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Can Female Principals Be Caring and Commanding?

March 2, 2019
simone ispa-landa
Simone Ispa-Landa

White and black novice female principals adopt vastly different leadership styles at the beginning of their careers, according to new Northwestern University research that looks at how race and gender intersect for professional educators.

White women often feel they can be one of two types of school leaders: either “caring” and emotionally supportive or more “professional” and authoritarian.

Black women, however, are able to balance these seemingly contradictory roles, according to the study, “Race, Gender and Emotion Work Among School Principals,” published in the journal Gender & Society. Moreover, they are more comfortable with a take-charge leadership style from the outset of their tenure.

 “The way white women understand authority and emotional labor initially created 'binds' for them, in terms of their ability to enact a full range of leadership practices,” study lead author Simone Ispa-Landa said. “By contrast, women of color experienced 'freedoms.'”

Ispa-Landa and co-author Sara Thomas, a doctoral student in SESP’s Human Development and Social Policy program, examined the gender-specific barriers that women face as principals. They drew on 132 interviews from eight white women and 13 women of color who were beginning principals in a high-needs district.   

Previous literature – based primarily on white professional men and women -- implied that female principals could convey professional authority or warmth, but they weren’t able to balance the two styles.

Ispa-Landa and Thomas found that white women began their principalship trying to establishing themselves as emotionally supportive leaders who were open to the ideas of others.

Over time, however, most white women reported adopting more directive practices to protect themselves from burnout and to improve the quality of teaching. The ones who did not suffered from professional fatigue.

“The white women leaders who initially took a strongly nurturing approach to the job eventually shifted to more authoritarian practice because they found it difficult to manage subordinates who viewed them primarily in terms of their capacity to provide emotional support,” Ispa-Landa said.

By contrast, women of color reported beginning their principalship with a more directive, take-charge leadership style and did not see tension between showing support for others and showing authority. Over time, they changed their leadership style very little.

“For them, educational leadership involved a blended project of top-down directive communication combined with care about others’ emotional well-being,” the researchers wrote.

The study was supported by the Principal Policy and Practice Study led by SESP's James Spillane and funded by research grants from the Spencer Foundation and the Institute for Policy Research.