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Breaking into the All-Male Club: Female Professors of Educational Administration

reviewed by Carol Issac - August 24, 2009

coverTitle: Breaking into the All-Male Club: Female Professors of Educational Administration
Author(s): Norma T. Mertz
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 1438424965, Pages: 203, Year: 2009
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Mertz’s Breaking into the All-Male Club is a collection of stories told by women academics who served in educational administration during the 1970s and 1980s as they attempt to integrate, interpret, and understand their experiences. This book reads as a “who’s who” of women in educational administration, all who were “firsts” in their departments. Although women constituted 88% of elementary school teachers and 49% of secondary school teachers in the 1970s, they were only .01% of superintendents, 5% of assistant superintendents, 2% of high school principals, and 20% of elementary school principals (National Educational Association, 1973). During this timeframe, the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA) reported that 98% of educational administration faculty were male (Blount, 1998).  

As a newly-minted PhD whose research focuses on women’s leadership in higher education, I was struck by the similarities of these women’s “stories, dilemmas, and solutions” (p. 99). These are independent individuals who experienced isolation and invisibility. They were discounted, disadvantaged, and devalued during their entry into those departments of “accomplished white men” (p. 142). The stories in Mertz’s book resound with “self-silencing” and working twice as hard as they had to “walk fast, and catch up” (Isaac, 2007). They then suffered from being a target as “the nail that stands out gets pounded down” (p. 98). Most of these women “drifted” into academia with the support of a few male mentors, yet once there, they did not yield to the major obstacles facing them.    

Some excerpts illustrating these obstacles include various themes of isolation and invisibility. One author reported that when she spoke up at departmental meetings, her male colleagues listened to her politely then treated her as if she had not spoken. Later, when the same suggestion or question was posed by a male member, he was given credit. One contributor described “critique in the absence of celebration” (p. 82) when a male faculty’s new publications were celebrated and hers were rendered invisible by the department.

One author described feelings of isolation as she was labeled a “liberal,” “feminist,” “communist,” “idealist,” “radical,” and “sucker.” Another recalled being told by other women to stay home with her young children (p. 151). She regarded their comments as sources of “intimidation”- a unique perspective. There were many references to the loss of networking opportunities that often took place during lunches and golf. At times the women felt they were being ostracized, but often their male colleagues reported the need for distance from these single female new professors to avoid departmental gossip and marital conflict. They told stories of female staff assistants protecting their male “bosses” implying that they felt threatened by women in faculty roles. These assistants made the lives of newly hired women faculty members difficult (p. 35). One secretary blurted out to an office group that she wasn’t born with a “golden spoon in her mouth” suggesting that the woman professor had not earned her position but it was given to her. The woman, in this scenario, responded with laughter to diffuse the tension (p. 94-95). Over half of the women were from Southern universities where they were portrayed as argumentative. One contributor, a self-described “woman religious,” was advised by a male colleague using a southern colloquialism, that “it is better to be nice than right” (p. 130). This lack of departmental nurturing in the absence of negotiation skills was a common complaint for these women.    

While these examples may seem exceptional to some readers, they represent common themes in gender research. Leadership historically has been viewed through the practices of white males (Grogan, 2003), as the "think manager-think male" phenomenon has been the touchstone of leadership discourse (Schein, 2001). In her social role theory, Eagly (1987) claims that most of these beliefs about gender roles pertain to “communal” versus “agentic” attributes. Eagly’s social role theory ascribes communal characteristics primarily to women emphasizing concern for other’s welfare specifically being “affectionate, helpful, kind, sympathetic, interpersonally sensitive, nurturant, and gentle.” In contrast, the masculine agentic traits include being “assertive, controlling, confident,… aggressive, ambitious, dominant, forceful, independent, self-sufficient, self-confident, and prone to act as a leader” (Eagly, Karau, & Steven, 2002). The very nature of leadership is ascribed to men and is reflected in educational administration departments. Other research suggests that bias against care-giving and fears of suffering career penalties discouraged faculty members from using available policies designed to help them balance professional and family life, as women who admit to care-giving responsibilities are penalized more than men (Drago, et al., 2005). When women assert authority outside of traditionally normative behaviors for their gender, they encounter reactive opposition to their authority (Ridgeway, 2001). Studies have shown that women can reduce this opposition by softening assertive, competent behaviors to increase their influence and negotiate past constraints on their social power (Carli, 2001). Heilman and colleagues have repeatedly documented experimentally that when women demonstrate agentic competence in traditionally male leadership positions they may trigger additional negative responses by violating socialized gender norms (Heilman & Okimoto, 2007; Heilman, Wallen, Fuchs, & Tamkins, 2004). I include this brief overview of the social psychology research because readers may react in disbelief concerning the illustrative examples. Perhaps this book would have benefited by including supporting research, although this may have distracted from its purpose of documenting the histories of the first women entering educational administration.  

The true potential of this book lies in the solutions that follow each of the women’s stories and dilemmas. These solutions were labeled as “advice,” “lessons learned,” “recommendations,” or “reflections.” Some of my favorites were, “deans matter,” “secretaries matter,” “faculty matters,” and “gender matters” (p. 100). One woman said that serendipity played a role with “preparation meeting opportunity” (p. 97). Since the university environment promotes the norm of the individual faculty self-interest over student or group need, important advice was, “if you don’t learn to say no to some people, you will not be here to say yes to anyone” (p. 82). One author fueled her dream “to provide quality education and healthcare for children, or create new policies” because “children are vulnerable and cannot plead their own causes” (p. 100). One contributor, self-described as a “trophy professor,” enjoyed the role because it gave her entry as the first woman in an educational leadership department (p. 175).   

At this transitional time in my life I can appreciate new negotiation skills. I found that this book gave contextual meaning to the statistics on gender inequity. This explanatory information connects the data to individual experience. In my case, these women’s stories provided the substance for resilience in academia.  


National Education Association. (1973). 26th biennial survey of professional personnel 1972-1973. Washington, DC: National Education Association.

Blount, J. M. (1998). Destined to rule the schools: Women and the superintendency, 1873-1995: Albany: State University of New York Press.

Carli, L. L. (2001). Gender and social influence. Journal of Social Issues, 57(4), 725-741.

Drago, R., Colbeck, C., Stauffer, K. D., Pirretti, A., Burkum, K., Fazioli, J., et al. (2005). Bias against caregiving. Academe, 91(5).

Eagly, A. H. (1987). Sex differences in social behavior: A social-role interpretation. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Eagly, A. H., Karau, Steven J. (2002). Role congruity theory of prejudice toward female leaders. Psychological Review, 109(3), 573-598.

Heilman, M. E., & Okimoto, T. G. (2007). Why are women penalized for success at male tasks?: The implied communality deficit. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(1), 81-92.

Heilman, M. E., Wallen, A. S., Fuchs, D., & Tamkins, M. M. (2004). Penalties for success: Reactions to women who succeed at male gender-typed tasks. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89(3), 416-427.

Isaac, C. (2007). Women deans: Patterns of power. Lanham: University Press of America.

Schein, V. E. (2001). A global look at psychological barriers to women's progress in management. Journal of Social Issues, 57(4), 675-688.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 24, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15759, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 9:18:41 AM

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About the Author
  • Carol Issac
    University of Wisconsin-Madison
    E-mail Author
    CAROL A. ISAAC, PhD, PT is a researcher at the Center for Women’s Health Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her areas of interest are gender, power, and leadership in higher education. Her recent publications include: Isaac C. A., Lee B. L., Carnes, M. Interventions that affect gender bias in hiring: A systematic review. Academic Medicine. 2009; (in press). Isaac, C. A., Behar-Horenstein, L. S., & Koro-Ljungberg, M. (2009). Women deans: leadership becoming. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 12(2), 135-153. Isaac, C. A., & Franceschi, A. (2008). EBM: evidence to practice and practice to evidence. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, 14(5), 656-659. Isaac, C. A. (2007). By Their Own Hand: Irreconcilable Silence. Qualitative Inquiry, 13(8), 1209. She recently authored Women Deans: Patterns of Power (University Press of America, 2007). Her current research focuses on women’s leadership in the biomedical sciences.
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