Feature

Dilemmas and Discarded Leadership

A community’s cultural norms challenge women who aspire to the superintendency and those already in the role by JOYCE A. DANA

“Dr. Dana, what you should understand is that even though your leadership for this district has met every goal set by the school board in the past five years and you and your family fit in quite well in the community, the community does not want a woman superintendent.”

This brash statement, made in the open by a newly elected school board member of a rural, Midwestern school district of about 2,500 students, stunned me. I had arrived in this school district nearly five years earlier as superintendent, ready to lead toward successfully meeting school district needs for improvement.

Joyce DanaJoyce Dana, a former superintendent, is co-author of Women in the Superintendency: Discarded Leadership.


My record of superintendent and deputy superintendent leadership in two previous school districts was positive and well-documented. In all three districts, I was the first woman to hold the top position.

Rarely does a woman serving in the superintendency learn directly from a school board member outside of an executive session of the board that the community “does not want a woman superintendent” and, inferentially, that she is essentially “on notice” because of her gender. Gender is not a problem for men who are superintendents. Because of my gender, I was on the way to being discarded.

Other factors surfaced over nearly five years of my leadership in this district that likely contributed to the new board member’s statement. The local newspaper reported contract details. A letter to the editor published the same day took issue with my reported salary, noting that the previous superintendent for nine years was not paid “that much until he was in his 5th year.” Several times as decisions about the budget, expenditures or pending contracts were on the board agenda, someone from the public would mention that money was available, but perhaps it was being spent the wrong way. A sex-role stereotype was present, although not necessarily consciously recognized by the community at large.

The local newspaper editor criticized nearly every recommendation I made to the school board that had received general board support before the recommendation was placed in print and presented at a regular school board meeting. The newspaper’s editorial page criticized many actions of the school board and even opened a column for anonymous commentary about me.

Cultural Effects
When I learned the first state-level review of school district improvement was scheduled to take place in 14 months, overnight my priorites shifted. I needed to lead the school system as a change agent. No evidence existed of data collection or written reports illustrating how the district was meeting each of the 240 improvement objectives.

Given the mounting challenges, my interest grew significantly in identifying characteristics of the community culture in which I was working — specifically the norms, values and beliefs held by members of the internal community (the school district) and the external community and the routines they practiced.

Edgar H. Schein’s studies of organizational culture and leadership proved helpful in this regard, particularly his work that succinctly organized cultural practices into 11 categories. In his book Organizational Culture and Leadership, Schein, the Sloan Fellows professor of management emeritus at MIT, presents the defining characteristics of each category that identify what is important to the culture and why a cultural analysis of a school district is an important step to leadership success.

Women are challenged most by cultural norms, particularly sex-role norms, religious and political ideologies, and gender-structured opportunities that favor men. Although some stereotypes have loosened a bit, dilemmas remain for women who aspire to fill school district leadership positions.

My predicament is not unique. It is something many women (and some men) experience when they aspire to work in the superintendency or when they actually serve as superintendents. Now, as a professor, I have focused my professional growth on understanding the challenges for women that prevent their access to top levels of leadership in school district administration or erode their ability to lead. I refer to those challenges as “dilemmas” and to the consequences that are not favorable as “discarding.”

Gender Expectations
Dilemmas involving professional desires and other conflicting desires generally relate to one or more cultural categories. The examples that follow describe a dilemma for one woman (whose actual identities are shielded by request), yet the predicaments they faced will be familiar to many other women.

Helen, an African-American wife of a successful laborer and mother of two teenagers, applied for admission to a school leadership preparatory program in north-central Florida, something she had longed to do for several years while working as a classroom teacher. Her husband opposed her career choice as a teacher because he wished she was home every day ready to meet his needs and the needs of their children. However, she continued her pursuit and did everything she could to ensure that her responsibilities to her family and her work were met.

During the ensuing two years of participation in a master’s degree preparatory program for school principals, the kitchen-table conversation between Helen and her children became increasingly enjoyable.

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It’s the morning after a contentious school board meeting about changes in high school attendance boundaries. Superintendent Julie Wilson walks into her office emotionally spent. As she flips on her computer, she is greeted by a scathing e-mail from the board president admonishing her for such “hideous recommendations” and “handing trustees over to a lynch mob.”

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Discussions between mother and children became energized as she shared with them what she was learning, which her high-school-age children found they could apply to their experiences at school. However, her husband tended to remain quiet during those times.

Helen’s enthusiasm and energy to accomplish all of the responsibilities expected of her by her husband, two children and employer were deeply motivated by her drive for personal and professional development.

When Helen completed her master’s degree with all A’s, two professors suggested she apply for assistant principal and principal positions at nearby schools. These represented opportunities to increase the family’s income, which would help send their children to college. She took their advice, received two interviews and was offered both positions.

When she worked up the courage to inform her husband, his anger grew. He told Helen he would be deeply embarrassed and angry with her if she took either job, saying she belonged at home. Hence, the dilemma existed. For this African-American family, the husband had great pride in being able to provide for his family, and he wanted to be in charge of major decisions. Having Helen at home was one of those decisions.

With a heavy heart, Helen accepted the principal position. Now four years later, Helen’s children are enrolled in college. Her husband has divorced her and moved to a neighboring community.

Strong ideologies existed regarding a woman’s role in the home, and criticism was quick when a woman chose to separate herself from full-time focus on family. Helen actually anticipated this conflict but always believed she could work it out with her husband and family. What she discovered was that her new job as principal was in a school district with gender expectations similar to those in the school district in which she lived. She found it satisfying to provide school leadership, even though the challenges to her leadership were frequent.

Although some sex-role norms are diminishing within the varying cultures in our country, questions continue to be raised about women’s leadership on finance issues, control of the education organization, and use of collaborative approaches to decision making.

Formal Philosophy
Marlene was an assistant superintendent in a school district of 18,000 students in the Northeast. When the superintendent became ill and needed to resign immediately, the school board appointed her as acting superintendent. Marlene willingly accepted, believing she could increase her visibility and competencies while serving effectively as acting superintendent. She became responsible for handling both jobs.

During the six-month period as acting superintendent, board members praised Marlene’s leadership and dedication. Before the announced superintendent vacancy closed, Marlene delivered her application for the position to the human resources office. Her application was acknowledged. With the assistance of search firm personnel, the board conducted a first round of interviews, then follow-up interviews with a reduced candidate pool. Marlene was not among those receiving an invitation to be interviewed.

When the finalist returned to the school district and his appointment was announced, Marlene maintained a positive and professional demeanor. However, she was surprised she had not been granted an interview in the beginning of the process. She decided to ask the school board president about the slight.

The board president responded, “The search consultant brought us the strongest applicants in a Top 10 list. Your name was not on the list. In fact, all of the Top 10 listed were men from other school districts across the nation where they had experienced considerable success.” Then the school board president apologized and informed Marlene she had performed exceptionally well, and no one was dissatisfied with her work.

No woman had served in the superintendency in the history of the school district. The formal philosophy supported CEO leadership by a man.


Rules of the Game
Terri lived and worked in a mid-size town in Texas where she had been born and raised. She was just celebrating her 40th birthday when she successfully applied for the superintendency. Following 12 years of teaching, six years as a high school principal and completion of a specialist degree that qualified her for the superintendency, she had the experience and the knowledge to feel comfortable in accepting the offer. Plus, she was homegrown.

AASA Resources on Gender in Leadership


AASA offers the following compilation of articles, books, monographs, electronic materials and conferences addressing issues of women in education leadership.

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Most superintendents would recognize the predicament Terri faced. All went well for four years. Then she had to speak confidentially with the board of education regarding chronically poor classroom performance of the teacher of gifted education. Following much discussion, the board decided unanimously to support issuing a letter to the teacher placing her on probation for a defined period. During this time, the teacher would be provided reasonable assistance to help her improve along with weekly conferences with an administrator. No improvement occurred, however, and the teacher grew angry. Dismissal ensued at the end of the school year. The teacher publicly claimed the superintendent was jealous of her and blamed jealousy as the reason for her firing.

During the following spring, three school board positions became vacant. The gifted teacher’s aunt and two cousins declared their candidacies, quietly campaigned and were elected to board seats. They requested an executive session to discuss the superintendent’s performance, where they argued the school district deserved a better superintendent than one who “dismissed teachers because she was jealous of them.” Terri was dismissed at the end of June, having received a letter from the school board president about the 4-3 vote against extending her contract and informing her she would no longer be of service to the school district.

The “let’s get even” rule had prevailed. This rule is experienced by male superintendents, as well, but probably not resulting from a false claim of being jealous of a teacher. The jealousy claim is culturally attached to women.

Habits of Thinking
My first appointment to the superintendency came in a small, rural school district of approximately 1,900 students where I had worked as the high school principal for the previous two years. When I was hired for the latter post, the local newspaper headline read: “First Woman High School Principal.”

When the superintendency opened, I was recruited to fill the position. Again the newspaper headline proclaimed “First Woman Superintendent,” referring to the community to which I was now quite attached.

When I later moved to deputy superintendent in a school district with 25,000 students, the newspaper headline declared me the first woman deputy superintendent. I began to believe the mental model of my gender must be stamped on my forehead.

I was assured of that when I moved for the final time to a superintendency in the school district where I would retire. Again the newspaper headlines read, “First Woman Superintendent.” What a clear illustration this experience provided of operative habits of thinking, mental models and linguistic paradigms!

The Puzzle
Being discarded from a position as superintendent brings with it broad and deep reflection and learning. More frequently for women than for men, there is considerable hesitancy to seek another superintendency after being dismissed from a superintendent position. One of the surprises for women superintendents will be the lack of strong and regular support from other women.

In my investigations of the extent of women’s support of other women in leadership positions, the most commonly expressed cultural norms have been these: (1) collaborative decision making wastes time — just tell us what to do; (2) women superintendents need to listen less and take stronger supportive action on behalf of employees; (3) women’s public presence is not as strong as men’s; and (4) women who have not worked previously with a female superintendent will critique her appearance, perceived failure to openly support female employees and inability to lead “the way men lead.”

Women generally have a better opportunity to gain their first superintendency in a rural school district where leadership is more personal. Although the number of women serving in the superintendency may be increasing, experiencing a woman’s leadership as superintendent remains novel for many school districts.

Joyce Dana is an assistant professor of educational leadership at Saint Louis University. E-mail: danaja@slu.edu. She is the co-author with Diana Bourisaw of Women in the Superintendency, from which this article is adapted.