Why Aren’t More Women Running America’s School Districts?

Rafal-Baer: Fewer than 33% of the 500 largest districts have female superintendents, though most teachers are women. Some ways to fix that imbalance.

A Ph.D. candidate named Vergil Kenneth Ort once wrote a 250-page dissertation on The Role of the School Superintendent’s Wife. The ideal, Ort wrote, is a woman who “is able to meet and entertain … keeps (her) family presentable … provides (a) wholesome family life … has constructive interests and is a good listener.” Ort can be forgiven for assuming that a superintendent would be a man. He wrote his paper in 1955, when men could aspire to be doctors, lawyers, business leaders or school superintendents, while women were expected to be homemakers and could aspire to careers secondary to their spouses’ — nurse, secretary or teachers. That list almost never included superintendent.

Today, women occupy executive positions in business, government and academia. A woman has run for president and another serves as vice president. Yet, fewer than one-third of the nation’s 500 largest school districts are led by women, despite the fact that the teaching workforce is overwhelmingly female. Women continue to be passed over for leadership roles in education based on “questions about family responsibilities, stability and emotionality,” just as the Sarasota County School Board did to Marie Izquierdo nearly three years ago. This doesn’t just hurt women aspiring to leadership positions — it’s depleting the educator pipeline, increasing turnover and, in turn, negatively impacting students and their families.

In addition to the opportunity gap, there is a significant wage gap. According to the Council of the Great City Schools, the average female superintendent earns roughly $20,000 to $30,000 less than her male counterparts. When comparing salaries of all state superintendents, both elected and appointed, women make 12% less than men. Though 73% of elected superintendents are women, they make 26% less than their male counterparts.

Statistics like these no longer surprise me, and they won’t come as a surprise to the thousands of women aspiring to leadership roles in education. That is why I founded Women Leading Ed, a network designed to support and promote female education leadership. It’s also why Women Leading Ed released The Time is Now: A New Playbook for Women in Education Leadership, which synthesizes years of public- and private-sector workplace research and makes the case for five strategies to address barriers that have long kept women from rising to executive positions. 

Districts and states serious about hiring more women for leadership roles must: 

  1. Create and promote support systems to prepare women for leadership: This means promoting sponsorship over mentorship. Sponsors take a hands-on role in managing career moves and promoting executives as potential CEOs; studies show men tend to have twice as many sponsors as women. They also provide on-the-job coaching to female superintendents, using “coaching trees” to define clear paths to the executive suite and creating opportunities for building networks.
  2. Rebalance the hiring process by requiring and promoting best practices: Districts and states must commit to creating finalist pools that include multiple women and work with those conducting searches to ensure a diverse applicant group by, among other things, standardizing the hiring process as much as possible and committing to bias training to ensure questions and processes are the same for everyone. Those doing the hiring and promoting must be aware of their biases and prioritize diversity.
  3. Provide family and well-being supports: This means providing high-quality benefits, such as flexibility in offering both hybrid and remote work options, parental leave and time off for child care and elder care.
  4. Set public goals for female leadership and increase transparency: States and districts should set voluntary targets for gender diversity on school boards and in senior management. States should publicly recognize districts that show exemplary progress toward gender diversity, support development of local plans for improvement and publish externally models that other districts can follow.
  5. Ensure financial fairness: This means conducting pay equity audits, including salary ranges in job postings and developing a self-assessment pay calculator — an easy-to-use statistical tool that helps employees check whether a district provides equal pay for equal work between women and men. Canada, Israel, Portugal, France and Switzerland have all developed models for publicly available calculators that help women assess their gender wage gaps.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a  wave of superintendents joined the Great Resignation, opening hundreds of top district jobs. It was a chance to reset the balance and make the superintendency look more like the nation’s classrooms. But that’s not what happened. In fact, nearly half of the 500 largest school districts in the country conducted superintendent searches between March 2020 and March 2022, and men were selected for the job more often than women. In fact, men were chosen to replace both male and female outgoing superintendents 70% of the time.A post-pandemic opportunity was missed, and it is a reason to push harder. The country has made significant advances in gender equality since the days of The Superintendent’s Wife, but there is still a long way to go. Everything on the Women Leading Ed list is eminently do-able. The report offers a detailed roadmap to a better, fairer and more equitable future for women educators and American education, and school boards everywhere should take heed. If they do, some aspiring Ph.D. student, years from now, might write a paper on The Role of the Superintendent’s Husband. Then we’ll know we’ve made real progress.

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