5 things that have to change if we want more female superintendents

'At every stage in her career, a woman encounters stronger headwinds than her male colleagues—and the challenges intensify the higher she climbs,' new playbook asserts.

The “Great Resignation” of the COVID pandemic represented a missed opportunity for women in education—or, rather, a missed opportunity for the education system to promote more female leaders to the superintendency.

The swath of vacancies created when unprecedented numbers of superintendents left the profession was “a major opportunity to rectify a dramatic imbalance in district leadership,” says the Women Leading Ed coalition in “The Time Is Now,” a just-released playbook on closing the gender gap. “As a nation, we missed it.”

A higher percentage of women than men are graduating from college and entering the workforce and while a majority of the nation’s teachers are women, more than two-thirds of K12 superintendents are men. “The problem is not a lack of female talent,” the organization asserts. “It’s that women face both systemic and informal obstacles to advancement that seldom impede—and in some cases, advantage—many male leaders.”

Those obstacles include discrimination perpetuated by both male and female school board members, an absence of family-friendly policies and leave practices, pay inequities, and biased leadership pipelines and hiring processes. For example, rising male educators receive more positive feedback and coaching, and are more likely to land on accelerated leadership pathways, the group says.

“At every stage in her career, a woman encounters stronger headwinds than her male colleagues—and the challenges intensify the higher she climbs,” WomenLeadingEd points out. The organization is calling for five major strategy shifts:

1. Promote intentional support systems to prepare women for leadership roles: Women in education need sponsors as well as mentors. While mentors provide encouragement and advice, sponsors “take a hands-on role in managing career moves and promoting executives as potential CEOs.” Sponsors are also key in helping candidates build confidence to seek promotions and pay raises. Kyla Johnson-Trammell, superintendent of Oakland USD, said she is where she is today because of coaching she received from her sponsor, a former superintendent of her district.

“This man coached me for two years every Friday … and pushed me to be the leader I wanted to be as a Black woman,” Johnson-Trammell says in the report. “He said, ‘Your first year, everything is going to feel urgent, important, like it could be the end of your career, but it’s not. You have to start learning what’s a bullet and what’s a feather.’”

2. Re-balance the hiring process: Districts seeking new leaders must build a diverse finalist pool that includes more than one woman or candidate of color. School board members and other personnel involved in hiring and promotions should receive training to help them become aware of their biases and how they can prioritize diversity. Districts and other education systems should also ensure that search and hiring committees are also diverse.

More from DA: Several superintendents switch as first-timers join the ranks of K12 leadership

3. Provide a “constellation” of family and well-being supports: Women in education need the flexibility of hybrid and remote work, both of which have been shown to increase job satisfaction and reduce burnout. Districts should also implement comprehensive leave policies that offer female and male employees paid time off without repercussions. “In the private sector, companies committed to increasing female leadership offer a constellation of benefits to improve women’s day-to-day work experiences, including flexibility, emergency childcare and eldercare leave, and mental health support,” the report says.

4. Set transparent goals for female leadership: Districts conducting superintendent searches should be required to make their finalist pools public or share information such as the number of finalists and the percentage of male and female candidates, and candidates of color. Districts could also be required to select at least two women as finalists. “Data shows that if there is only one woman or person of color in a finalist pool, the individual has ‘statistically no chance’ of landing the job,” Women Leading Ed asserts.

5. Ensure financial fairness: A “self-assessment pay calculator” allows employees to check if their district provides women and men with equal pay for equal work. District leaders should also audit their pay structures to identify and close gender wage gaps, and share these findings with employees. Finally, districts should commit to reporting the previous salary of the outgoing superintendent in job postings to increase transparency.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

Most Popular