Let’s conduct a little thought experiment.
First, imagine your third-grade teacher. Hold that memory in your head.
Second, call to mind your high school principal. Got it? Good.
Now, conjure up the image of the superintendent of the school district you live in or attended as a young person.
The first person you recalled, your grade school teacher, was almost certainly a woman. Nearly 8 in 10 public school teachers are women.
The odds of your high school principal, the second person, being a man or a woman are about even. Slightly more men were principals than women until around 2000. Since then the numbers have flipped: about 55 percent of principals are now women, about 45 percent are men.
The last person you thought of, the superintendent of the school district, was very likely a man and that still holds broadly true, according to data just released by AASA—the School Superintendents Association. While the gender imbalance at the top job in the district has improved from the 1980s when 90+ percent were men, just over 1 in 4 superintendencies today are held by women—with women of color representing just a small proportion of that total. Disappointingly, despite progress from the 1990s through 2010, that number has not moved appreciably across nearly a decade and a half.
During the pandemic, things actually went in the wrong direction. According to researchers at the woman-owned ILO Group, of the 154 school districts that made leadership transitions during the pandemic, 70 percent of the newly appointed superintendents were men. Of the 51 female leaders who left their roles during the pandemic, 39 of them, or 76 percent, were replaced by men.
Somewhat surprisingly, if we look beyond the superintendency, we again see greater gender parity. In recent decades, local school boards have begun to approach gender parity despite a history of male dominance. Chief state school officers are similarly improved: about half of top state officials, including D.C. and U.S. territories, are women.
So what’s lost by this gender imbalance in the district superintendency? What would students, schools and communities gain by having more women leading school districts?
A lot, as it happens. Superintendents sit at the very top of local school districts, setting strategic direction, guiding curriculum decisions, setting standards and overseeing personnel decisions down to the school level. A superintendent can transform a failing district or lose gains achieved by their predecessor. The personal experience, skills and perspective that these leaders bring are essential factors in their effectiveness.
ILO Group Co-Founder and Managing Partner Dr. Julia Rafal-Baer put it succinctly. “It’s not just a moral imperative to close gender gaps in district leadership around the country,” she said upon the release of the organization’s study of pandemic leadership transitions. “It’s an educational one as well. Children deserve to benefit from the full pool of talent that’s there, and they also need to be able to see themselves in their leaders.”
Fortunately, there are women and men in education leadership in communities around the country who are actively engaged in addressing this veritable valley in leadership gender parity. The Women in Leadership Initiative from Chiefs for Change, a national organization focused on education leadership at the state and district levels, is one such effort.
Dr. Barbara Jenkins, a former Florida superintendent who leads that initiative, told Education Week’s Denisa Superville that coaching, mentoring and actionable assistance to help move female educators through their leadership journey are all key. Jenkins told the publication that taking on the issue with an honest and clear-eyed understanding of the challenge is also essential.
“We would like to see them given the same fair chance as others,” she explained. “It’s no different than in other sectors. There are still gender inequities and gender bias that we deal with as women in this country—whether it’s pay inequities or position inequities. I think we have to face that realistically in order to do something about it.”
As a woman in education leadership myself I can attest to the critical value of mentorship and mutual support for a successful leadership journey in our system of public schools. The women I learned from and leaned on early in my career shaped me, lifted me up, and gave me strength, especially when the headwinds got particularly strong. They are also the reason why I have sought to pay that experience forward, mentoring and sponsoring women across my career.
The persistence of the education leadership gender imbalance sends a signal of its own, depriving young people of strong models of women leaders who are imbued with a sense of urgency, a belief in their ability to drive meaningful change, and committed to deliver equitable and empowering learning experiences for all.
We must all play our part in righting historical wrongs. That is certainly the case in addressing the gender imbalance in education leadership.
And if we do, a person conducting the same thought experiment we began with will see different results a few years down the line—a seemingly small but telling indicator of progress on a significant equity challenge in our public schools.