How to make women an expectation—not an exception—in K12 leadership

One-on-one with Iranetta Wright, superintendent and CEO of Cincinnati Public Schools
Kendra McQuilton
Kendra McQuilton
Kendra McQuilton is the CEO of Energia, an energy savings engineering company that focuses on K-12 schools. She writes this column to share insights and advice from successful women in education with those who aspire to follow a similar career path.

Though 77% of public school teachers are women, only 30% of district superintendents are women—and just 1.4% are black women. What will it take to achieve true representation in K12 leadership?

Iranetta Wright
Iranetta Wright

I recently sat down with Iranetta Wright, Superintendent and CEO of Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS), who believes the path to increased representation lies in a combination of approaches, such as:

  • Developing confidence in our own capabilities as women
  • Finding mentorship and sponsorship
  • Cultivating organizational cultures that help new leaders emerge and thrive

“One of my hopes is that when we think about leadership, thinking about women in that role becomes an expectation, not just an exception,” Wright says.

Wright, who recently celebrated her 30th anniversary working in public schools, offered advice for women who want to pursue leadership, as well as leaders who want to improve the representation of women and minorities in leadership roles.

Overcome self-doubt and tune out skeptics

Too often, women talk themselves out of pursuing leadership paths. “There are stories we tell ourselves that keep us from going to the next [level],” Wright says.

It’s all too easy to get stuck in the role of helping other leaders succeed. “As female leaders, we are so good at being supporting actors,” Wright explains. Women tend to focus on maintaining stability at the expense of their own ambitions.

Compounding this challenge, women often face unfair expectations in the workplace from colleagues who question their ability to become leaders. If we want to achieve leadership positions, we have to tune out the noise of people who don’t believe in our potential.

Surround yourself with the right people

Wright strongly recommends that every woman build a diverse network of people who will support her in pursuing a leadership path. Her own support group includes individuals from a variety of personal and professional backgrounds—people inside and outside the education world, men and women, minorities and non-minorities. “It gives me a diversity of thought,” she says.

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A support network should include a mix of peers, mentors, coaches and sponsors. The concept of sponsorship—in which a person in leadership uses their credibility to advocate for an emerging leader—is relatively new, but Wright thinks it’s key to increasing representation in leadership.

“Sponsorship is so important,” she says. “Speaking individuals’ names in rooms and at tables where it makes a difference.”

Build a culture that cultivates leaders

In addition to acting as sponsors, Wright offers several suggestions for leaders who want to create an environment that helps women advance.

“In any organization, the speed of the leader is the speed of the team,” she says. Leaders should actively create a culture where women feel free to demonstrate an interest in pursuing leadership positions and have access to development and support.

In her district, Wright has led a concerted effort to build a bench of leaders who are ready to step up when opportunities arise.

Her role is to share positions that will be open—for example, if a principal is going to retire in six or 12 months—and encourage people to express their leadership ambitions.

Developing a culture of transparency takes time, but the payoff is worthwhile: making leadership positions available to people who didn’t previously feel that they could succeed. Wright reflects that her similar efforts at another district made a world of difference for leadership candidates: “[They] would say, ‘Now we have the opportunity. I tried to get in before, [but] I couldn’t get in.’”

It takes a combination of efforts, on behalf of both individuals and communities, to move the needle on representation in K12 leadership. Wright is optimistic that this work will pay off and the proportion of women—and black women in particular—in leadership will continue to grow.

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