Women Leaders and Spirituality

By Harris, Sandra; Ballenger, Julia et al. | Advancing Women in Leadership, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Women Leaders and Spirituality


Harris, Sandra, Ballenger, Julia, Jones, April, Advancing Women in Leadership


In addressing leadership, there are often two interlocking strands. One of these strands centers on the contributions of leadership grounded in men's leadership experiences (Regan & Brooks, 1995). The second interlocking strand includes feminist attributes. This contributes to nuances of meaning that arise from women's experiences of leadership. Regan and Brooks noted five attributes of leadership among women: collaboration, caring, courage, intuition, and vision. Often these attributes are embedded in firmly held beliefs which are at the heart of a notion of relational leadership. Over twenty years ago, Jaggar (1983) further emphasized that "feminist theory is at its best when it reflects the lived experiences of women, when it bridges the gap between mind and body, reason, and emotion, thinking and feeling" (p. x).

Yet, most researchers acknowledge that there are differences in how women and men lead. For example, men are more likely to be oriented toward "rights," while women are more likely to be oriented toward "caring" (Gilligan, 1977). Women leaders tend to focus more closely than men on instructional tasks, as well as on students' individual differences (as cited in Ortiz & Marshall, 1988). Other studies of superintendents noted that men exerted leadership within and without the organization while women exerted their leadership within the organization and in those activities most closely associated with their role (as cited in Ortiz & Marshall, 1988). Other studies pointed out that male groups competed with each other and rarely expressed feelings; male groups were more likely to have a differentiated division of labor; female groups were more often characterized by interpersonal relations and concern for one another; and in mixed groups men developed a more personal orientation and were less aggressive (as cited in Ortiz & Marshall, 1988).

Clearly, the traditional public perception of femininity and a woman's ability to be an effective leader are often in conflict. In fact, for women to be seen as a leader in their field, women must have more credentials than male counterparts, be better prepared, and be more knowledgeable (Jamieson, 1995). According to Grossman and Chester (1990), further research is needed that explores a deeper understanding of women's experiences by including research in which women leaders make meaning of their own experiences. Consequently, the purpose of this qualitative study was to explore the personal and professional experiences of nine women leaders who have earned public recognition for their contribution to education as teachers, principals, superintendents, and university professors. This paper focuses specifically on women's lived leadership experiences in relation to spirituality.

Leadership in Education

Today, 70% of teachers are women (Steffy, 2002) attributed in part to the fact that many women choose to teach because they feel career options are limited. Yet, despite the prevalence of women in teaching, of even greater concern is that men continue to dominate in educational leadership roles. While female principals actually constituted 55% of elementary principals in 1928, by 1973 this number had fallen to only 19.6% (Johnson, 1973). However, in the l980s, 25% of principals were women, and by the early 1990s this had risen to 48%. Most women were elementary principals, with only 12% serving at the high school level (Natale, 1992; Saks, 1992). Central office positions have typically been the most likely administrative level for women, with as many as 48.2% of women making up general administration positions, such as finance or personnel (Ortiz & Marshall, 1988).

The superintendency has historically been conceived of in "distinctly male terms" (Grogan, 2000, p. 121). The Committee of Ten of 1892, which formulated policies for superintendents, included only men. Other early leaders recommended that education adopt a business model and hire administrators from these ranks, which, of course, excluded women. …

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