Ethical Decision-Making: Practices of Female and Male Superintendents
Sherry DeVore and Barbara N. Martin
Examined in this study were the personal ethics and professional ethics of male and female superintendents and how each influences ethical decision-making practices. A qualitative, multi-case study provided a process by which the ethical practices of superintendents were viewed through the lens of feminist moral theory. Four overarching themes emerged: belief system, decision-making, challenges of ethical leadership, and professional development. Findings indicated that the superintendents exercised an ethic of care and concern for others and embraced a belief system which guided their decision-making process. The idea of spiritual leadership emerged for the female leaders and indicated further investigation. The ethical leadership characteristics identified in this study will serve as a model for superintendents and in establishing competencies for professional development activities surrounding ethical leadership.
In recent years, the ethical dilemmas faced by educational leaders have been more challenging than in the history of public schools. Student proficiency, curriculum standards, increased diversity, compliance with stringent federal and state laws, budgetary restrictions, and high levels of accountability for increased performance have brought about school organizations that are complex and overextended (McGhee & Nelson, 2005; Murphy, 2003; Pardini, 2004). Consider also the wave of national, political, and social tragedies, as well as worldwide crises that have impacted schools in very distinct ways (Begley & Johansson, 2003; Bolman & Deal, 2003).
Maxcy (2002) noted “there is a crises in educational leadership” (p. 1), and many educational leaders have no sense of ethical direction. Parry (2000) acknowledged that “although integrity and ethical leadership have recently enjoyed increasing focus, their relationship with leadership effectiveness remains under-researched” (pp. 1-2). Fenstermaker (1994) reported that “females scor[ed] consistently higher [in making ethical choices] than males” (p. v).
The literature review confirmed that an increase in accountability (McGee & Nelson, 2005) has been countered by unethical practices of educational professionals. To delve further into the every-day, ethical leadership practices of superintendents, three research questions emerged which guided this study: Is there an alignment between the personal ethics and professional ethics of superintendents? What elements are involved during decision-making events? What are the perceived similarities/differences in the decision-making processes of female and male superintendents when responding to ethical dilemmas?
Feminist Moral Theory
According to Beck and Murphy (1997), “academics and professionals in education embrace one of two general ways of thinking about ethics. The first is evident in works that concentrate upon identifying and justifying certain principles…” (p. 33). Educators using this framework of ethics are concerned with rules and “assume that sound moral principles can be discovered by a process of careful reasoning” (Beck & Murphy, p. 33).
Contrasting with the ethics of justice is feminist moral theory which is grounded in the perspective of human relationships and an ethic of care (Walker, 2003). As explained by Beck and Murphy (1997), “Scholars in this camp stress the importance of developing acute moral perception, or understanding persons and context, and of cultivating virtues” (p. 33), thus, this view embraces feminist moral theory by emphasizing “caring for individuals as unique persons” (Furman, 2003, p. 3). Decision-making practices, linked with an ethic of care, are focused on relationships and the “absolute regard for the dignity and intrinsic value of each person…” (Furman, p. 3).
Proponents of feminist moral theory espouse an ethic of care and relationship-building (Beck, 1994; Noddings, 1993; Walker, 2003). Beck determined that the expectations of political leaders, teachers, and parents have created “divergent perspectives on educational purposes and on the role of administrators in fulfilling these purposes” (p. 58) which may be addressed through an ethics of care. Beck continued by suggesting that “an ethic of care has the potential to provide a solid foundation” (p. 58) to meet the challenges facing administrators.
According to Walker (2003), feminist moral theory “insists we look at the impact of intersections and distributions of social authority, privilege, and power both on morality as an aspect of social life and on ethics as the reflective and systematic representation of morality” (p. 207). Tong (1993) determined:
People who adopt a feminine approach to ethics are generally interested in exploring the ethical implications of allegedly feminine concepts such as care and connectedness and contrasting them with the ethical implications of allegedly masculine concepts such as justice and autonomy. (p. 10)
Feminist moral theory provides a framework which provides educational leaders with a perspective of an ethic of care, thereby emphasizing the “intrinsic value of human beings and a belief that actions motivated by this ethic will be characterized by an unconditional commitment to persons” (Beck, 1994, p. 71). Ethics, values, belief, and commitment – each a critical dimension of an ethical leader – collectively define the essence of effective leadership.
Gilligan (1993) determined that moral reasoning is predicated on an ethic of care and is contingent on relationships. Gilligan determined that “the voice of concern, connectedness, relatedness over time, and caring” (Shapiro & Stefkovich, 1997, p. 122), or feminist voice, had not been acknowledged as an approach to solving moral dilemmas (Gilligan). Noddings (1993) explained that “feminists… argue that such an ethical orientation [of justice] strips human life of its humanity” (p. 44). Hence, literature suggests that conversations surrounding the issues of justice versus care will continue in the study of leadership (Collard, 2003).
Ethical Dimension of Moral Reasoning
In contrast, Kohlberg, Levine, and Hewer (1984) espoused a progression of [masculine] moral development based on justice, or “abstract rights, law” (Shapiro & Stefkovich, 1997, p. 122). Kohlberg’s theory of moral development was delineated as six hierarchical stages of moral reasoning ranging from “punishment and obedience orientation [to the] universal ethical principle orientation” (Sims, 1994, p. 108). Duty and justice are the determining ethical principles associated with Kohlberg’s model.
Additionally, Kohlberg (Kohlberg et al., 1984) asserted that a theory of moral judgment, based on a combination of cognitive and developmental stages, was “the rational reconstruction of the ontogenesis of justice reasoning” (p. 212). According to Rebore (2001), “educational leaders desirous of leading an ethical life must eventually come to grips with the virtues [of] prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance” (p. 26) which are traditionally termed the cardinal virtues (Kanungo & Mendonca, 1996). Rebore determined that the “contemporary understanding of virtue must be viewed in the context of human development in general; also, human development must be viewed as a process, which begins in early childhood, extends into adulthood, and terminates only with death” (pp. 26-27).
Kohlberg (Kohlberg et al., 1984) further argued that the stages of moral development were universal to all people. Boss (2004) noted that “studies from more than forty Western and non-Western countries support Kohlberg’s theory that stages of moral development are universal. And cross-cultural findings also lend support to the claim that some cultures are more prone to promote virtue in their citizens” (p. 209).
Criticisms of Kohlberg’s model of moral development have emerged (Gilligan, 1993). In reaction to Kohlberg’s findings that “women clustered at an inferior stage of moral development [and that] few women attained what he defined as the highest stage of moral reasoning,” Gilligan (1993) noticed the “repeated exclusion of women from the critical theory-building studies of psychological research” (p. 1) and began to develop an alternative theory surrounding the ethic of care. The impact of Gilligan’s work was revolutionary in the realm of feminist moral theory (Hekman, 1995). As a point of agreement, Hekman determined that “a common understanding of the task of feminist ethics is that it represents an attempt to replace masculinist absolutism with a feminist absolutism – that is attempting to replace the justice voice with the care voice” (p. 64).
Foremost in Gilligan’s critical assessment of the Kohlbergian concept was the masculine bias evident in the fact that Kohlberg choose males as subjects in his initial research projects (Boss, 2004; Gilligan, 1993; Hekman, 1995). Additionally, Kohlberg “drew the conclusion on the basis of his all-male research that men operated at a significantly higher level of moral reasoning than do women, the majority of whom were determined to be at stage 3 [the conventional stage]” (Boss, p. 211). Gilligan countered that “women did not seem to progress linearly to higher stages in ethical problem-solving in accordance with Kohlberg’s hierarchy. Women did not seem to make the same ethical choices, nor construe ethical issues in the same way as men” (Rabouin, 1996, p. 5). Thus, the discourse regarding if women make ethical decisions differently than men continues.
Ethical Dimensions and Decision-Making
Consequently, the dimensions of ethics are diverse and, as with any position of leadership, require a “virtuosic mastery over a vast, complex array of knowledge and skill” (Crawford & Nicklaus, 2000). Gilligan (1993) argued:
Given the differences in women’s conceptions of self and morality, women bring to the life cycle a different point of view and order human experience in terms of different priorities. (p. 22)
Gilligan concluded that perhaps ethical dimensions of men and women are different. Boss (2004) summarized the differences as men tend to be duty and principle oriented; women are more context oriented and tend to view the world in a more emotional and personal way.
Barnett (1991) asserted that “in becoming a moral leader, human beings must become conscious of their own thought processes, preferences, and values” (p. 154). Beyond the personal aspects associated with ethical leadership are the principles of professional ethics. Johnson (2001) defined “principles of professionalism [as] ethical rules or decisions and performances that transcend personal considerations and circumstantial pressures and that promote the higher good of the organization and its clients” (p. 31).
Kidder and Born (2002) proposed that decision-making is an ethical “process that applies structure in the midst of pressure and promotes rational discourse in the face of emotional tensions” (p. 2). The quality of the decision is based on the leaders “ethical clarity and moral courage” (p. 5). Ethical decision-making is a difficult and emotional process; therefore, “we need to determine early on that moral reasoning is worth the effort. Only then will we be willing to invest the time and energy we need to improve our ethical fitness” (Johnson, 2001, p. 41).
Historically, research concerned with ethical leadership was framed around traditional moral theory associated with justice and duty (Kohlberg et al., 1984; Trevino, 1986). Current research of the personal and professional ethics of educational leaders, in relation to decision-making practices, is limited (Fenstermaker, 1994) and “few empirical studies on ethical dimensions have been conducted on school administration” (Langlois, 2004, p. 80). This study, using the perceptions and insights of superintendents, was intended to explore the decision-making processes utilized when confronted with ethical dilemmas within the context of gender.
The population for the study was all practicing superintendents in a Midwest state. The sample consisted of four practicing superintendents. The sample was stratified to improve the homogeneity of the sample by using specific criteria: considered a highly ethical leader by the State Education Department, by the Executive Director of the Superintendent Association, and two University professors; size of district (two < 3,000 students and two > 5,000); experience and longevity (at least five years of experience as a superintendent); and gender. Therefore, an equal representation of female and male superintendents was achieved. Data associated with each participant (salary range, areas of teaching experience, and years in the position as superintendent) and respective school demographics (student enrollment and Annual Performance Report scores) are contained in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Participants and school district demographics
Instrumentation Data Collection
A multi-case design was utilized in this study to understand the meaning of the data. As a bounded system, the case is a “single entity, a unit around which there are boundaries” (Merriam, 1998, p. 27). Multiple interviews, field notes, documentary analysis, and observations, established evidentiary data to confirm triangulation and strengthened the reliability and validity of findings. Documentary evidence [school improvement plan, district report card, and assessment data] was collected to triangulate the data and to determine if the espoused values of the superintendent were reflected throughout the school district.
Observations and field notes were taken during each interview and on-site visit, providing additional insight into the nuances of expressions and the interactions of the participants. The rich, thick descriptions were helpful to recreate the interview experiences (Creswell, 2003) and “convey detail about the site[s] and the people” (p. 196). Additionally, the data from the written notes were compared to other sources (interview transcripts and school documents) and used to construct a justification for the categories, themes, and sub-themes. The data utilized to link attributes of feminist moral theory added further opportunity to substantiate causal, underlying relationships within the confines of this inquiry.
According to Bogdan and Biklen (1998), “Data analysis is the process of systematically searching and arranging the interview transcripts, field notes, and other materials…” (p. 157) into a cohesive unit, thereby providing a clearer understanding of the data. In this study, the constant comparative method of analysis (Boeije, 2002) was utilized; as data were collected, the information was examined before the next interview session. Continuously reviewing previous data and addressing questions that may arise following analysis of each bit of data provides assurance that the data are reflective of the phenomenon under study (Boeije).
Transcripts were analyzed using the open and axial coding process, and coding categories were established. Documents and field notes were analyzed to identify patterns and similarities. Collectively, the data assisted in determining congruence and alignment between espoused moral practices and observed interactions with others, as well as the participant’s ethical leadership skills in relation to the overall school community. The iterative process of re-examining the emerging categories and themes through the framework of feminist moral theory, or ethic of care, allowed for the development of “theoretical propositions about causal relations” (Yin, 2003, p. 112). Additionally, an “orientation guiding the [multi-] case study analysis” (Yin, p. 112) was derived from the proposition that ethical leadership provides a moral foundation (Northouse, 2001) for the school community. Yin explained that “the proposition helps to focus attention on certain data and to ignore other data. The proposition also helps to organize the entire [multi-] case study and to define alternative explanations to be examined” (p. 112).
Triangulation of data was achieved “by examining evidence from the sources and using it to build a coherent justification for themes” (Creswell, 2003, p. 196). The participants’ responses; the documentary analysis; and rich, descriptive field notes, supported the triangulation of data. Member-checking (Creswell), or providing each participant with the opportunity to review his/her transcript for accuracy, was helpful to further verify findings.
Bounded within the context of four practicing superintendents in a Midwest state and the limitations of the study, the ethics of four superintendents were viewed through the lens of feminist moral theory. Three themes emerged which provided insight into the ethical decision-making practices of superintendents: alignment of belief systems, ethical decision-making, and gender differences. From the themes, conclusions are suggested.
Theme one: An alignment of personal beliefs with professional code of conduct.
1. There is a strong alignment between personal and professional ethics.
An ethical leader’s moral foundation is bounded by a personal value system, (Schwahn & Spady, 1998) in which there is continuous, personal reflection and humanistic actions extended toward others. The ethical leader seeks congruency and integration of personal attitudes, as discussed by Pellicer (1999), “…if I am to be successful in becoming congruent in my life then I must strive to make the person I am on the outside identical to the person that I am on the inside…” (p. 123).
A comment that resurfaced throughout the analysis of data was that ethics and values are the same in one’s personal life as in one’s professional life. Mrs. Holly related, “I do not think there is any difference between your personal ethics and your professional ethics. I would assume that if you are trying to be two different people then that is a whole ethical question in itself.” Another participant stated:
As far as personal ethics versus professional ethics, personal values versus professional values, I do not think you can separate them. I think to try to separate myself from my inner person, try to separate my body from my soul; you can’t do it. I am a soul who has a body. I am not a body who has a soul…. I don’t feel you can separate a professional value system from a personal value system. I don’t see any difference in it. If whatever my personal value system is, it’s going to carry right over into my professional level.
It’s hard for me to imagine that a person can be different in different settings. If one believes that cheating is OK in one setting, then it’s very likely that person would be cheating in a different realm. To me, there is no difference in personal or business type of values or ethics.
Dr. Carrie summarized succinctly her perception of the link between personal and professional ethics, “I always walk the talk, so a lot of my belief system is molded into what I do.”
Spirituality was expressed as a primary force guiding the participant’ values in their personal and professional lives. Dr. Barnett related:
I believe in God, and I believe as a Christian. Personally, that is where I try to draw my strength. I don’t always do a very good job of having enough faith. I am a long way from being perfect, but that is where I try to draw my strength and faith from…. I have believed since a long time ago that everyone has a calling, and He has put us all together to serve His needs, to build His sanctuary, and we all have a part to play. I think mine is this.
Other participants stated:
I’m a very spiritual person. I attend church and I’m very much involved in the community. I try to make sure that what I deliver publicly is also what I deliver privately. So it is all being able to present one person at all times. The same person at all times, regardless of the situation.
I’ve always had a passion for doing good. I love children, and I think that desire to do something for someone has been the greatest force. I believe it’s a calling. I believe I’m doing the Lord’s work. What I’ve been doing all these years, it’s a part of me. It’s who I am, and I feel I’m making a real contribution everyday. I’ve been blessed. I think that’s probably the key point.
Family ties and specific people of importance in the lives of the participants were acknowledged as the guiding force in establishing a value system. Mrs. Holly related, “I think that our values come from your mother, your father, who you were mentored under, or people that you respect in life, so you see all the good things they do, and you want to replicate that.” Dr. Drake attributed the guiding forces in establishing his value system to his mother, his wife, an elementary principal, and a superintendent.
My mother was one of the hardest working people I’ve ever known. She raised four children. Dad left the family when I was very young and Mom was the bread winner. She’s had a real influence on my life. She’s almost ninety years old and she’s been a real inspiration. She taught me early on the importance of treating [others] with kindness and respect. That if I treated people the way I wanted to be treated, that I would have lots and lots of friends, and I would be able to have loyal friends. My wife of thirty-seven years has really had a tremendous influence on me. She’s been my conscience. My elementary principal was sort of like a father. He would encourage me in school. I had this principal for nine years. He never forgot me and would always check on me. My superintendent, the person who hired me thirty-eight years ago, was another father figure to me. He was a man of tremendous ethics and was really hard on me. He treated me more like his son than an employee and had very high expectations for me. Those people I think have had the greatest influence.
Dr. Carrie acknowledged that “a lot of my spirituality, a lot of how I was raised, a lot of my values, a lot of the roads that I’ve had to travel” have been instrumental in establishing a value system. In Figure 2 are the depictions of theme one including the sub-themes.
Figure 2. Theme one: Belief system and sub-themes.
Theme two: Ethical decision-making of care.
2. An ethic of care, personal reflection, spirituality, and respect for others are
characteristics exhibited during the decision-making process.
Feminist moral theory posits that individuals are focused on fostering relationships and concern for others instead of acting out of a sense of justice or duty (Furman, 2003).
The superintendents’ espoused practices followed the tenets of feminist moral theory and were evidenced in their responses. Dr. Drake related that he had faith in people and relied on others to help in making decisions. Likewise, Dr. Barnett commented that he would seek input from knowledgeable people when faced with a difficult decision.
Prayer was cited by one superintendent as an approach to decision-making. Mrs. Holly shared that reflecting on the facts of a situation was an important step when making decisions. Trust, honesty, respect, and a sense of community well-being were key words used by the superintendents when explaining their perceptions and insights of ethical leadership.
Mrs. Holly commented that in the decision-making process it is important to take time to gather all the facts and confront the person in a respectful manner. She cautioned, “You never want to react. You never want to just hear a portion. Take the time to be up-front with the people you are dealing with, even though it’s uncomfortable. It’s just the respectable way to treat them.”
One of the participants believed it is necessary to look at the prescribed procedures, but to always keep the children’s best interests in mind. She responded, “I look at the procedures in place; however, I try to make a decision that is best for all children, ensuring that I’m doing the right thing, not always doing what’s right, but that I’m doing the right thing.”
When asked to respond to the causes associated with superintendents making decisions in different ways, Dr. Barnett shared his perception, “I think [it is due to] life experiences, beliefs, values, where you draw your strength, and where your faith lies…. A strong value system [will] lead to good ethical decisions.” Another participant cited pressure, bureaucracy, and politics as the main reasons for making decisions differently. Mrs. Holly shared that political pressures and becoming “influenced by things that are possibly too far away from the problem” cause superintendents to respond to dilemmas in different ways. Also, she related that “high levels of stress associated with trying to manage so many different aspects of the district cause limited time. You don’t have a lot of time to really look into, reflect, make the best decision, [and] sometimes you react. So taking time to reflect is essential.” This ethos of care, personal reflection, spirituality, and respect for others as reflected in the decision-making process is illustrated in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Theme two: The path to ethical decision-making of care.
Theme three: Differences in the decision-making processes of female and male superintendents.
3. Females were identified as collaborative and reflective decision makers, while men were viewed as more authoritative.
Kouzes and Posner (2001) determined that females engaged “in the leadership practices of encouraging the heart significantly more often than did their male colleagues” (p. 346). Gender differences were considered in Fenstermaker’s (1994) study and findings substantiated that females scored higher than males in making ethical decisions. The superintendents in this study expressed that females and males responded differently to ethical dilemmas.
Female superintendents were identified as nurturing, better at making decisions, collaborative, and reflective. Dr. Drake was adamant that females think about things more and make better decisions. He determined that females were more cautious, more guarded, perhaps to not “show their hand too quickly.” Dr. Barnett was less emphatic, more uncertain in his position, “Males may look things over a little better, than, maybe not quite. I may be completely wrong…. Gender differences might better equip a female than a male in some way, or vice-versa.”
The female participants cited several reasons why female and male superintendents use different approaches in decision-making. Dr. Carrie offered this view:
I do believe that there are things certainly different for women superintendents than for males. I don’t know if it’s because of how we (females) are socialized and how we handle things differently, but we do. We’re a more collaborative species than the males are. I’ve found that out over the years.
Similar to Dr. Carrie’s response, Mrs. Holly offered several reasons for differences, “Females tend to experience the classroom [more] than males.” Additionally, she determined that males are more authoritative than females who were originally elementary teachers and “zipped pants and tied shoes.” Thus the approaches, processes, and practices utilized by the superintendents differed due to gender as illustrated in Figure 4.
Figure 4. Theme three: Decision-making and sub-themes.
Implications for Practice
As a result of this study, it was identified that there is an alignment between one’s personal and professional belief systems. An ethic of care, respect for others, reflection and prayer, and a firm determination to “walk the talk” were consistent practices of the participants which are aligned to the feminist theory approach to understanding ethics. Additionally, this data set suggests that ethics and values are essentially one’s belief system and are rooted in family values and through the influences of ethical people. The data also suggest that females approach and view ethical challenges differently than their male counterparts. Specifically, it was noted that female superintendents approach ethical challenges with an ethic of care rather than of justice. Also the realm of spirituality was present in the way that females viewed the ethical challenges.
Beck and Murphy (1997) argued that leaders are challenged to “look within themselves, at their own values, beliefs, commitments, biases, and assumptions to assist them in managing dilemmas…” (p. 191). Other researchers suggested that leaders need to develop a platform in which to articulate their belief system (Covey, 1990; Kahn, 1990; Sergiovanni & Starratt, 1983). This data set, along with the findings of Barnett et al (1992), suggests indicators that effective leadership programs must provide an opportunity for educators to examine their beliefs and view ethical situations.
Collectively, the data supported fostering relationships; spending time with ethical people; sharing components of ethical leadership with others; and collaborating with peers so that actions are based on a moral foundation of thought, care, and concern. As Mrs. Holly replied, “I would like to have a tool or model that I could take the board through to show the importance of doing the right thing with people.” Dr. Drake also touted the mentoring model, citing the support of his mother and an elementary principal during his younger years and the influence of his peers in his adult years.
Thus, mentoring can be a key professional development activity, in which aspiring administrators would have opportunities to work with ethical leaders. In the words of Dr. Drake, who promoted a mentor model as one of the best professional development activities:
Mentors are the key. The better the role models you have, probably the more time you’ll have to practice your behavior and they’ll become habits. You can either practice good habits or bad habits. I would say the best thing we could do, in terms of training, is catch them early. Catch them when they’re in preschool. Catch them when they’re in elementary school, middle school, high school, and get them great role models, and let them see the benefit of making good decisions and recognizing that appropriate decisions pay greater dividends than decisions that might bring short term gratification. I think that’s the training ground.
Other participants suggested professional development activities to enhance ethical decision-making which included superintendent forums to talk about current issues in a proactive manner and providing coursework for educational leaders that would present ethical scenarios for discussion and reflection. Through a myriad of professional development activities, the decision-making processes of superintendents and the knowledge of ethical leadership may be broadened. The use of such training programs, effectively designed, may result in the personal and professional lives of both female and male superintendents to be enhanced ethically.
The findings of this study bring about a sense of hope that within public school systems there are ethical leaders who embrace an ethic of care, believe in the worth of others, and carefully consider their thoughts, words, and actions. An ethical dilemma still abounds in the educational institutions, as evidenced by the continued media reports of superintendents who have been found guilty of embezzlement, fraud, or misconduct (Begley, 2005; Brooks & Normore, 2005; Pardini, 2004). The answer to this continuing dilemma may be discovered through further investigation into the ethical practices of superintendents.
The data from this study suggest that ethics and values are essentially one’s belief system and are rooted in family values and through the influences of ethical people. If superintendents were provided opportunities to experience “ethical people of influence” through mentoring programs or internships, perhaps the quality of decision-making practices would improve.
Further research may yield critical information that would assist higher education in formulating the competencies for educational administration courses and determining appropriate high-quality professional development for superintendents (Beck & Murphy, 1997; Duke & Grogan,
1997; Jentz & Murphy, 2005). Through increased awareness, personal reflection, professional
training, and high expectations for moral behavior superintendents will have the knowledge base to make ethical choices.
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Dr. Sherry DeVore is an Assistant Superintendent in the Branson R-IV School District. She has presented in the areas of ethics and women issues in education.
Dr. Barbara N. Martin is an Associate Professor in Education Leadership at the university of Central Missouri. She has published in areas of ethics, motivation and women issues in leadership.
Key words: Decision making, female, ethics
Citation: DeVore, S. & Martin, B. (2008). Ethical Decision-Making: Practices of Female and Male Superintendents. Advancing Women in Leadership Archives, 28(3). Retrieved [date] from http://advancingwomen.com/awl/awl_wordpress/.