The Quality of Life for Women Principals: A Study


by Julie Lynne Vandiver, Ed.D.




Life in contemporary America has become exceedingly complex with competing demands that are the result of increased technology and the fulfillment of many different life roles.  It is easy to become overwhelmed in both personal and professional lives as people strive to meet those demands.  The pressure for harder work and longer hours has resulted in a struggle for people to find value in their personal lives.  Emerging from the struggle are the voices of changing desires and expectations, striving to alter the balance of work and personal life, long held by previous generations.  

The dilemma of how to balance personal and professional obligations is especially prevalent for women in leadership.  Society still expects women to fulfill traditional roles within the home while pursuing careers outside of the home. Many women leaders endure intense family responsibility in addition to meeting job responsibilities.  They often struggle with the impact that success in the workplace might have on their personal lives.  At the school level, women principals experience stress and concern over increased responsibilities and meeting expectations of high stakes accountability.  School administration demands long hours, total immersion, and high personal visibility.  The challenge to maintain success while restructuring their lifestyle for balance is extremely difficult. 

There is an increased desire for success and fulfillment in both work and personal life.  Such a balance can be difficult to achieve in an educational environment that presents continually increasing demands for excellence and commitment from school leaders.  Balance refers to a satisfying, healthy, and productive life that includes work, play, and love; that integrates a range of activities with attention to self and to personal and spiritual development; and that expresses a person’s unique wishes, interests, and values (Kofodimos, 1993, p. xiii).  It contrasts with the imbalance of a life dominated by work, focused on satisfying external requirements at the expense of inner development, and in conflict with a person’s true desires.   

School administrators and those who seek to help them have yet to find workable solutions to the problem of imbalance.  Self help writers suggest coping mechanisms, stress management strategies, and methods of making time for nonwork activities.  Management writers refer to the inherent trade-offs between career success and personal life satisfaction.  Work-family researchers outline strategies and tactics for creating “family-friendly” workplaces.  However, each of these approaches just begins to address the problem.  The phenomenon of imbalance is not just a result of workload and time pressure.  There are other types of imbalance that lie beneath the surface and contribute to the dominance of work over personal life (Kofodimos, 1993).  According to Kofodimos (1993), the multiple levels of imbalance result from the interplay between individual character or personality on one hand and organizational and social forces on the other.  Imbalance, is embedded in the American social character.  Kofodimos (1993) refers to imbalance as an expression of the primacy of work and the perceived virtue of a mastery oriented approach to living.  Because the issue of balance is so deeply rooted, those individuals who seek balance will have to pursue fundamental changes in their approach to life and in the functioning of their work environments (Kofodimos, 1993).

In the midst of a transformation in education, women leaders are emerging as one of the most vital forces for repositioning school leadership.  While much has been written about women leaders and their conception of leadership (Aburdene & Naisbitt, 1992; Brown & Irby, 1998; Helgesen, 1990; Loden, 1985; Marshall, 1992; Restine, 1993; Shakeshaft, 1987; Witmer, 1995), a need remains for research about how the quality of life for women is affected by their role as educational leaders.  The many roles that women play during their lives provide them with experiences that make their perceptions and practice of leadership quite different than that of their male counterparts.  In these differences may be found great strengths and great obstacles for women leaders seeking to change paradigms and create new visions of school leadership. 

Change is an inevitable part of our lives.  Today’s principals, as well as today’s schools, face an ever-changing and dynamic environment, mirroring the diversities and complexities within society.  In an effort to meet the increasing demands of providing a quality education for all, the perceptions of effective school leaders have also changed.  Today’s successful school leaders must possess initiative, empathy, and knowledge of the organization (Wendel, Hoke, & Joekel, 1996).  They must be creative, have good listening skills, and be service oriented (Wendel, Hoke, & Joekel, 1996).  Effective leadership is also characterized by a guiding vision, a passion for action, and integrity (Sergiovanni, 2000).  In knowing themselves and their multiple life roles, women leaders face the pervasive challenge of assuring balance as they strive to have a quality personal and professional life.


Overview of the Problem  


            The pathway we travel through life is illuminated by retrospectives (Ferguson, 1984).  For example, the lessons and rules we learn in elementary school through graduate school and beyond remain with us and tend to shape and color our worlds.  Many of these lessons and rules have changed little over the years. Yet, the world in which we live changes constantly.  As a result, schools are mirrors of difference and diversity beyond what is immediately observable (Restine, 1993).  Schools are also symbols of our predisposition to perpetuate what has been.  They are part of a complex, interdependent system in which everything influences and plays against everything else (Witmer, 1995).  Just as one thing cannot be changed in isolation from all things, so nothing can be understood in isolation.  The hierarchial organization of schools tends to perpetuate the status quo, including how roles are defined and how possibilities and personal endeavors are determined, enhanced, or limited (Restine, 1993).

            The conceptions of knowledge and truth that are accepted and articulated today have been shaped throughout history by the male-dominated majority culture (Restine, 1993).  Drawing on their own perspectives and visions, men have constructed the prevailing theories, written history, and set values that have become the guiding principles for men and women alike (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986).  Good leadership, however, is not gender specific.  Knowing and believing this from the female perspective does not make the road to the top any easier; for as we know, there are still many who advocate the transactional, male-dominated style of leadership as the only “right way” to provide leadership.  Aburdene and Naisbitt (1992) found that women, in following new paths and reaching new horizons, are really building new realities.  New realities cause us to rethink and redefine long-held cultural traditions. 

            Differences should be celebrated as opportunities for learning.  They extend the parameters of how we view structure, process, content, people, and context in schools (Restine, 1993).  How we perceive cultural attributes plays a large part in the experiences that we provide for others and the degree that others are viewed as significant players in the organization.  Our expectations of others become critical factors in how their success or failure is measured.  How we behave and respond to others’ capacity and aspirations is influenced by the beliefs and assumptions we hold about difference and diversity (Restine, 1993).  If we want to develop schools as empowering cultures, we have to understand the growth and development of people in the school organization (Sergiovanni, 2000).  The collegiality and collaboration found in empowering cultures require an awareness and appreciation for inherent human differences (Restine, 1993). 

            The realities of leadership construction and practice have also been influential in determining who may be considered leaders and who may lead (Ferguson, 1984).  In the words of Gloria Steinhem, “the victory is not just hanging on to what you already have against all onslaughts, but that you do something different, and better” (Sheehy, 1993, p. 302).  The future of the principalship is one of opportunity and challenge (Speck, 1995).  As many studies have shown, there is an integration of male and female characteristics in effective leaders.  Lightfoot’s (1983) work points to male leaders who consciously sought to feminize their style with respect to relationships and interaction, trust and collegiality, shared responsibility and authority.  On the other hand, women leaders are changing paradigms and creating new visions of possibilities as well.  The career paths, personal characteristics, and motivational orientations of women who have broken through the “glass ceiling” of school administration are largely different from those of men (Restine, 1993).  Accordingly these variables have profound implications for leading and changing schools.

A closer examination of variables linked with feminine leadership reflects that the public self and private self of woman administrators are often interconnected (Restine, 1993).  The connection between their lives inside and outside of school influences behavior, attitudes, and the level of commitment and energy that is directed to one or the other.  A constant challenge for women in educational administration is to maintain success as school leaders while restructuring their lifestyle for balance. As a result of the multiple roles in school leadership, there is a struggle to maintain perspective and a healthy balance among the career, family, social, and spiritual dimensions of their lives. 

Quality of life is reflected in relationships among all dimensions of a person’s life.  Definitions of quality of life used among professionals differ, but increasingly, they integrate concepts related to individual physical and psychological well-being (Patrick & Erickson, 1993) that cross the domains of behavior and medicine.  Furthermore, there is general acceptance of the idea that quality of life for an individual is affected significantly by his or her social environment, and indicators of social well-being are often incorporated into such definitions (Patrick & Erickson, 1993).  Each dimension of a person’s life is highly interrelated.  To neglect any one dimension negatively impacts the growth and effectiveness of the other dimensions.  Therefore, as women principals strive to achieve a balance between the various dimensions of their lives there is also a struggle to balance quality of life issues as well.


Purpose of Study


            The purpose of this research is to discover a better understanding of how the work requirements of the principalship affect the quality of life of women principals.   The intent of the researcher is to explore the more personal aspect of women principal’s lives as influenced by their work.  The results of this study will help others understand the impact of women on the principalship and the effects of the work requirements on the quality of life for women principals. 


Statement of the Contextual Problem


            The problem addressed by this study is establishing an understanding of how the work requirements of a principalship affect the quality of life of five women principals.  In order to effectively research this particular problem, the study will explore the work requirements of principals, women in the principalship, and quality of life for women principals. 


Research Questions


            The research problem is usually stated as questions or hypotheses (Thomas & Brubaker, 2000).  The researcher has chosen the former given the qualitative nature of the research methodologies.  “By casting a problem in the form of a question, the researcher suggests the kind of answer being sought, with that suggestion then serving to guide decisions about the methods of investigation to employ” (Thomas & Brubaker, 2000, p. 77).  Therefore, the research questions that will guide this study are:


1.   In what ways does the principalship affect the woman principal's quality of life?

2.   Do women principals experience competing demands that impact their quality of life?  If so,   how do they balance these demands?

3.  What barriers do women encounter as they become principals?  

4.  What support systems do women utilize in order to be successful in the principalship?

5.  What causes women to derail in the principalship?


Rationale for Methodology


The researcher will use a multiple case study approach to examine how the work requirements of the principalship affect the quality of life for women principals.  A case study is one form of qualitative research (Borg et al., 1993) that investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context; when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident; and in which multiple sources of evidence are used (Yin, 1989).  The aim of the typical case study is to show how, during a restricted period of time, people interact and relate to their physical and social environments (Thomas & Brubaker, 2000).  Methods used in case studies are “naturalistic, qualitative, descriptive, responsive, and interpretative” (Stenhouse, 1988, p.49).  Qualitative researchers treat the uniqueness of individual cases and contexts as important to understanding (Stake, 1995).  “To sharpen the search for understanding, qualitative researchers perceive what is happening in key episodes or testimonies, represent happenings with their own direct interpretation and stories” (Stake, 1995, p. 40).


           Each step of the data collection process was designed to gather information about how the work requirements of the principalship affect the quality of life for women principals.  The data collection process began with a survey of all women principals in Clarkston County.  The information gathered in these surveys was used as the basis for subsequent researcher conducted interviews with selected women principals.  Selection of five women principals was based on nomination by other principals and representatives of the school district office, years of experience, and geographic manageability for the researcher.  The researcher conducted focused interviews with each of the selected principals.  The emphasis during the interviews was on using open-ended questions to encourage an abundance of information.  Careful attention was given to accurate transcription of recorded interviews.  Content analysis involved identifying patterns and themes, explanation building, and member checking by the participants.


           Following the initial interview, each principal was asked to reflect on an incident of special significance, which served as a catalyst for clarifying and understanding how the role of being a principal affected her quality of life.  The researcher analyzed data from the first interview and critical incident report looking for patterns and gaps.  A second focused interview with each principal was conducted with priority given to corroborating certain facts previously established in an attempt to fill in the gaps.  Finally, a joint interview with all of the principals allowed the researcher to share tentative findings from previous surveys, interviews, and critical incident reports in an effort to establish confirmability.


Definitions of Key Terms


            Often misunderstandings in human communication result from people bringing different meanings to the words they use in speaking and writing (Thomas & Brubaker, 2000).  To avoid this difficulty the meanings are clearly explained for the key terms at the core of this study. 


 1.     The principalship – A position held by the chief school leader who is charged with making sense of the issues within schools and directly influencing the way in which the issues are addressed, for the good of the students (Hughes, 1999, p.v).


2.     Quality of life - The individual’s perceptions of her position in life, in the context of the cultural and value system in which she lives and in relation to her goals, expectations, standards, and concerns (World Health Organization, 2001).


3.    Life balance – A satisfying, healthy, and productive life that includes work, play, and love; that integrates a range of activities with attention to self and to personal and spiritual development; and that expresses a person’s unique wishes, interests, and values (Kofodimos, 1993, p. xiii).


4.    Setting – Any instance when two or more people come together in new and sustained relationships to achieve common goals (Sarason, 1972,    p. ix).


5.    Barriers - Anything that restrains or obstructs progress or access; a limit or boundary of any kind (Webster’s New Universal Dictionary, 1996).


6.    Educational leader derailment - “An educator wants what he or she considers a better position but is not assigned the position by the powers that be.  Or an educator wants to retain his or her present position and is demoted or dismissed”  (Brubaker & Coble, 1997, p. viii).


Limitations of the Study  


While studies such as this investigation provide valuable insights into the thinking of the subjects, these studies are limited in making generalizations based on the findings.  Findings are very context specific, reflecting the unique orientation of the subjects.  Therefore, this study is limited in two ways:

1)   The information generated by this study is useful in identifying specific women principals’ perspectives on how their work requirements as principals affect their quality of life.  It is limited by the unique characteristics of the principals who participated in the study and their experiences in the principalship.

2)   The results of this study are limited in the degree to which they are generalizable.  However, they are sufficiently trustworthy to inform the thinking of future principals, school leaders, and research. 

      Case studies cannot serve as portrayals of the “objective truth” about a group or organization.  To address this concern, Denzin (1997, p. 3) suggested that, “Ethnography is that form of inquiry and writing that produces descriptions and accounts about the ways of life of the writer and those written about.”  Despite the fact that researchers may avow that they simply recorded “what really happened,” their account of the case is inevitably an interpretation filtered through their own personal experiences and mental lenses.  Multiple visions by different researchers of the same group or same events are a disadvantage for those searching for a single “real truth” about a case.  


Overview of the Work  


                This chapter served as an outline of the conceptual framework used to design this study.  Chapter Two will review literature addressing the relevant issues concerning the principalship, women in the principalship, and restructuring lifestyles for balance.  Chapter Three will describe the research procedures used in this study.  It will include a description of the research design, methodology, data collection, and data analysis.  Chapter Four will provide the results of the study, as derived from the principal interviews and surveys.  The results will be examined in terms of the qualitative data analysis and the literature review.  The final chapter will report conclusions drawn from the results of the study and offers recommendations for further consideration.


Julie Lynne Vandiver, Ed.D., is an Educational Administrator in Greensboro, NC. She's a North Carolina Principal Fellow (Class of 2000) and a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her professional interests include best practices for educational leadership and the effects of testing and accountability on teaching and learning.  


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