Dissonance Toward Women Aspiring for the Top
BY MONA L. MONTGOMERY/School Administrator, March 2020

Mona Montgomery (right) at Brandman University’s graduation with her adviser, Marilou Ryder, whose study on women advancing toward the superintendency she replicated 20 years later for her doctoral dissertation.
Two young superintendents, one male and one female, are introduced to their respective school districts a week after signing contracts with their respective school boards. That’s where the similarities end. Their welcoming experiences take divergent paths.

The female superintendent is asked by her board of education how she will balance work and family life once on the job. She is questioned on how she does it all. She explains she has a nanny, a highly supportive spouse, gets many things she needs delivered to home and outsources many of the household chores.

The male superintendent is not asked at all about his work-life balance or how he contributes to the raising of his family. He is asked if he is a golfer.

In Search of Progress
Twenty years after my doctoral adviser, Marilou Ryder of Brandman University, studied the impact of male gender dissonance on women’s eligibility for advancing into the superintendency, I replicated the study with roughly the same population — seven female and seven male superintendents in three Southern California counties. I revisited the subject, in a new century (2019 versus 1998) to discover what progress has been made in overcoming the glass ceiling for women in leadership.

In my career, I have experienced disappointment when trying to advance. I wanted to learn what behaviors hinder women when they try to progress to the next leadership level. I hoped to benefit from the study myself.

Almost every superintendent interviewed for my dissertation on gender dissonance and its effect on advancement to the superintendency began with “I don’t think I have anything to add to your study.” Study participants, both male and female, would acknowledge they really did not see any different issues between men and women ascending to the post of superintendent. As our discussion became more comfortable and I gained trust with each superintendent, they shared examples of their perceived differences and examples of gender dissonance between men and women in K-12 education.

The number of women superintendents, while rising slowly, far exceeds today the number nationally since Ryder published her work. But that number has hit a plateau at 25 percent, and evidence of the good ol’ boys club remains alive and kicking.

While women have made important gains in how they communicate as leaders, according to my work, they continue to be viewed as unable to contribute to male sports discussions or invited to play golf. The woman who wears provocative clothing still makes both men and women uncomfortable, yet not wearing designer clothing is often a subject of conversational judgment by female peers. All of these barriers also were evident in Ryder’s study — showing we have not made the gains over 20 years that we had anticipated.

Perpetual Attitudes
As a school principal, I wonder whether my aspirations to become a superintendent will be deterred as I journey through the labyrinth of trends and obstacles that my study and others in recent years have documented. When I’m asked if I want to become a superintendent, I find it difficult to answer. My research, though, has given me a broader perspective for what to expect. Having the mentorship of women like Ryder has given me the courage to open myself to the possibility of pursuing the highest level of educational leadership.

Clearly, women need to be aware of particular behaviors if they are to gain access to top school system roles. The #MeToo movement generated concern in the workplace and led to heightened awareness about how we interact with each other as males and females. We need to be aware of our emotions, how we dress and how hard we push.

Women continue to be in a no-win situation, according to both studies two decades apart. If you are too caring and empathetic, you are seen as weak. If you are too assertive as a female leader, you can be seen as a bitch, and if you talk too much, you are just an annoyance. The same behaviors by a man or attributes in male leaders are heralded as signs of strong and decisive leadership.

What did I learn about dissonance facing women superintendents over time? From the parallel studies, women still need to spotlight their strengths and challenge traditional gender roles and expectations that are ingrained into our societal norms. As men and women become aware of behaviors that cause dissonance, this awareness will perpetuate the attitudinal change necessary to give many more women the opportunity to reach the highest rungs in K-12 leadership.

MONA MONTGOMERY is principal of Lomarena Elementary School in Laguna Hills, Calif. Twitter: @montgomerym1967