Women Superintendents in Iowa: Where Is the Momentum? Reflections of a National Malaise

By Olsen, Jill | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Women Superintendents in Iowa: Where Is the Momentum? Reflections of a National Malaise


Olsen, Jill, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Overview

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Iowa is a state of approximately three million people, 95% of whom are Caucasian. As an agricultural state, most of the population is clustered in several cities, the largest of which has a population of 300,000 people. Education plays a major role in the state as a primary employer, with 322 school districts, three major public universities, 34 private colleges and universities, and a strong network of 15 state-run community colleges.

For years Iowa has shared national leadership in student achievement with the states of Wisconsin and Minnesota according to performance data from the American College Testing Program (ACT). Iowa remains the only state in the union, which does not have state-level curriculum standards, opting instead, to a long-held philosophy of local control to determine curriculum for students. The current director of the Iowa Department of Education is female and has been appointed to that position by two governors. First appointed in 2004, she is the fourth female director, following tenures of three earlier directors who served from 1923 to 1955 (Smith, 1969). The director did not serve as a superintendent prior to her present position. With the profile just described, it would be logical to assume that Iowa is a leader, or at least keeps step with, gender equity in educational leadership positions. However, such is not the case.

Purpose

In 2004 I undertook doctoral research focusing on what attributes were necessary for a female to become a superintendent of schools in Iowa. The research centered on the question: What does it take for a female to become a superintendent in Iowa? By asking this question it was my intent to identify any barriers women might face in accessing the superintendency, and then to discern what attributes female superintendents exhibited that allowed them to overcome the barriers. The question was predicated in light of the Iowa data that indicated a wide disparity between the number of male and female superintendents. The study was grounded in the seminal work of Jackie Blount (1998) who studied the history of female superintendentcy in the United States, along with her statistical analyses of female superintendent populations. Her well-documented findings revealed the gender bias evident in the power structure of U.S. public schools.

This paper is further warranted in light of more recent data available about gender balance in educational leadership in the State of Iowa. The perspective remains gloomy. This paper will share information about this issue through the presentation and discussion of results from the 2005 quantitative and qualitative research, updates of state data, and the informants' stories in their own words. Sharing and elaborating different aspects of the research will (hopefully) acquaint the reader with some of the realities of life for women seeking the superintendency in Iowa and to connect these realities with the wider national scene. This paper will address the selection process, including the barriers of the "think manager, think male" mindset (Ryan & Haslam, 2005, p.5), dispositions of school boards toward female candidates, barriers that seem specific to female aspirants along with their particular attributes which have allowed them to gain a superintendent position. These issues, though researched in Iowa, are borne out by the literature to be common across the United States.

Research

To access data about the women in Iowa superintendencies, a survey was electronically mailed to all 37 (2003-2004) Iowa female superintendents to compare their responses with 37 randomly selected male superintendents from an Iowa Department of Education list. The response rate to this survey was 97.2% for males and 75.6% for females. Frequency response tables and data analysis, primarily the Wilcoxon/Mann-Witney/U Test, were used to determine significant differences between the groups.

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