An Oxygen Mask First for Female Superintendents
BY KERRY K. ROBINSON/School Administrator, March 2020

Kerry Robinson
A half dozen female school system leaders, four of them superintendents, serving in districts around Wilmington, N.C., and beyond, had gathered together for the fourth of what would be a half dozen informal networking sessions. Given their familiarity with each other, the room was oddly quiet. Finally, one of the superintendents broke the silence.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I guess we’re all feeling it, and we’re not sure how to turn the treadmill down from this sprint pace.”

My role, as a university professor and a former school administrator, was to convene these women superintendents to help them overcome shared struggles through a professional network.

Through my research on the superintendency and involvement with female superintendents and administrators in recent years, I’ve heard countless stories of women sharing examples of “trying to do it all.” The struggle these women were experiencing wasn’t different from those of any others with whom I’ve worked.

The “Four Beings”
In many cases, I found their struggles typically fall into what I call the “Four Beings” that many female superintendents feel they need to demonstrate to successfully lead a school system. The four are:

» Being always “on” — and never letting them see you sweat;

» Being available — and ready whenever the school board contacts you;

» Being visible — and having a presence out in the community as well as on social media; and

» Being present — and successfully managing the “second shift” as a good partner and parent.

Although male superintendents experience the “beings,” too, it doesn’t seem to be with the same intensity as their female counterparts. What comes to mind is a comment by a female superintendent who I quoted in my doctoral dissertation on the dynamics of women leaving the superintendency. She told me, “… most male superintendents have wives that stay home. … I know when I was superintendent there were many times I wished I had a stay-at-home wife.”

Additionally, the four beings represent messages that female superintendents internalize, often as self-imposed directives. As a result, women may focus so heavily on the four beings, they overlook themselves in the process, and this has shown to adversely affect both their physical and mental health.

Safety First
The airplane safety message you hear before every take-off about securing your own oxygen mask before putting on someone else’s has an important rationale. If you’re incapacitated, there’s no way you can help others. That same applies to female leaders who disregard the warnings about their own physical well-being and mental health.

When a woman superintendent admits she only has time to eat from a fast-food drive-through line or can’t find a moment to get to the gym or hasn’t been to the doctor while overseeing a household and managing childcare in her own family, she has forgotten about her oxygen mask.

Unless she has a support system to remind her about the importance of taking care of herself first, these consequences can be dire. Unlike male leaders who don’t typically feel the same internalized pressures to do it all, many women will leave their leadership roles in an attempt to “reclaim their health.” They’ve spent years putting themselves last and now hope to reverse the poor choices they’ve made.

Power of Networks
Thankfully, there are women in leadership positions who’ve figured out how to handle the unique work-life balance and they share their knowledge through support networks such as those managed by AASA, notably its national women’s leadership consortium for sitting superintendents and its targeted program for women who aspire to the superintendency.

Some of the association’s state affiliates now provide both formal and informal support for women administrators. The best of these function as forums for frank discussions about role expectations and the importance of personal well-being.

The idea of being a superwoman is fine, just as long as there isn’t an expectation that she is meant to do it all. This is the message of support we need to provide to both sitting and aspiring female leaders.

KERRY ROBINSON is assistant professor of educational leadership at University of North Carolina Wilmington. Twitter: @kerkatrob