Though women make up 76% of teachers in K-12 school settings, just a small percentage of women hold the most senior role in a district—the superintendent position. The imbalance of having male-led work environments for majority-female workforces places critical responsibility on district leaders to ensure that they do not overlook the unique needs and perspectives of women in the workplace.
“Throughout my career, I’ve seen several ways that women are held back from senior district leadership,” says a former principal from a Maryland school district. “I’ve personally experienced that leaders and board members will interact with me differently than the men in the room. I’ve also experienced a lack of female mentorship, which I believe prevents women from even considering moving up to the superintendent role.”
Women are well-represented in mid-levels of administration, representing 78% of central office administrators, 54% of principals, and 53% of assistant principals. But the superintendent role remains elusive, with only 26% of these posts held by women. Digging deeper into the data reveals that women may be receiving less access to the cadence and types of promotion opportunities that place male colleagues on a path to superintendency.
One study of assistant principals in Texas found that women with more years of experience were still “less likely to be promoted to high school principal, and when they are, it is after a longer assistant principalship.” The Phi Delta Kappan posits that men are therefore gaining more diverse and comprehensive leadership experience because secondary principals manage large school buildings and the variety of programs that typically exist in those setting—and this experience often better translates to the superintendency position. Women, coming from instruction-focused backgrounds with younger grades, are then at a disadvantage to make it to the top role.
There are a few ways in which district administrators can elevate the women on their teams:
- Learn from historical data: Conduct a study to examine personnel data from the district. Uncover what type of leaders are receiving promotions and their corresponding paths to leadership. Dig deeper to understand the years spent in each position before being promoted and make comparisons between gender and other identifying factors.
- Expand professional development support: Consider how districts can develop skills in female leaders that are needed by superintendents or experiences that they may not have access to while holding leadership roles in primary schools.
- Implement unconscious bias training: Show supervising principals and district leaders how to conduct inclusive and empowering interviews and coaching conversations. Train them on unconscious bias that may be coming up during performance evaluations and promotion discussions.
Whether due to a lack of inclusivity or flexibility at work, women across industries are increasingly considering leaving or changing their careers. With unprecedented educator shortages and reports of declining student test scores, now is the time for administrators to make a concerted effort to retain and elevate female leaders in their districts.