Does Gender Matter?

This post comes to you by way of a discussion my wife (a high school special education teacher) and I were having the other day about school administration and leadership styles.

I am about to start the 10th year of my career in education (not counting long- & short-term subbing positions). In that time, I have only worked in two high schools – one in which females comprise the majority of administrators (including the principal & superintendent), and one in which male administrators are the majority (again, including the principal & superintendent).

Off the top of my head, I initially thought that each of these gender majorities was overwhelming (I was thinking 90/10), but I decided to fact-check myself.  Sure enough, each school’s majority gender is only a majority by a small margin (60/40 or so, maybe less).

I have noticed differences in the leadership styles between the two schools, but I had chalked it up to different communities, different school cultures, different personalities, etc.  My wife was the first to point out the gender differences in the administrative teams, and I’m wondering if she’s on to something.  This piece from Inside Higher Ed (May 2007) posits that the differences between male and female leadership styles in education are becoming less pronounced (based on a study of community college administrators), but I wonder if that can be generalized to the K-12 sector.

A related issue that is probably worth thinking about here is the overall underrepresentation of women, particularly women of color, in leadership positions in American secondary education (Wrushen & Sherman, 2008).  I wonder how many of you in secondary or higher ed have worked with primarily female administrative teams – am I in a distinct minority group of educators in that regard?

Do you feel that the gender makeup of your administrative team influences leadership styles?  Do faculty & staff members tend to respond differently to administrators of different genders?  Or are we in a post-racialgender America, where leadership style is independent of gender?

Citation: Wrushen, B.R., & Sherman, W.H. (2008). Women secondary school principals: multicultural voices from the field. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 21, 457-469.  Retrieved August 15, 2009, from the Academic Search Premier database.


  • Quick reply – I don’t think you can say that leadership style can be independent of gender. Or wait. A particular style can be, but once that style is coupled with the gender of the leader, it takes on a different hue. And since I don’t believe that leadership style can be objective, separate from the personal, then no, don’t wait. The answer is no.

  • I am sure that the gender (and racial) makeup of an administrative team influences leadership styles, even if only because women and minorities tend to be more sensitive to the effect sex and race have on their interactions with people. But I suspect that the differences would be really hard to quantify, because I don’t know how one could adequately control for the other influences you mentioned (different communities, different school cultures, different personalities, etc.).

    I suspect that faculty and staff members respond differently to administrators based on a lot of other factors before gender. Let me rephrase that–Within each of the genders, I see a wide range in my own opinions of and relationships with the various administrators in my school/district. That means that other factors are more significant than gender.

    This might be pie-in-the-sky, but I think we are largely in a post-racialgender America, because people respond to result. Race and gender (and height, weight, and a slew of other physical traits) influence our first impressions, to be sure, but results carry the day.
    .-= Jason´s last blog ..Murder in the name of ratings =-.

  • First, let me say in response to Jason’s comment re: a post-racial/post-gender America: We’re not there yet. To say either is to be ignorant of and to lack a true understanding of historical events, White privilege and individual and institutional racism. Therefore, we do judge a person’s leadership abilities, or a lack thereof, of how we perceive them on the the basis of race and gender.

    As for gender influencing leadership styles, it has been my experience that women are more inclined to want to reach a consensus, whereas men are more inclined to simply make a ruling on whatever facts are before them, irrespective of what the voices around them may have to say. It has also been my experience that women tend to have a reluctance to act on their own instincts, i.e. make an executive decision now, suffer whatever fallout may result later. Not only has this been my experience in the schools where I have been employed, it is also the style of the management office at the apartment complex where I reside. When a decision needs to be made, there is a lot of placating, as opposed to taking a risk, and moving to the next level of the decision-making ladder. In the case of the apartment complex management, it could be a factor of age. The women who run the office are, for the most part, fairly young, and may lack experience. But, it also tells me something, even in 2009, of a woman’s reluctance to take charge.
    .-= MarcyWebb´s last blog ..A Wiki Primer =-.

  • I’ve worked under two administrations, as well. In both cases, the Superintendent was male, the principal was female, and two of three assistant principals were female. The difference between the two is incredible. One set was absolutely resistant to input from the teachers, the other welcomes it (even if it’s sometimes not acted on). I think gender is much less influential than personality: being a jerk is not a trait of one gender alone.

  • I would imagine gender may strongly influence some people and how they approach administration (how unfortunate for them) but personally, I couldn’t care less about gender. What does it for me is philosophy and educational values.

    Besides, what would it even mean to state that someone administers a school “like a man” or “like a woman”?
    .-= Peter´s last blog ..wacky whacking =-.

  • How could you not care less about gender? It is so much of what makes each of us, us.

    Marcy hit the mark when she said that we are NOT at a post-racial/gender [North] America. She added, ‘yet’ but I ask why would we want to be? Stripping people of their gender or race is to take away our essence.

    I think we need to be focusing on a post-hate America but continue to recognize that who I am and how I lead (or not) has a lot to do with my gender, my race, my ethnicity.
    .-= Tracy Rosen´s last blog ..doing the right things or doing things right =-.

  • @ Tracy Rosen Good points. I know that who and what I am makes me the leader I strive to be. Post-hate America – a good moniker to characterize what is going on.
    .-= MarcyWebb´s last blog ..Classroom Management Wiki =-.

  • There is quite a lot of research that documents gender differences in leadership (not sex differences which are biological, but gender differences which result in the culture understanding and reaction to gender). Certainly, not all women behave one way and all men behave another, but the research identifies some themes that are particularly strong in women school leaders.

    I have a draft of a chapter in my next book that summarizes some of the research if anyone is interested. I would post it, but can’t figure out how to do it.

    Charol Shakeshaft

  • Are these gender differences significant, Carol? Or are they, like the differences in spatial and mathematical and verbal ability, drowned by the variation within each gender?

  • Thanks all for your comments, and I’m sorry I’ve not been around to contribute. I just wanted to add one thing here:

    For me, it’s pretty telling that even though the gender balance in leadership at each school is around 60-40, each school leadership body felt either overwhelmingly “male” or overwhelmingly “female”. I’m not sure if that says more about me or more about the difference in leadership styles.

  • When it comes to managing people effectively, the atmosphere and type of work environment often means you have to “switch” your leadership style in to a different gear. Good leaders can do this instinctively; they understand what needs to be done and the people they are leading.

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