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Women Leading School Systems: Uncommon Roads to Fulfillment

reviewed by Linda Skrla - September 25, 2007

coverTitle: Women Leading School Systems: Uncommon Roads to Fulfillment
Author(s): C. Cryss Brunner and Margaret Grogan
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 1578865336, Pages: 170, Year: 2007
Search for book at Amazon.com

“The job will probably never change—we need to prepare better for it.  When we survive, we need to help others so they can get a frame of reference for what is ‘normal.’  As I learn, I am committed to helping others along their way” (p. 136). These words from a participant in C. Cryss Brunner and Margaret Grogan’s 2003 survey of women superintendents and female assistant/associate/deputy superintendents across the U.S. capture the essence of both the good news and the bad news reported in Women Leading School Systems.

The good news is that women public school superintendents as well as women in central office positions are surviving and, in the majority of cases (74% for superintendents), they report that they are thriving.  Furthermore, their numbers are increasing, and they are committed to mentoring others so that this upward trend will continue.  The less-good news is that the job (of superintendent) for women has not changed appreciably from what the mainly qualitative research accumulated over the last decade has shown—the hours are brutal, the job is lived out in a fishbowl, the isolation and loneliness can be crushing, and “the fact that you are a woman is the first thing others notice.  The stereotypes are there…not tough enough, emotional, not bright enough, etc.” (p. 105).

Contained within the chapters of this volume is a tremendous amount of detail and nuance between the good and bad news extremes about what women in school system leadership positions experience in their roles and what they think on a range of administration and policy issues.  Brunner and Grogan, in a study commissioned by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), accumulated survey responses from 1,195 women school leaders and use these data to paint a comprehensive and complex picture of the current situation for U.S. female superintendents and central office administrators.

The book is organized into seven chapters, the first two of which provide history and review literature in two areas—women in education leadership (chapter 1) and aspiration and achievement motivation (chapter 2).  These two chapters lay the groundwork for the presentation of research results contained in the next four chapters.  Chapters 3 and 4 focus on the similarities and differences between women central office administrators who aspire to the superintendency and those who do not.  Chapter 5 is devoted to the survey responses from women who are in the superintendency, and chapter 6 profiles women of color both in the superintendency and in the central office.  The concluding chapter of the book (chapter 7) explores the relatively high level of job fulfillment reported by women superintendents using Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s (1990) concept of flow, or optimal experience in work activity.  

Women Leading School Systems takes a much-needed step forward in a research field that, as Michelle D. Young, Executive Director of the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA), noted in her endorsement for the book’s cover, “is desperately in need of positive and stimulating accounts.”  After more than a century’s worth of neglect, women in educational leadership emerged as topic of scholarly interest in the late 1970s (Marshall, 1948; Shakeshaft, 1987) and grew in activity and interest through the last two decades of the 20th century, only to have progress slow again at the turn of the 21st century “as promising lines of inquiry bec[a]me more fully excavated and new paradigmatic, philosophical, and epistemological boundaries [were] reached” (Skrla & Young, 2003, p. 2).  We know the situation for women in the upper levels of educational administration has long been inequitable and that it remains substantially so (Blackmore, 1999); what is needed is new research that gets beyond affirmation that the problem is still the problem and asks new questions, uses alternative lenses, seeks new solutions.

Brunner and Grogan’s book does just that; by reporting the results of a large-scale, primarily quantitative study designed by feminist researchers, the authors provide us with a state-of-the-field profile that is rich with information and that lays out fertile ground for future researchers.  An example of the type of information in Women Leading School Systems that has not been available elsewhere is found in the two chapters that compare and contrast survey responses from women central office administrators who aspire to the superintendency with those who do not.  

These are important data, considering that one of the most oft-touted explanations for the grossly under-representative numbers of women in the public school superintendency has been that it is primarily a “pipeline” issue that will prove self-correcting as larger numbers of women enroll in administration preparation programs and gain experience in “feeder” positions for the superintendency such as the high school principalship and central office administrative roles.  The numbers of women in preparation programs have increased substantially, as have those in the career path to the superintendency.  Nonetheless, the percentage of women superintendents remains low (18% in Brunner and Grogan’s survey), especially considering that women make up three-fourths of the workforce from which superintendents typically come.  In chapters 2 and 3 of Brunner and Grogan’s book, we find detailed information about the women who are actually in the pipeline that reveals the situation to be much more complex than the pipeline explanation would suggest.

Additionally, chapter 6, which covers survey responses from women of color who are superintendents and those who are in central office roles, provides an up-to-date national profile of African American, Hispanic, Native American, Asian American, and Pacific Islander female school leaders.  Such data have been extremely difficult to come by in the past.  Women of color represent a small percentage of an already under-represented group (102 out of  1,195 female survey respondents) and face double discrimination in their roles, as is illustrated by their responses to survey questions about perceived barriers limiting administrative opportunities for women superintendents: “Sixty-one percent of women of color saw discriminatory hiring and promotional practices as a major problem limiting administrative opportunities for individuals of color; only 20% of white women saw it similarly” (p. 116).

These data and those filling all seven chapters of Women Leading School Systems enable the book to make a substantial and important contribution to the research literature on women in educational leadership.   As the study participant quoted in the beginning of this review pointed out, we, both women who work as school system leaders and those who study them, need a better frame of reference for what is “normal.”  Brunner and Grogan’s book provides just such a frame—a carefully constructed, detailed, and readable portrait of who the women on the top rungs of the educational administration career ladder are and what their lives are like.


Blackmore, J.  (1999).  Troubling women:  Feminism, leadership, and educational change.  Buckingham, UK:  Open University Press.

Brunner, C.C., & Grogan, M.  (2007).  Women leading school systems:  Uncommon roads to fulfillment.  Lanham, MD:  Roman & Littlefield.

Czikszentmihalyi, M.  (1990).  Flow:  The psychology of optimal experience.  New York: HarperCollins.

Marshall, C. (1984). The crisis in excellence and equity.  Educational Horizons, 63, 24-30.

Shakeshaft, C.  (1987). Women in educational administration.  Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Skrla, L., & Young, M.D.  (2003). Introduction.  In M.D. Young & L. Skrla (Eds.), Reconsidering feminist research in educational leadership (pp. 1-6).  Albany: State University of New York Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 25, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14619, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 7:38:15 AM

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About the Author
  • Linda Skrla
    Texas A&M University
    E-mail Author
    LINDA SKRLA is Associate Dean for Research and P-16 Initiatives in the College of Education and Human Development and Professor of Educational Administration at Texas A&M University. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. Prior to joining the Texas A&M faculty in 1997, Dr. Skrla worked for 14 years as a middle school and high school teacher and as a campus and district administrator in Texas public schools. Her research focuses on educational equity issues in school leadership, including accountability, high success districts, and women superintendents. Her published work has appeared in numerous journals, and her most recent book is Educational Equity and Accountability: Paradigms, Policies, and Politics (2003, RoutledgeFalmer) with James Joseph Scheurich.
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