Feature

Self-Imposed Barriers

What does it take for female leaders to move beyond the limits they set themselves to reach the superintendency? by MARY LYNNE DERRINGTON AND GENE C. SHARRATT

Anne is a natural-born leader. Told as a child she could do anything she set her mind to, she fulfilled that prophesy growing up, including being elected student body president of her high school. As an adult, she enjoyed a happy home life and professional success in education, assuming several leadership positions in her 2,600-student school district in the Pacific Northwest. She saw her career trajectory arcing from teacher leader to principal to superintendent.

But when it came to making that step to the superintendency, she faced a choice she hadn’t anticipated — a choice between her career and her family. As her poignant e-mail to us lamented, “I was told I could do both. What I was not told was that I could not do everything at the same time.”

Mary Lynne DerringtonMary Lynne Derrington is co-author of Leadership Teaming: The Superintendent-Principal Relationship.


Only after her children headed off to college did Anne (who asked to withhold her actual identity) pursue her professional dream of becoming a superintendent. But by that time, middle-aged and lacking central-office administrative experience, her possibilities were diminished.

In both our research and our work in a superintendent program at the university level, we have found Anne’s story to be an all-too-familiar one for women, who get caught in the tug of war between personal and professional choices.

Changing Perception
While women have historically faced barriers to ascending through the ranks of academic leadership, the perception of those barriers has changed over the last several years. In 1993, we surveyed women in Washington state who aspired to or already held the position of superintendent. We specifically wanted to uncover barriers those women encountered on that career path. The study indicated the barriers were likely to be perceived as institutionalized and rooted in societal practices, such as gender-role stereotyping and sex discrimination.

When we administered the same survey 14 years later, we found an interesting shift. Despite apparent opportunities, women still encountered barriers to attaining the superintendency. But now one of the two top barriers was described as “self-imposed” — a response that had ranked at the bottom of the list in 1993.

Respondents in 2007 defined “self-imposed” as “the failure to attain the superintendency or the decision to avoid it because of family responsibilities.” In other words, these women made a conscious choice to put family considerations and responsibilities ahead of those that come with assuming the job of superintendent. Similar studies conducted around the country produced the same results.

Homework Conflicts
Because women in the superintendency are expected to meet two sets of expectations, role-related and gender-related, one set of goals is inevitably compromised. Women find they must either forgo family to meet professional job needs or limit their career opportunities to satisfy personal and family needs.

Being a parent plays a crucial role in whether a woman seeks a superintendency. Women with children in grades K-8 are rarely superintendents. In fact, women with children between the ages of 1 and 19 represent the smallest percentage of superintendents compared to women with no children or grown children. As one survey respondent put it: “My concerns are for life balance. I’m raising my children, and being gone four to five nights out of a week won’t work for me.”

Furthermore, some women report grave consequences when they pursue professional aspirations. Consider the case of Jane, whose career goals collided with her husband’s view of a traditional marriage. Because Jane (a pseudonym) was an elementary school principal in a 7,000-student suburban community in eastern Washington, her work schedule dovetailed with her children’s school calendar. She not only held a full-time leadership position, she also assumed most of the responsibility for the household and child care.

After 10 years in school administration, Jane enrolled in a superintendent credential program. The demands of the job meant less time for the household tasks. At the same time, Jane’s husband moved up in his professional field. Similarly, his interest in his own career goals meant less time and support for her professional needs. Much of the little time they had together was spent arguing over his refusal to assist with the household duties and her insistence on pursuing her career. Their anger and bitterness escalated to divorce.

After 12 years the story still brings tears to her eyes. With a sigh, she recounts the pain of losing her marriage, having to move out of her home, and, most of all, the impact the divorce had on their children. Resenting that she was forced to choose, she wonders why it is still so difficult for a woman to have it all.

Yet, like many women, Jane hesitates to share her concerns about juggling the dual expectations of a family and career, afraid to be perceived as a whiner or a liability.

Gene SharrattGene Sharratt prepares aspiring superintendents through the graduate program at Washington State University in Spokane, Wash.


These women educators want to appear as strong and capable as their male counterparts. However, the reality is women still face tough choices when it comes to career, marriage and motherhood. Too many have not been successful in offsetting their increasing responsibilities in the workplace with decreased obligations on the home front. They carry a greater share of the home and child responsibilities and receive less family or spouse support than male colleagues. For most, this is an insurmountable reality.


Breaking Through

Our own experience and work with women superintendents, both on the job and in our superintendent preparation programs, has taught us that although there are indeed home and work barriers thwarting many, some women superintendents have achieved harmony. We offer two examples of female superintendents and the breakthrough thinking that allows them to have it all.

Martha is a mother of a preschool-age child. She is also a superintendent of a large and challenging urban school district on the West Coast that enrolls more than 40,000 students. Her professional success results from an iron will and an unwavering resolve to stick to her career goals. Her personal success results from a network of family support, including her spouse, who is comfortable switching traditional gender roles. Martha’s mother also lives with the family, thus creating an intergenerational childcare model. Martha’s motto: “Accept help from your family.”

Sue’s philosophy is that anything is negotiable, so she looks for creative alternatives to balance work and home. She negotiated flexible time with the school board in her 1,000-student district that permits her to stay home most mornings until her children go to school. She sets clear boundaries for personal time and makes a part of the weekend off-limits to outside commitments, designating it as exclusive time with her spouse and family. Her motto: “Don’t be afraid to ask.”

Some studies indicate that the number of female superintendents has been on the rise in recent years; however the magnitude of this increase is questionable. At the current placement rate, three more decades will pass before the number of women superintendents approaches parity with male superintendents.

Another growing trend may inhibit this increase: the need to care for aging parents, which could further limit the pool of female superintendents. Women without the support to integrate family obligations with the demands of the superintendency are an untapped pool of strong, qualified applicants. We must think creatively outside of the present career-selection box that holds too many women inside its walls. There may be a hole in the glass ceiling, but for most women, a strong ladder of support is required to climb through it.


Recognizing Barriers

Sometimes women — and men too — will unconsciously create a self-imposed barrier. Take the recent example of the woman principal enrolled in one of our administrative programs. She was working toward being a superintendent, and we had arranged a phone conversation one evening during which we would discuss how she should prepare for an upcoming interview.

At 6 p.m. she abruptly ended the call, although we had further items to discuss. “I have to get dinner on the table for my husband,” she explained.

Four Attitudes of Successful Women


Our recent study, titled “Female Superintendents: Breaking Barriers and Challenging Life Styles,” included several recommendations from women who have attained a superintendency and what they consider a satisfactory home and family life as well.

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After we hung up, I wondered whether the husband had demanded she do this or she simply felt a duty to do so. I couldn’t help hoping that most supportive spouses would either wait a few minutes or get dinner for themselves rather than expect an important phone call to be cut short.

Recognizing a barrier, whether imposed by others or by oneself, is the first step toward overcoming it. In 1993, women perceived barriers to the superintendency to be imposed from without. Today, self-imposed barriers present a different challenge. As one of our survey respondents remarked, “‘Self-imposed’ implies control. I can choose to impose these limitations or not.”

Indeed, many women believe it is their internal choice, rather than an external barrier, to defer, delay or deny career aspirations for home and family responsibilities.

Still, the responsibility that comes with a family is a significant barrier to women attaining the top job. Breakthrough thinking is essential if women are to successfully balance home life and the superintendency.

Mary Lynne Derrington, a former superintendent, is assistant professor of educational administration at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash. She is co-author of Leadership Teaming: The Superintendent-Principal Relationship. E-mail: MaryLynne.Derrington@wwu.edu. Gene Sharratt, a former superintendent, is director of the field-based superintendent’s program at Washington State University in Spokane, Wash.