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Women in School Administration:
Overcoming the Barriers to Advancement

by Kathleen Kelley Lynch
Assistant Superintendent
Exeter, New Hampshire

It is an interesting commentary on the American workforce that in education, one of the few professions in which women have historically dominated in terms of numbers, women are outnumbered by men four to one at the administrative level. And, up until the last few years, that situation has grown steadily worse rather than better. In the years between 1928 and 1984, the number of women principals continually dropped from 55 percent to 18 percent.1 This mirrors a similar drop in the representation of women throughout educational administration as a whole. While a recent survey of school superintendents indicates that the number of women at all levels of school administration is now slowly increasing, women's representation in school administration is still far from proportionate to their representation in all of education.2

The lack of proportional representation of women combines with an even greater lack of representation by people of color in administration. This makes the picture for women of color even more gloomy. A U.S. Department of Education survey released in 1988 showed that 96 percent of superintendents are male and 97 percent are white. And principals are 76 percent male and 90 percent white. All of these statistics stand as evidence of a system that works against the advancement of those candidates who are not white males.

Our understanding about career socialization and advancement in administration has been based almost exclusively on the experience of men. Women's experience has traditionally been explained by comparing it against theories derived from male experience, with women found wanting when these theories didn't work. In order to investigate women's advancement in school administration, we must recognize that, as Carol Gilligan has described, women's personal development is different than that of men's. Women's experience in the school administration cannot be accurately described by looking at it through the lens of male development. Fortunately, research has been done in recent years that documents the unique experience of women in school administration. We can now begin to describe the factors that affect women's entry into and advancement through administrative careers in education.

Research theories

Researchers have identified three distinct theories to explain why women are not represented in administration in proportional numbers. According to the first approach, women are inherently unsuited to administrative work due to their early socialization, and need to be resocialized to perform more effectively in administrative roles. The second approach emphasizes the structural barriers of organizations that prevent women from advancing. The third approach looks to male dominance in society at large as the barrier to women's advancement.3

All three theories are rooted in the concept of a culture of school administration that defines who is an appropriate candidate for an administrative position. Workplace culture, as the system of roles, rules, and relationships that define a cohesive group,4 dictates socialization processes, defines who is suitable for what roles, and decides what characteristics constitute a good "fit" between an individual and a job.


This approach begins with the assumption that school administration is a separate career from teaching, not an extension of it.5 Thus, entry into school administration requires a resocialization process. C. Marshall's study of women administrators illustrates this strand of theory.6 She found that successful women administrators subvert or go around the usual socialization processes and find alternative methods. Yet she points out that career socialization for school administrators in general is characterized by informality, ambiguity, and role conflict.

Marshall found that in a male-stereotyped role, such as that of a school administrator, women must pass through a special socialization process. In doing so, they experience conflict between traditional roles of women and the career demands and informal job criteria of administrative positions. She labeled this conflict "female career role stress." The specialized socialization process that women must pass through has three definable stages: cultural definition, transition, and self-definition. She also found a relationship between the stage of career socialization, and the level of anxiety that women experience. Where the position a woman holds is appropriate to her level of career socialization, she operates with comfort; where there is a discrepancy between career socialization and position held, the woman experiences anxiety. Schwartz describes career conflict for management women as a continuum that runs from total dedication to job at one end and to a balance between career and family at the other, with neither extreme acceptable to the male corporate culture.7 The dilemma that women in school administration face is similar.

Structural barriers

The work of F. Ortiz is illustrative of the structural barriers approach to looking at women's advancement. Ortiz views women's advancement as a problem of mobility. Three types of boundaries must be crossed. Hierarchical boundaries separate the various levels in the school organization, and are usually differentiated by formal requirements such as degrees and certifications. Functional boundaries separate different departments or divisions of the school system from one another, such as elementary and secondary principals. Finally the inclusion boundaries differentiate individuals by their position within the organization relative to the center of power. The latter are the most difficult to cross, since crossing them involves negotiating informal processes, a much more difficult task. So advancement is described as a matter of crossing many kinds of boundaries, from the periphery of the organization to the center, from the bottom of the hierarchy to the top. In this interpretation, the problems for women are not the formal, tangible barriers like education or certification, but the intangible, informal ones that require an aspirant to be accepted as "one of us" by those already at the apex of the organization.

Such acceptance is usually acquired through successful performance in the proper sequence of positions. Taking the wrong career path, such as being a specialist rather than a principal, can dead end an administrative aspirant. Since women's career paths are typically much more circuitous that men's, the danger exists that they may be funneled into low-opportunity, dead-end positions. These positions allow them neither the opportunity to develop the skills necessary for advancement, nor the opportunity to demonstrate those skills that they do have.8

Male dominance theory

In spite of more than thirty years of data to the contrary, the myth remains that the ideal manager conforms to a masculine stereotype: self-reliant, forceful, ambitious, and a strong leader.9 Because of this belief, positions that are seen as managerial are still stereotyped as "masculine." The inherent contradiction is that as long as women remain in the minority in management circles, the male stereotype of management will endure, and the women who are in management positions will feel pressured to behave like men. And when female managers adopt male behaviors, the male stereotype of the ideal manager is reinforced, and the dominance of the male stereotype is sustained.10

This male stereotype continues to dominate in part because the notion of "fit" is a critical criterion often used in the selection of school administrators. Both schools and communities have held deeply rooted ideas of what a principal should be. A successful candidate has to fulfill this vague criterion, which, in many instances, outweighs more specific criteria such as credentials and instructional leadership skills. This criterion has worked heavily against women, who typically do not embody the traditionally held ideas about what a leader should look or act like.11

Some recent approaches to management style seem to favor "feminine" characteristics rather than "masculine" ones. "Theory Z" and participatory approaches to management emphasize qualities that are associated with the female stereotype. And research has exhibited findings that are either neutral towards or more favorable to a "women's" style of management. J.M. Frasher and R. S. Frasher have collected data reaching back thirty years to indicate that there have been no difference in the administrative performances of men and women, and G.N. Powell et al.'s data shows that women have been more effective.12 At the University of California, L. Khantak's early findings in a California study indicate that women are now being appointed more frequently to principalships because the desired approach to management has shifted away from the traditional male stereotype to a more people-orientated, curriculum-centered, consensus-driven style more typical of women. But statistics also show the continued dominance of the male stereotype in management. In spite of a growing preference for female approaches to school administration, men continue to be selected in the majority of cases.

Overcoming barriers to advancement

If these theories are correct--and study after study indicates that they are--the resolution of the problem is clear: change the culture of the school administration to remove the barriers that limit opportunities for women and accommodate a broader range of career socialization experiences. Yet, all of these theories are based on deficiencies: in women, in the system, and in society. While we must understand this "deficiency perspective," this understanding does little to empower women or help them strategize to move ahead. Using this perspective, however, we can identify several factors critical to women's advancement, and we can begin to move from a deficiency to an empowerment perspective.

Three critical factors

The three strands of research that we've examined highlight critical factors in the advancement of women in administration. The first is the degree of compatibility between the woman's career orientation and the demands of the position she holds. This factor describes the extent to which a woman's perception of herself is constrained by cultural stereotypes of female behavior. While some women manage the transition from "cultural definition" to "self-definition" effectively and experience success in roles traditionally held by men, this is nearly always a stressful transition period.13


The second factor, structural barriers, comprises the formal and informal filtering system that organizations use to train and test the suitability of an aspirant for a particular position and control upward mobility. While some women apparently negotiate the barriers successfully, we know that, overall, women have less access to the informal experiences and socialization processes that facilitate movement through the barriers. The third factor, organizational fit, emerges naturally from the other two. It refers to the congruence between an individual in a particular role and the particular organization's idealized notion of the individual in that role. Because organizational cultures vary, the ideal administrator in one school or school system may not be the same as that in another. While the structures and attitudes that support male dominance in school administration prevail nationwide, individual schools or school systems may be more or less receptive to the advancement of women.

Based on the three strands of research, and on these critical advancement factors that they highlight, we can begin to design new approaches to female advancement. The traditional approaches to battling gender-based job discrimination have been affirmative action programs and legal challenges.14 While both affirmative action and litigation are powerful and necessary tools for fighting sex discrimination, women cannot rely solely upon such global approaches to assist them in their career advancement. Both affirmative action and litigation work slowly, and often in tandem. And, in addition, litigation is costly, and the costs are not only monetary. The woman who brings action against an empower or prospective employer may win the case, but may bear unpleasant consequences to her career. The successful individual litigant in a sex discrimination case may find her mobility blocked once she has the job for which she successfully litigated. Class action is a more effective and reasonable approach. But class action may not meet the immediate career needs of individual women.

Another approach that has been emphasized is mentoring. Women administrators often feel they have an extra responsibility to other women aspiring to administration. Again, female-to-female mentoring is a valuable element in a total approach to female administrative advancement, but it is beset with problems as well. First, in our current situation, the number and distribution of female administrators is inadequate to provide mentoring to all those female administrative aspirants who could or should receive it. Second, depending on a female-to-female mentoring model may result in the development of a parallel network for women, which doesn't erode the structural barriers and cultural attitudes that support male dominance in school administration.

To work for systemic change, women in higher administrative positions need to mentor men as well as women, but mentor in ways that render the "old boys" network extinct. Newer male principals tend to be more receptive to women as administrators, and they are often in a position to mentor female teachers who wish to move into administrative careers. And the rapidly increasing number of female assistant superintendents, the position in which the percentage of women is growing the fastest, creates greater opportunity for women to mentor the male principals who work for them. Successful female-to-male mentoring creates the opportunity for changed male attitudes toward women administrators and contributes to the demise of exclusionary advancement structures for either men or women. This expanded concept of mentoring can be an effective strategy for enhancing the advancement of individual women and for women as a group.

Maximizing women's advancement opportunities

When we juxtapose the critical factors for advancement with strategies for overcoming barriers, and then superimposed them on the theories explaining women's failure to advance in school administration, a three- dimensional matrix results. This matrix, similar to a Rubik's Cube, requires that a successful administrative aspirant determine three things: (1) which theory or theories seem to apply in a particular situation, (2) how the critical factors are configured for her with regard to the particular situation, and, given her conclusions on the first two points, (3) which combination of approaches and actions will work best for her.

The successful aspirant strategizes to make herself the right person in the right place at the right time. This technique does not rely on luck: a woman can increase her chances of being in this position by conscious and deliberate planning around the factors of structural barriers, role compatibility, and organizational fit. An awareness of critical factors can assist a female aspirant in analyzing her current situation, and in developing career actions that she can use in pursuit of her career goals.

Both literature and women's experience document the barriers that impede women's progress, and the kinds of societal restructuring and class action that must be undertaken if true change is to come about. While these actions are essential, it is equally important that women know the variables within their ability to control that they can use to further their career advancement. By gaining these tools, women can increase their potential for achieving career goals and for advancing from within the culture of school administration toward inclusion and gender-free opportunity.


  1. J.R. Feldman, M. Jorgensen, and E.Poling, "Illusions: Women in Educational Administration," in Sex Equity in Education: Readings and Strategies, ed. by A. O'Brien Carelli (Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas, 1988), p. 336
  2. E.H. Jones and X.T. Montenegro, Women and Minorities in School Administration (Arlington, VA: American Association of School Administrators, 1988).
  3. E. Hansot and D. Tyack, The Dream Deferred: A Golden Age for Women in School Administration (Stanford, Calif.: Institute for Research on Educational Finance and Governance, 1981).
  4. Corbett, On the Meaning of Restructuring (Philadelphia: Better School Research, 1990); M.R. Louis, "An Investigator's Guide to Workplace Culture," in Organizational Culture, ed. by P.J. Frost et al. (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1985).
  5. F. Ortiz and C. Marshall, "Women in Educational Administration," in Handbook of Research on Educational Administration, ed. by N.J. Boyam (New York: Longman, 1988).
  6. C. Marshall, "The Career Socialization of Women in School Administration," unpublished dissertation, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1979.
  7. F.N. Schwartz, "Management Women and the New Facts of Life," Harvard Business Review 89, no. 1 (Jan.-Feb. 1989): 68.
  8. R.M. Kanter, Men and Women of the Corporation (New Tork: Basic Books, 1977).
  9. J.M. Frasher and R.S. Frasher, "Educational Administration: A Feminine Profession," Educational Administration Quarterly 15, no. 2 (Spring 1979); G.N. Powell, "Career Development and the Woman Manager: A Social Power Perspective," Personnel (May-June 1980): 22-33; G.N. Powell, Women and Men in Management (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1988); K. Whitaker and K. Lane, "Is a Woman's Place in School Administration?" School Administration 47, no. 2 (February 1990): 8-12.
  10. G.N. Powell, Women and Men in Management.
  11. D.C. Baltzell and R.A. Dentler, Selecting American School Principals: Research Report (Cambridge, Mass.: Abt Associates, 1983).
  12. J.M. Frasher and R.S. Frasher, "Educational Administration"; G.N. Powell et al., "Sex Effects of Managerial Value Systems," Human Relations 37, no. 11 (1984).
  13. C. Marshall, "The Career Socialization of Women in School Administration."
  14. C. Shakeshaft, Women in Educational Administration (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1986); C. Marshall, "The Career Socialization of Women"; C. Marshall and B. Mitchell, "Women's Careers as a Critique of the Administrative Culture," paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, 1989.

Resources: Administration Highlighted in WEEA Materials

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Women interested in educational administration still face numerous obstacles in this male-dominated profession. Strategies for overcoming those hurdles range from mentoring to increasing self-esteem and assertiveness skills to developing specific job skills and strategies. The Women's Education Equity Act (WEEA) Program, a grant program managed by the Department of Education, funds a variety of model programs that address issues such as this. The WEEA Program remains the only federal program that funds projects to increase equity for women and girls in education. And over the last thirteen years, the program has supported a number of projects that help women move into or advance in school administration.

For instance, a 1989 project in Amarillo, Texas, run by the Panhandle Council of Women School Executives, designed and conducted a mentoring program for women in the Panhandle region. In this model program, women who currently hold administrative positions mentor women who want to enter or move up in administration. Already, several of the participants have entered administrative positions, including one woman who now is one of the few Latina principals in the region.

Mentoring has proven to be a very successful method for helping women learn skills and develop a professional network. Just-released Executive Mentoring: Myths, Issues, Strategies, by N. Mertz, O.Welch, and J. Henderson, is an easy-to-read booklet that raises the questions that mentors must ask themselves. It looks at how mentoring can help an organization and the considerations involved in establishing an organization wide mentoring program.

In a WEEA Publishing Center publication, The Hidden Discriminator: Sex and Race Bias in Educational Research, by Patricia B. Campbell, the notion of research and researchers as a bastion of impartiality is challenged. Campbell looks at the effects of bias in research on programs and decision making the monograph comes with a series of pamphlets addressed to various educational audiences, including administrators and teachers. The straightforward discussion and guidelines enable administrators to look at how research influences their actions and decisions and ways to evaluate research methods and conclusions.

Publishing Information:

The WEEA Digest is published by the
WEEA Publishing Center, a project at Education
Development Center, Inc., under contract with the
U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational
Research and Improvement. Opinions expressed
herein do not necessarily reflect the position of
the U.S. Department of Education and no official
endorsement should be inferred.

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