Women In Educational Administration: The Glass Ceiling Is Still There Essay

Several people at the conference dealt with the problems women encounter in getting into administrative positions in schools and colleges and when they do, the obstacles they encounter in making their jobs successful. Their discussions brought home to me the reality of my own mother’s experience. As children we witnessed our mother struggling, summer after summer and during many school years in the evenings, with those courses required for an administrative license. The state gave her that license some twelve years ago, but she is still teaching mathematics in high school. We used to tease her when we were growing up calling her “principal mom” and “assistant principal mom” and the like and pretending that she called us into her office for punishment. We do not do that any more because we know it won’t be fun and games any more but it will be a cruel joke if we did that. What made her disillusioned about the career of an administrator in her school system in which she served nearly a quarter of a century?
It has to do with what is known as a glass ceiling. Administrative positions are open to all qualified persons. They are up there within everyone’s view. All you have to do is qualify yourself with the appropriate education and skills. The law of the land makes every person eligible for them. All employers proclaim in their policy statements that they are “equal opportunity employers.” But when women reach for them, the invisible ceiling stops them. A cruel tease indeed!
My mother said she would not talk to me about her own reluctance to pursue an administrative career, despite all the efforts she put in to qualify for it. She said I should talk with teachers or other personnel in the school systems who had no personal involvement in order to get objective observations. So I interviewed more than 25 people from Superintendents and Principals through Vice Principals, Department Heads, Counselors, Teachers and Teachers’ Assistants to Security, Cafeteria and Maintenance Personnel, in two different school systems. My findings were quite revealing of the invisible glass ceiling.

Let me start with the lowest level positions in the school systems—maintenance workers, security personnel and cafeteria workers. Strictly speaking, they cannot be called part of the education system. Their jobs do not have anything to do with the educational system, they could be in any other place than the school, but the way the heads of their departments are chosen will show how endemic gender discrimination is to the entire school systems, from bottom to top. In fact, it is ingrained in the culture of the school systems as it is in the culture of many other organizations in the public life.
My innocent ears were offended hearing the tale of a woman security officer describe what was going on in the South Bend School Corporation at her level of employment. She has much more seniority than most of the chiefs of security in the school system, but the chief’s position along with all the benefits go to the men who, in her judgement, were less qualified, experienced and conscientious. She pointed out to her own chief, a pot-bellied man who sat by a closet and snacked all day, according to reports, which could not be far from the truth judging from his appearance. “Only men can handle the tough situations; he does all that sitting in that chair while I do the simple things like breaking up fights, confiscating guns and knives and searching out drug pushers,” she stated.

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Among maintenance workers there were only very few women. The chief janitor in one school, a fair man who has a couple of women in his staff, a rarity, said that women are intimidated by furnaces and electrical systems, so they don’t sign up for janitorial jobs. But he also added that “not that they are welcome either; I don’t mind them, but the guys in other schools will hire a women only if they can not even find a dead body.” I asked, “can a woman ever become the chief janitor?” The answer was a plain and clear “never.”
The cafeteria was a completely different story. Practically all the workers in the cafeterias of all schools are women. I asked the head of the food service department in one high school, who I thought was a fair-minded lady, why it was that all cafeteria workers are women. She said men do not generally apply; cooking and serving food is a women’s job, they think. She also added, “ We don’t want them anyway, you can hardly find one who is not sloppy and dirty.” But I observed, and she agreed, that there is no injustice involved. There is no built-in obstacle for men to be hired or promoted in food service.

Leaving the support staff level and getting to the heart of the educational enterprise, we come to the teaching staff. Instantly, one notices that the elementary schools are mostly staffed by women teachers. However, the administrators by and large are men. The South Bend School Corporation, for example, has approximately 25 elementary schools. Of these, twenty of them have men principals while nearly 70% of teachers are women. I asked one of the male principals why there is such a disparity between male/female ratios of teachers and administrators in elementary schools. He said that it is the “mother thing,” women are more suited to teach little children and they are attracted towards the elementary age kids, that is as far as teaching is concerned. The administration, however, is another matter. There you need men. They, according to him, are better organizers, disciplinarians, and of course father figures. A woman principal had a different view. For her it is the “old boys’ club at work. They simply do not want to give women top jobs even in elementary schools,” she said.
When you go up to the Middle School level, the disparity worsens. Of the eight middle schools I visited, six had male principals while the teaching staff was fairly evenly divided. From what I could surmise from the conversations with teachers and administrators, there is no good reason for the disparate male/female ratio in the building administration, except the continuing resistance against women.

A veteran teacher told me that in all his memory he could not think of one female principal in any of the five South Bend public high schools. In the 1998-1999 school year, however, there are three female principals, a majority! But, they are relatively new appointments, two of them only a year ago and the third just this year, but she is only an acting principal. A female superintendent who is also relatively new made these appointments, though they were not very popular. As a result, one of the regular appointees has tended her resignation, the second is on the verge of doing so, and the acting principal’s fate is hanging in the balance.

One of the school staff related to me the reception the acting principal received when she came to take charge of the school and for a few weeks thereafter. To start with, she was appointed at the last minute, as a last resort when none of the candidates the school system offered the job to accepted it. When she came to the building for the first time, very few faculty persons greeted her. One of the two vice principals, a male who had applied for the principal’s job unsuccessfully, greeted her sitting on his chair and with his feet on his desk. He arrogated the principal’s authority to himself, calling faculty meetings, making policy decisions, addressing the school community through the public address system and complaining to the corporate administration about the acting principal. The department heads, counselors, and teachers also started to set their own rules. Being placed in such a tough situation, a weak person would have been totally broken, but the acting principal stood her ground, asserted her authority and established discipline within a few weeks. It was a superhuman task.

In high schools, between the teachers and building administrators, stand the department heads. My curiosity peaked when I noticed that almost all department heads, other than home economics and special education, were men, in all five South Bend high schools. What I learned was that these were all appointees of men principals, hanging on to their jobs, wielding whatever little authority they could claim over their fellow teachers. The culture of male domination governed this low level of administration as well.

Coming to the top level of administration, the South Bend School Corporation never had a woman superintendent in its entire history until five years ago when the present superintendent was appointed. She got the job by default when three outside finalists, all men, declined the offer. She had not been ranked among the finalists despite the fact that she had been a very successful principal in the corporation, with a national reputation as an educator. Being a woman and an African-American were two strikes against her. Her appointment divided the teachers and the community at large along racial lines. A prolonged and bitter teachers strike further divided the community. In spite of her accomplishments in bringing about fiscal discipline and solvency to the corporation, she barley got re-appointed for two short years after the first three-year term. Efforts are mounting to release her even before the two years are up. Resistance against the superintendent by the combined forces of antifeminist and anti-minority groups in the school system itself and the larger community have paralyzed her administration. Lack of discipline and moral within the schools result in the failure of the process of education itself. It is no surprise, therefore, that the South Bend students are among the lowest achievers on the ISTEP. The sad story of South Bend schools is a classic example of how damaging to the public good discrimination against women and minorities can be.

It is also important for us to look beyond the local scene to the national picture to see what role is given to women and minorities in the administration of educational institutions. Several recent studies were able to unveil some hidden truths about women and minorities in the educational administration. The 1990 study by Patricia T. Whitfield entitled Status of Access of Women and Minorities to Administrative Positions in Idaho is a case in point. This study focused on the status of women and minorities in administrative positions in Idaho public schools. Statistically Whitfield documented that among administrators of Idaho public schools only approximately 20% were women and only about 7% minorities. She cites the “old boy network,” family responsibilities, lack of mentors or role models, a late entry into career tracks, and difficulty in gaining credibility as the reasons for this poor representation of women and minorities. As for the possible remedy for this situation, Whitfield received different responses from the administrators and members of the women and minority groups. While the administrators indicated that change/progress would come through their efforts, the women’s and minority groups felt that progress will come only through equal opportunity policies and legislation. I am sure that similar responses will be forthcoming from other comparable groups in all parts of the country. (Patricia T. Whitfield, Status of Women Minorities toAdministrative Positions in Idaho. ERIC TITLE NUMBER: ED 323907).

It is also important to compare the status of women in administrative positions in higher education with what we have seen in the nation’s school systems. Let me start with a local women’s college, Saint Mary’s College of Notre Dame, Indiana. This is a college founded some 155 years ago exclusively for women by women religious of the Holy Cross Congregation. All major administrative positions were held by the Sisters of the Holy Cross up until 1967. This college was also the sister institution of the larger University of Notre Dame, across the road, founded about the same time exclusively for men by the Priests of the Holy Cross. In 1967, when the then president of Saint Mary’s died and another well-qualified nun was not available to fill the role, the sisters appointed Saint Mary’s first male president, a priest. In 1970, Notre Dame proposed a merger with Saint Mary’s. Fearing the total absorption of Saint Mary’s into larger Notre Dame, the sisters withdrew from the merger. However, they inadvertently entered into another dangerous situation, the male domination of the school. This happened when they appointed the first layman president of the college, hoping that would bring Saint Mary’s in tune with the modern age. For the next 29 years, the administration of the college passed into almost exclusively male hands. Only in 1999 did they appoint a woman president and a female administrative team, after three decades of male domination.

While Saint Mary’s College’s link with the Holy Cross Sisters made it easy for its board to revert to its traditional administration by women, what is happening nationwide in higher education is quite different. A 1982 study by Kathryn M. Moore documents the low status of women in administrative positions in higher education. Moore studied the career issues, educational concerns and the professional, educational and personal backgrounds of 2, 896 senior college administrators from all parts of the United States. The focus of her study was the status of women and minorities in educational administration. She discovered that women and minorities represented a shocking 20 and 8 percent of the sample, respectively. Even more disturbing was her discovery that women and minorities held only low level positions such as registrar, librarian, and financial aid director. In contrast, men held positions like President and Chief Financial Officer. Of the 653 deans in the survey only 90 (13.8%) were women. Half of these women deans were in the fields of nursing, home economics, arts and sciences, and continuing education. As for minorities, only 5.5% of them were among the deans. These statistics tell the cruel hoax American society still plays on its female citizens despite decades of equal opportunity enforcement. (Women and Minorities. Leaders in Transition: A National Study of Higher Education Administrators by Kathryn M. Moore. University Park, PA., Center for the Study of Higher Education, Pennsylvania State University, 1982. P.64.).

Leaving the broad, nationwide survey, let us now take a closer look at one institution of higher learning, University of New Hampshire, an institution with a relatively high reputation. A 1993 study ordered by the university president on the status of women showed that out of 16 principal administrators (president, vice president, and deans) of the university, only one was a woman and she was only a temporary appointment. At the next level, the Academic Administration level, 27.3% were women. At the executive management level, women held only 21.8% of the positions. But at the management or supervisory level (support staff level) 60.8% of the employees were women.
The story becomes even grimmer when we look at the compensation level of employers at the University of New Hampshire. Of those employees making $35,000-55,000, 54% were women. Of those making $55,000-66,000 only 31% were women. Of those making above $65, 000 only a meager 19% were women. When different groupings were employed, the glaring and shameless fact came out, that is out of all the employees making less than $30,000, a towering 83.3% were women!
The study also indicated that the situation at the University of New Hampshire was fairly typical of all universities in the country; only much worse in many other schools. (University of New Hampshire President’s Commission on the Status of Women, July 1993).

The issues relating to the status of women were placed in a broader, national perspective by the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission in 1996. Rene Redwood, then Special Assistant to the Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, summarized the findings of this commission in a speech she gave at the “Working Women’s Summit” held by Women in Technology International (WITI) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in September 1996. The most telling data she included in her speech was that in the top 1000 industrial and 500 service companies in the United States, 95% of senior level managers were men of which 95% were white. Of the 5% of those managers who were women, only 5% were minority women. This translated into a total of 2,100 senior women executives out of the 42,000 top-level executives.

She also pointed out the disparity in salary levels between men and women on a national level. While non-Hispanic white males with bachelors degrees received an average salary of $47, 181, the females with bachelor’s degrees in the same ethnic group received only an average of $31, 338. Of those with masters’ degrees, non-Hispanic white males received an average of $57, 371, but females in the same ethnic group with master’ degrees received only an average $38, 391. Reliable statistics about the salary levels of other ethnic groups are not available but it is safe to assume that they are appallingly disparate.

While statistics document the injustice of the system, they do not suggest solutions for the problem. Solutions can be found only if men and women of good will come together and seek them out. There are many organizations that address these issues on the local and national level. There are also laws on the book that could be brought to bear when institutions are insensitive to the issues of equality. However, in order to bring about fundamental changes, we have to work at the roots of our culture. This is where educators have an advantage. It is their hands that mold the next generation. They can change the whole outlook of society if they put their minds to it. Let us hope, therefore, in a generation or two, we can make the statistics look very different.

1. For information about women in administration in local schools, I interviewed 25 individuals at various levels of employment, from maintenance staff and cafeteria workers to teachers, principals and Superintendents of South Bend, Mishawaka, and Penn-Harris-Madison School Systems.

2. For information on local colleges and universities, I interviewed 12 professors and administrators at Saint Mary’s College and the University of Notre Dame.

3. For information on the status of women in educational administration on the regional and national level, I used the following sources:
a. Patricia T. Whitfield, Status of Access of Women and Minorities to Administrative Positions in Idaho. ERIC TITLE No. ED 323907.

b. Kathryn M. Moore, Women and Minorities. Leaders in Transition: A National Study of Higher Education Administrators. ERIC TITLE No. ED 225459.

c. University of New Hampshire President’s Commission on Status of Women. University of New Hampshire, 1993.
d. Rene Redwood, The Glass Ceiling: The Findings and Recommendations of the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission. Washington, D.C. 1996.

JULY 30, 1999
Social Issues


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