Barely one-fourth of superintendents are women, per the latest available data released by the School Superintendents Association (AASA). Yet, nearly eight in 10 public school teachers are women. Furthermore, around 55% of public school principals are women. So what’s contributing to this very evident gap in the principal-superintendent pipeline? Here’s what these two female district leaders have to say about it.
“Even talking about pursuing an educational leadership degree with my colleagues who were teachers, the response was, ‘Why would you want to do that? I would never want to be an administrator,'” describes Lisa Leali, superintendent at the Lake Bluff Elementary School District 65 in Illinois.
Through time, she believes that part of the issue was that these female educators didn’t have a solid relationship with their administrators, some of whom were female.
But despite the “shame” she received early on in her career, she gives credit to her female assistant superintendent at the time who encouraged her to pursue a career in educational administration. Yet, when the time came for her to consider entering the superintendency, she was met with the same sort of caution from the same female district leaders who said it was not worth the effort.
“I was hearing from those women that had been so instrumental in my leadership journey saying, ‘You never want to do this job,'” recalls Leali. “It was the people in the superintendency that I knew as females who were saying to me, ‘You don’t want this.'”
Interestingly, it wasn’t until she worked for a man that she received the encouragement she needed to pursue a career in district leadership.
“Maybe they didn’t have a strong network of females supporting them at that time; I don’t know,” she reflects. “But it took a male to get me to this seat.”
Leveraging a strong network of aspiring and current female leaders is crucial, echoes Bhavna Sharma-Lewis, superintendent at the Diamond Lake District 76 in Illinois. In order to bolster the principal-superintendent pipeline, particularly for women, it requires leaders to establish these networks now.
“I’m going to echo what she [Leali] said about having a strong support network of women now,” she says. “And I use the word ‘now’ because we’ve cultivated that for each other. I feel like there’s been a focus in the last five years to promote, encourage and elevate other women in leadership. And that was not the case 15, 20 years ago when I was starting.”
“Twenty years ago when I thought about going into a district-level leadership position, it was all men,” she adds. And it was these very men who mentored her and coached her to pursue and achieve the success she’s achieved today.
However, success didn’t come without its share of obstacles. According to Sharma-Lewis, much of her adversity was tested after taking a job in the superintendency where she faced a lot of “mean girls” and “condescending behavior” for reasons unknown at a time when fewer women supported each other in leadership positions.
Thankfully, as more and more women are recognized as valuable decision-makers at the district level, both Sharma-Lewis and Leali believe it’s up to women to ensure that the gender gap in the superintendency finds balance by creating strong networks of female leaders. That’s the message they’ll be sharing with audience members at the District Administration Superintendents Summit in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin in October. According to Leali, her two big pieces of advice for upcoming female leaders are: 1) to become an active member of a supportive network and 2) to start asking questions.
“Being an active participant in a network of women that supports other women is one big piece of advice,” says Leali. “If you are considering that, then be an active part of the network that supports other people that are already there.”
Once you’ve created this network, she adds, start asking those who are already in the superintendency about the obstacles you should expect to encounter along the way. For aspiring female leaders, this is crucial.
“I think many times, women will hold themselves back from going for a position based on their ‘perceived deficits,'” Leali explains. “Not real deficits, but the ones that they perceive are deficits. And I think most women in the position would probably say, ‘You can do it, regardless of what you think your perceived deficits are.'”
Sharma-Lewis adds that their message will be one of hope for female leaders. All it takes is to surround yourself with people who want to see you succeed.
“Surround yourself with people who are going to support, encourage and be kind to you,” she says. “Kind meaning not always telling you what you want to hear, but telling you what you need to hear and not bringing you down.”
Of course, you also have a responsibility to hold yourself accountable by staying true to your authentic self, she adds.
“Having the confidence in your competence is huge, too,” Sharma-Lewis emphasizes. From applying to jobs you may not think you’re qualified for to truly understanding your leadership style, her advice is to never refrain from showing others who you are and why you deserve to be in the position of district leadership.
“Whatever words you want people to describe you as, live that,” she concludes. “I think that’s what makes you the best leader you can be.”