, but you can’t tell the county commissioners that you can’t meet because you’re supposed to go to dinner with your husband."

Female superintendents in the study said the biggest difficulty in adjusting to the job was increased time demands. On average, the women put in 10 hours daily and 70 hours weekly at their jobs. Their husbands typically worked seven-hour days and 41-hour weeks. What gave way was family time.

"Some weeks we have no common nights together. We kid each other that it’s only when we go to state association events that we see each other," says Mary Barter, superintendent of Three Village Central School District in Setauket, N.Y., who is married to a superintendent.

The couple rarely share a meal together. Barter has little time for cooking and other domestic interests. "I’d say the biggest obstacle for my husband is he’d like me to be able to do more of the traditional roles of wife and mother, and I’d like that, too."

Spousal Support

Overall, however, respondents in Hensley’s study say domestic chores and division of labor are not concerns. The couple’s salaries were high enough to pay for cleaning, lawn care, and sometimes cooking and au pairs. Husbands and wives share remaining tasks.

"We share equally in household decisions and duties," says Jerry Gross, superintendent of Conejo Valley Unified School District in Thousand Oaks, Calif., whose wife Gwen is also a superintendent. "When we entertain, Gwen takes charge and I pitch in where I’m needed."

But both the Grosses say the greater teamwork lies in their mutual professional and personal support.

"There is no doubt that the other person understands the late meetings, unexpected demands, and the importance of every school carnival, high school playoff game, speech contest and community involvement," says Gwen Gross, superintendent of Ojai Unified School District, in Ojai, Calif.

Jerry Gross says the two have learned to "borrow from each other’s strengths."

"What we need from each other is a willing ear and a sounding board for mulling over those complex decisions superintendents make where, inevitably, someone feels they lost," he says.

Ernst, the Carlsbad, Calif., superintendent, said she relies heavily on the support of her husband, an elementary principal and the 12 other women superintendents in her county.

But much as they affect her, the key to a female superintendents’ continued success lies in her own hands, she says.

"I think what you have to do as a woman in this profession is a lot of good self-talk," Ernst says. "You’ve got to remind yourself of all the good things you’ve done, the good decisions you’ve made, even if no one else is saying it. You have to say, ‘I’m capable, I can do this.’"

Krista Ramsey is an education free-lance writer based in Cincinnati. Phyllis Hensley provided assistance in preparing the article.