Breaking the Silence: Gender Bias in the Top Ranks: Research on How Women Superintendents Experience Gender Bias Finds Many Women Believe They Are Treated with Disrespect and Their Authority Is Questioned, Leading to Heightened Stress

By Banuelos, Marie V. | Leadership, September-October 2008 | Go to article overview

Breaking the Silence: Gender Bias in the Top Ranks: Research on How Women Superintendents Experience Gender Bias Finds Many Women Believe They Are Treated with Disrespect and Their Authority Is Questioned, Leading to Heightened Stress


Banuelos, Marie V., Leadership


Coming out of retirement to become a superintendent for a second time has given me pause to make some serious decisions on what I would no longer permit as acceptable behaviors of gender bias in my district, in the community, and from the staff and board members.

Having been a secondary teacher and administrator in primarily male-dominated areas of education for 35 years has made me very familiar with gender bias. As a teacher it was called sexual harassment; as an administrator it was not called anything because women understood the need to keep silent about the topic in order to keep their jobs.

In my career in large districts and small, in urban and rural districts, I have experienced gender bias and sexual harassment as a regular part of my job, especially as an administrator. And I am not proud that I mostly kept silent about my experiences, at least publicly.

When I decided to research experiences of gender bias of women superintendents in California, I wasn't sure what I would find. I admit I had to make sure my own experiences and "topic bias" were kept in check, because I thought I was the exception and not the rule in experiencing gender bias.

Follow-up of prior research yields surprises

My search for current research on gender bias in education found several resources that specifically addressed the topic. Catherine Herr Van Nostrand (1993) identified specific behaviors in each area that tended to be exhibited by men to exert male dominance in the workplace. These behaviors included lack of eye contact, touching, references to gender, degrading remarks, space encroachment, gender categorization, paternalism, disparaging remarks, interrupted speech and condescension.

Linda Skrla, Pedro Reyes and James Joseph Scheurich (2000) published an article, "Sexism, Silence, and Solutions: Women Superintendents Speak Up and Speak Out," which responded to the misconception that researchers know what affects sexism: "All of these theories, in our view, offered incomplete explanations for the continued under-representation of women in the public school superintendency." The questions for my survey and the follow-up interviews seeking more in-depth and contextualized responses were based on the findings of prior research such as these studies.

I selected 35 women superintendents at random from those willing to participate in the study in California, They responded to a scaled-response survey regarding their possible experiences of gender bias on the job. I did follow-up interviews with each woman, It was the interviews that enlightened the topic of gender bias as it affected women's jobs and personal lives. The information gathered from the interviews also brought into question the validity of past scaled-response survey research on the topic. Even I was surprised at what I found.

Women superintendents reported they were aware of their gender from the time they got dressed for work in the morning. Women superintendents identified how they were negatively perceived as leaders because they were women, and described the stress that caused. The women said men were treated with deference and respect, whereas the women felt they were treated with disrespect and their authority questioned. They internalized those experiences by questioning their skills, abilities and competencies.

Women superintendents reported sometimes others' conversations overtly pointed to gender differences; sometimes the conversations included comments that were in the form of inappropriate jokes or negative comments about the female gender. The women superintendents reported that the references to their gender were often a part of conversations of their colleagues, the board and the public.

Condescension from their colleagues seemed to have the most negative impact on them. They expressed more anger and hurt when condescension was from male superintendents in their own counties. …

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Breaking the Silence: Gender Bias in the Top Ranks: Research on How Women Superintendents Experience Gender Bias Finds Many Women Believe They Are Treated with Disrespect and Their Authority Is Questioned, Leading to Heightened Stress
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