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Advancing Women In Leadership

Reflections of a Female School Executive

Willa L. Gipson


Women rising in school leadership positions is becoming more of a reality than in years past. I believe this accomplishment is attributed to women taking more control of their careers instead of acting in a passive role waiting to be selected or appointed.

Many people have told me and continue to tell me that I am making a difference.Well, that is a matter of opinion but I would like to believe that I ammaking a difference. The question of some persons might be, in what wayam I making a difference. Before I make a transition to the history of myposition, let me share with you a little bit of my background.

I am told that I am the fourth female director of athletics in the historyof the State of Texas. Along with that, I am told that I am the first blackfemale director of athletics in the State of Texas. What follows is nottooting my own horn nor is it meant to be delivered in a bragging manner.My intent is to reveal two thoughts. I am a thirty-four year old educatorwho graduated from high school at the age of sixteen and college at theage of nineteen. I was a teacher and coach for five and one-half years beforemoving into administration at the age of twenty-five. I reveal these factsto you to emphasize two important points: success is a choice and the skyis not the limit - you and I are.

As I reflect on the past twenty years and the road I have traveled toreach my present destination, I often think about key persons who have crossedmy path. Through their negativity or positivity, all have made a significantimpact on many decisions that I have made in my personal and professionallife. I shall never forget persons telling my mom as I prepared to go tohigh school and college that I would never make it in either place becauseI was too young. Thank God my mom had the keen insight at each level toknow that I would survive in spite of my age. I recall persons implyingthat I could not survive as a young black female teacher in a predominantlyAnglo, suburban school district. As recently as two years ago, when I submittedmy resume for the position I now hold, I heard some people say I would notget the position because of the traditional male dominance in athletic directorpositions. I draw upon these experiences often to remind myself to stayaway from people whom I have identified as having "stinking thinking."Those past experiences speak to me in a voice that says - flee from thosewho have buckets full of pessimism in hand to dump all over my dreams, goals,and aspirations. Instead, I surround myself with innumerable people whohave buckets full of optimism. Those people are the ones who have goalssimilar to mine and are headed in the same direction I am going.

Recently, I read a book that I highly recommend. Rick Pitino, authorof Success Is A Choice, highlights ten steps one should take towardsoverachieving in business and life. The steps, which include several principles,are not steps for quitters or those looking for the easy road to success.Instead they are for those who have a will and a why for success. Oftenwomen executives find themselves having to operate in pressure situations.In Pitino's book, he has a chapter entitled, "Thrive on Pressure."Within this chapter he speaks to a "stress versus pressure" concept.Mr Pitino (1997) writes, " most people will tell you that there's goodpressure and there's bad pressure, I don't believe that. If you use it toyour advantage, it's good pressure. Let it control you and it becomes badpressure, or stress" (p.166).

Women executives, in my opinion, face challenges daily that require atremendous amount of persistence. There is a perception floating aroundin our society that sets forth the idea that it takes women longer to landthe higher paid positions than it does men. Furthermore, there is the beliefthat women who acquire high-paying jobs have done so through a company'sneed to meet a quota. I operate under the notion that you do whatever ittakes to reach a level that you wish to reach. If by chance you are awardeda job because of a quota, affirmative action, or for other reasons, so what?I have had people imply that I have acquired the position of athletic directorbecause of various reasons - without entertaining the thought that perhapsI am best qualified for the position. There goes that "stinking thinking"again. Persistence in attaining a goal may require years for some and afew short days for others. The important component I have found in persistenceis developing a "never-give-up" attitude. In Pitino's (1997) book,he addresses being ferociously persistent by offering the following: "Aman is a hero, not because he is braver than anyone else, but because heis brave for ten minutes longer." I have truly come to know that thereis a direct, positive correlation between persistence and success.

Sometimes, I am still awestruck when I consider the fact that, for theposition I currently hold, a committee recommended me - the only femaleapplicant for the position. Do not get me wrong. I am not awestruck becauseI knew and still believe that I am the most qualified, but I am still awestruckbecause I am glad to know that a committee made a recommendation based onan interview and not any predetermined ideas. What I am going around tothe back door to say is this: You never know who is watching and listening.I believe women executives have to be better at salesmanship than men. Wemust sell ourselves and our ideas harder and stronger. To this day, I amthankful the recommending committee listened to each applicant express howhe or she would carry the school district above and beyond in the area ofathletics.

There is something I must say about contentment and comfort. I do notdiscredit anyone for feeling content in their position in life. I do believewe should be content in what our Heavenly Father has blessed us with, butI also believe He has provided us opportunities for self-improvement. Ithas always been a personal challenge given by me to myself to linger nolonger than five years in one position. Thus far I have come close to meetingthat personal challenge - with a little coaxing in some cases from others.There is also something to be said about coming out of our comfort zones.My fourteen years in education have been spent in this manner: five andone-half years as a teacher and coach, five and one-half years as an assistantathletic director, two years as an assistant principal, and one year asa director of athletics.

I believe that every now and then someone comes into your life to letyou know you are becoming a little too comfortable where you are. That happenedto me in 1994. I was enjoying my position as an assistant athletic director,hoping to become an athletic director someday. I had made my wishes knownto several persons in our administration, including our superintendent.It was he who encouraged me to seek some building experience so that I couldmake myself more marketable if and when a driector of athletics positionsurfaced. I want to make it clear that he never promised me anything butadvised me to seek postions at the building level. I had a decision to make.I could heed his advice and seek building-level positions or I could remainin my area of comfort as an assistant athletic director. I sought a building-levelposition and was fortunate to recieve one. I truly believe the experienceI gained as a high school assistant principal was a key factor in my gettingthe position that I currently hold. Without a doubt, I believe those twoyears of building experience have enhanced my effectiveness as a centraloffice administrator. Yes, I chose the risky option which was to seek building-levelexperience. Sometimes what we want in the long run requires us to be a risk-takerin the short run. As I stated earlier, my superintendent did not make anypromises to me and I took a chance in leaving an area in which I enjoyedand felt comfortable.

Women rising in school leadership positions is becoming more of a realitythan in years past. I believe this accomplishment is attributed to womentaking more control of their careers instead of acting in a passive rolewaiting to be selected or appointed. Commanding control of our careers bypromoting ourselves and making our wishes known is the most important toolwe can use in attempting to rise to school executive positions.

Lessons Learned

You must have a "why." Determine for what reason you want what you want. When that is determined, you will succeed through a strategy of what it is you aspire to do.
Flee from those persons who have "stinking thinking." Pessimistic people will not help you get where you are trying to go. They can , however, be a source for helping you develop an "I can" attitude.
Develop a "never-give-up" attitude. Remember to persevere and be persistent. The end result is what you are seeking. From start to finish, you may not experience pleasure or happiness, but the final outcome makes struggles worthwhile.
Take command of your destination. Do not allow someone other than yourself to control the direction in which you would like to go. Instead, get behind the driver's wheel. If you get lost, it is up to you to find your way back through whatever means are necessary.
Move out of your comfort zone. Many of us sometimes get too comfortable where we are. Too much comfort stagnates our growth and we can dry up and die.
Have a game plan. Develop multiple offenses and defenses so that when one offense or defense does not work, you can try another one and another one until you accomplish your goal of winning.


Pinto, R. (1997). Success is a choice. New York, NY: Broadway Books. (A ten-step approach for preparing yourself for the challenges you face. A book for those who are serious about making dreams reality.)
Willa L. Gipson is the Director of Athletics for the Birdville Independent School District, Fort Worth, Texas.


Reprinted with permission, Funk, C., Pankake, A., Reese,M. (Eds.) (1998). Women as school executives: Realizing the vision.Commerce, Texas: Texas A&M University-Commerce Press


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