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Preface: Who We Are and Why We Wrote This Book

By Lorrie Greenhouse Gardella

A Dream and a Plan

A Woman’s Path to Leadership in Human Services

When I went to college, I felt that I was walking off the edge of the earth. I had known neighbors who had left for college, but they never seemed to come back! Arriving on campus filled with gratitude and doubt, I found professors who seemed born to their positions. Nearly all of my professors were men, and I remember them lecturing with seamless eloquence in their tweed coats, knit ties, and shiny brown shoes. Although I have been teaching college for nearly 20 years, in my mind’s eye, I do not look anything like a professor.

After I graduated from college, I became a social worker. I had often volunteered at social work agencies, and I went to law school and social work school in hopes of combining the two fields. At each phase of my career—consulting in children’s law, practicing social work, and teaching social workpeople seemed surprised to see me. I was one of only a few women in my law school class and the only white faculty member at a predominantly black college. Today, although I am Jewish, I teach at a Catholic college for women. Entering relationships across racial, ethnic, and religious divides, I have felt honored by words of acceptance from colleagues, clients, and students: “You are an honorary Latina.” “You are an adjunct Sister of Mercy.” These are the imaginary certificates on my office wall. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I try to be optimistic about race relations, peace, and the possibility of ending hatred, prejudice, and discrimination. As a social work educator, I try to open opportunities for students while taking discriminatory barriers down.

Just as I never have fit my image of a professor, so my students question their place in college. Whether they are young adults or grandparents, they usually are the first in their families to go to college. Whether they have lived all their lives in the same neighborhoods or immigrated across thousands of miles, they struggle to find time to study while caring for families and holding jobs. Nearly all succeed, graduating with bachelor’s degrees in social work, beginning professional careers, and going on to earn master’s degrees in social work and related fields. They attribute their success in college to relationships with people who believe in their abilities, respect their values, and encourage them to say their dreams out loud.

When my students first decide to become social workers, they rarely intend to become leaders. Usually, they look forward to providing direct services to children, families, or communities. Soon, however, they run up against obstacles to serving their clients well, obstacles that sometimes arise from the policies and procedures of human services agencies. As students learn to analyze policies and the possibilities for change, we faculty members encourage them to consider their professional roles more broadly. How can they effect organizational change from their current positions in human services? How can they effect change as leaders? Ultimately, many graduates assume leadership positions in human services organizations.

A Dream and a Plan is for women in human services who, like so many of my students, have yet to discover their potential for leadership or the professional opportunities before them. They may be women who entered human services to “give something back” to their communities, but who never considered becoming leaders of human services organizations. They may be women in paraprofessional positions who are beginning their careers; women in community college, college, or graduate school who are advancing their education; or women in social work, long since graduated from college, who are questioning the distance between the promise and the practice of their profession. With this book, we hope to encourage women in human services to pursue leadership careers.

A Dream and a Plan is also for women and men in human services who already hold leadership positions. Researchers consistently find that women, particularly women of color, rarely find mentors to guide their professional advancement. A second purpose of this book, therefore, is to support current leaders and educators in human services as they mentor women leaders of the future.

Few books encourage women in human services to become leaders. Autobiographies and biographies of women leaders in social work and related fields affirm my students’ values, but offer little practical guidance for their careers.1 Management literature provides more information than inspiration for women with social work values and goals. Most research on women leaders has taken place in large corporations, where, in contrast to women in human services, nearly all the managers are affluent and white.2 Written from a corporate perspective, these books on women’s leadership hold slim hope for changing prejudice and discrimination related to race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, disability, or age. Popular self-help books advise women to deal with sexual discrimination by fitting into the mainstream, transforming themselves rather than trying to transform their organizations.3

Books on women leaders of color in corporations come to the discouraging conclusion that women managers from different racial and ethnic groups do not join together in fighting racial and sexual discrimination.4 Literature on diversity management takes a more upbeat approach, proposing strategies to end discriminatory practices. Until recently, however, researchers rarely have dealt with more than one type of discrimination at a time. Studies of sexual discrimination have focused on the experiences of white women managers, while studies of racial and ethnic discrimination have focused on the experiences of men.5

Although corporate managers and human services managers perform many similar tasks, books by and for women corporate leaders do not address the particular challenges of leading human services organizations. Many women who advance into leadership positions must resist prejudice and discrimination in their careers, but from a social work perspective, women leaders in human services have the greater responsibility “to strive to end discrimination, oppression, poverty, and other forms of social injustice,” which is the professional mission of social work.6

According to The Social Work Dictionary, human services organizations address social needs related to health, education, housing, income, justice, and public safety.7 In addition, human services organizations promote community and social development, economic development, and civil and human rights.8 Public agencies, private nonprofit organizations, churches or faith-based organizations, and voluntary associations have historically provided human services in the United States.9 The government has supported human services organizations directly, by giving them tax dollars, or indirectly, by granting them tax-exempt status. As a result, corporations and human services organizations have distinct missions. While corporations have an obligation to benefit their shareholders or owners, human services organizations have an obligation to benefit the public.10

In today’s economy, the differences between corporations and human services organizations are becoming less distinct. Public agencies subcontract with private corporations to manage public schools, hospital emergency rooms, and child welfare services. Nonprofit organizations, responding to cutbacks in government funds and faltering private donations, struggle to meet the bottom line. Assuming a corporate management style, some human services organizations recruit their managers from the business world.

In this political and economic context, human services organizations need social workers more than ever in senior leadership positions, because social workers have the ethical obligation to advocate with and on behalf of the clients and communities that they serve. As explained by the National Association of Social Workers,

Social work is the appropriate profession to take a leadership role not only in disseminating knowledge about diverse client groups, but also in actively advocating for fair and equitable treatment of all clients served. This role should extend within and outside the profession.11

If social workers are to respond to this challenge, then we need a different kind of management literature, a welcoming literature that introduces the knowledge, skills, and values of leadership as a part of social work practice. Years ago, I found such a book in Women Managers in Human Services by Karen S. Haynes.12 I used the book, to the delight of students, until it went out of print, and I never found anything to replace it. Then I met Karen Haynes when we served together on the board of a national professional association. “Would she be interested in writing another book on women leaders?” I asked. So began our collaboration.

For our new book, we decided to bring women leaders from different racial, ethnic, and social backgrounds into focus groups where they would discuss their professional paths, including the obstacles they faced, the resources they used, and the lessons they learned along the way. We imagined the focus groups as a community of mentors who would inspire, inform, and guide readers toward leadership careers. In addition, the focus groups would, by their example, encourage readers to cultivate their own mentoring communities, pursuing professional advancement while also mentoring future generations of women leaders.

In composing the focus groups, we invited a diverse sample of women leaders so that readers from various cultural and social backgrounds would identify with the focus group discussions. Personal and professional networks and national professional associations helped us identify women leaders from various parts of the United States and from various backgrounds in terms of race, ethnicity, national origin, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, disability, and age.13 In the end, we held three focus groups, with a total of 23 participating women leaders. The meetings of two of the focus groups were face-to-face, and, in a new experience for us, one of the groups met online, a format that allowed us to expand the racial, ethnic, and geographic diversity of participating women leaders.14

The women in our focus groups had varied experiences as leaders. All had held leadership positions in human services during their careers, but many of the women also had led other types of nonprofit organizations. As members of our professional associations, a disproportionate number of the women were leaders in social work education or higher education at the time we met them. All the women had advanced educational credentials, most in social work and some in other fields.15

In describing their careers, women in the three focus groups identified the greatest barriers to their professional advancement as racial and sexual prejudice and discrimination. Employment discrimination had been and continued to be a major challenge for the women leaders. As we listened to the focus groups, we sharpened the focus of our book.16 Rather than describing leadership generally or introducing a range of management skills, we would concentrate on women leaders’ experiences in resisting discrimination and promoting social change.

In addition to the focus groups, we decided to include Karen in our community of mentors. As a social worker, professor, dean, and university president, Karen had many leadership stories to tell, and equally important, she kept a diary! Karen had been recording her professional experiences since her first administrative position, and the diary was now three volumes long. After we conducted the focus groups, analyzed the transcripts, and identified themes from the focus group discussions, Karen culled her diaries for relevant stories. I then interviewed Karen over several days, taping an oral narrative history of her experience. Karen’s stories complemented stories from the focus group discussions, adding depth to breadth. While we had promised anonymity to the focus groups, Karen spoke on the record.

During the course of our collaboration, I accepted primary responsibility for research and writing. My biggest challenge was to organize all the materials: stories from the three focus groups and from Karen’s oral narrative, written excerpts from Karen’s diary, and notes from an ever widening review of the professional literature. With women’s stories as the starting place, the book divided naturally into two parts, “Women’s Paths to Leadership,” which is based on the focus group discussions, and “Leading from an Inclusive Perspective,” which presents a vision for leading social change.

The chapters in Part I, “Women’s Paths to Leadership,” respond to the questions we asked the focus groups. After an overview of the book’s purpose (chapter 1), they address questions related to the women leaders’ expectations (chapter 2), barriers (chapter 3), choices (chapter 4) and sources of support (chapter 5). Chapters 2 to 5 open with stories from the focus group discussions, as told in the women’s own words. The stories are grouped in relation to common themes that arose in the focus group discussions. Themes included experiences or ideas that were shared by the three focus groups or by most women of the same ethnicity. Although I tried to minimize repetition, quotations from the focus groups appear more than once when they relate to more than one theme. Short quotations, such as subtitles to the chapters, are presented in fuller context elsewhere in the book. The women’s stories are followed by reflections on “What We Learned,” which introduce some theory and research from social work, management, women’s studies, ethnic studies, and other fields.17

Part II, “Leading from an Inclusive Perspective,” explores the potential of women leaders to promote diversity and equity in human services organizations. Chapter 6 offers a conceptual framework for understanding and resisting prejudice and discrimination in organizations, while Chapter 7 presents case examples of leadership from Karen’s experience. Beyond Chapter 7, Karen’s stories are interspersed throughout the book under the heading, “Notes from Karen’s Diary.” A postscript reflects on our focus group research, including limitations and implications for social work education.

Women leaders in our focus groups had similar perspectives on their careers to women leaders surveyed by Wellesley College researcher Sumru Erkut.18 In studying a multicultural sample of 60 women leaders in various professions, Erkut found that the women leaders had been tenacious and optimistic throughout their lives. Like women in our focus groups, most women in Erkut’s study had enjoyed support from family or community when they were children. Upon reaching leadership positions, they were as concerned with the growth and well-being of staff as with the productivity of their organizations.

However, women in our focus groups told stories unlike any I had found in books about women leaders in corporations. Many authors, for example, assume that families are burdens for professional women.19 Although women in our focus groups struggled to fill multiple roles in families, communities, and human services organizations, they perceived their families as professional assets, as sources of knowledge, skills, and values that guided them in their careers. Working as “outsiders-within,”20 as the first women or the first women from their racial or ethnic groups to lead their organizations, they did not feel lonely, thanks in part to their families and extensive networks of support.

Some organizational researchers contrast white women and women of color in corporate management, finding white women more individualistic and less aware of sexual or racial discrimination.21 In our focus groups, women of various racial and ethnic backgrounds spoke of working for a cause or community beyond themselves. In the context of racially and ethnically heterogeneous focus groups, white women were as likely as women of color to identify employment discrimination in human services.

To my surprise, nearly all the women in our focus groups said that they are successful and happy, and I realized how rarely I have heard women talk about themselves in this way. Literary critics, historians, and linguists find that women tend to understate their accomplishments. Whether in biographies, autobiographies, or everyday conversation, social and literary conventions affect the ways that women tell their life stories and the ways that they are heard. As a result, we are more likely to believe women who speak modestly about their work than women who speak boldly about their achievements and struggles.22

As you enter this book, we invite you to make yourself at home with the women leaders and their familiar and surprising stories. If you are a student, volunteer, social worker, or human services provider, turn to the focus groups for role models and guides. Try the questions and suggestions at the end of each chapter as you find your own educational and professional path. If you are a woman or a man in a leadership position, reach out to prospective women leaders. Believe in their abilities, respect their values, and encourage them to say their dreams out loud. And if you are retired as a woman leader, talk about your accomplishments. Tell us your stories so that we may carry them on as leaders and future leaders in human services.


1. See, for example, Carlton-LaNey, 2001; Etter-Lewis, 1993; Hartman, 1999; Pantoja, 2002; Reid-Merritt, 1996. [Return]

2. See, for example, Blake-Beard, 1999; Catalyst, 1999a, 1999b; Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, 1995; Rosener, 1995; Ruderman & Ohlott, 2002; Swiss, 1996. Women of color are invisible in much organizational literature, according to Bell & Nkomo, 2001; Chow, 1994; Collins, 1997; Cox & Nkomo, 1990; Ferdman, 1999; Hurtado, 1999; Segura, 1994; Woo, 2000; Wu, 1997. [Return]

3. Healy, Havens, & Pine, 1995. See also Evans, 2000; Hollands, 2001. [Return]

4. Bell & Nkomo, 2001. See also Bell, Meyerson, Nkomo, & Scully, 2001; Catalyst, 1999b; Hurtado, 1999; Lambert & Hopkins, 1995. [Return]

5. Acker, 1999; Catalyst, 1999b; Daly, 1998; Ely, 1999; Hurtado, 1999; Marks, Hassim, January-Bardill, Khumalo, & Olekers, 2000; Rao, Rieky, & Kelleher, 1999; Thomas, 1996. [Return]

6. National Association of Social Workers, 1999, Preamble. See also the International Federation of Social Workers, 2002, proposed Statement of Ethics in Social Work:  “The social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being.” [Return]

7. Barker, 2003, p. 204. [Return]

8. International Federation of Social Workers, 2002. [Return]

9. Gibelman, 2003. [Return]

10. Austin, 1995; Gibelman, 2003; Ginsberg, 1995. [Return]

11. National Association of Social Workers, 2001, p. 29. [Return]

12. Haynes, 1989. [Return]

13. The backgrounds of focus group participants are summarized in chapter 1, Table 1-1. [Return]

14. For a discussion of the focus group process, please see the Postscript to this book. Questions asked the focus groups are listed in the Appendix. [Return]

15. The professional positions of focus group participants are summarized in chapter 1, Table 1-2. [Return]

16. Social researchers interested in empowerment practice recommend including research subjects as collaborators and active participants in defining the process and content of study. See, for example, Altpeter, Schopler; Galinsky, & Pennell, 1999; Campfens, 1997; Finn, 1994; Friere, 1973; Gaventa, 1993; Gutiérrez, 1990; Gutiérrez & Lewis, 1999; Lee, 2001; Longres & Scanlon, 2001; Maguire, 1987. From a postmodern perspective, researchers and research subjects collaborate to reveal subjugated knowledge, as discussed in Brotman & Kraniou, 1999; Derrida, 1974; Foucault, 1980; Hartman, 1992; Reinharz, 1992; Schriver, 1995; Scott, 1988. [Return]

17. Boyer, 1996, defined this kind of research and writing as “the scholarship of integration” (p. 21). “Interdisciplinary, interpretive and integrative,” the scholarship of integration “fits one's own research or the research of others into larger intellectual patterns” (p. 21), making specialized knowledge accessible to people who are not specialists themselves. Wright, Euster, Gardella, Pollard, & Shulman, 2000, considered the implications for social work education. [Return]

18. Erkut, 2001. [Return]

19. Hewlett, 2002, advised professional women not to sacrifice motherhood for careers, attracting widespread media attention.  For other examples of research on work, family, and gender, see Crosby, 1991; Greenhaus & Parasuraman, 2000; Hochschild, 1989, 1997; Moen, 1992; Ortíz, 1996; Sprang, Secret, & Bradford, 1999; Young & Wright, 2001; Zedeck, 1992. Negative views of family have distinguished white feminists and feminists of color, according to Holvino, 2001. See, for example, Higginbotham & Weber, 1992; Naples, 1997; Reid-Merritt, 1996; Romero, 1997. [Return]

20.  Collins, 1990. [Return]

21.  Anzaldúa, 1989; Bell, 1990; Bell & Nkomo, 1999; Blake-Beard, 1999; Bond, 1997; Castillo, 1994; Collins, 1997; Comas-Diaz & Greene, 1994; Daly, Jennings, Beckett, & Leashore, 1995; Lorde, 1984; Nkomo, 1996; Raman, 1999; Scott, 1991. [Return]

22. Heilbrun, 1988, p. 22.  See also Etter-Lewis, 1993, p. xvi.; Tannen, 1990; Vaz, 1997a. [Return]