Is the U.S. education system making progress on closing the gender gap when it comes to the men and women leading our school districts? The answer appears to be yes and no. The fact that more female superintendents have been hired in recent years does not tell the whole story, says Terri Bresnahan, who in 2021 became the first female superintendent at Community Consolidated School District 59 after leading another Chicago-area district for six years.
“Nationally, we are seeing an increase in the number of female superintendents,” says Bresnahan, who is also president of the Suburban Superintendents Association. “However, we are still grossly underrepresented in this role.”
What progress has been made is a result, in part, of leadership organizations creating professional learning programs and networking events specifically for female educators holding or aspiring to the role. Executive search firms have also been providing school boards with more diverse candidates.
Bresnahan encourages female educators to build a diverse support network of superintendents and leaders who can provide mentoring and guidance and share opportunities for growth. Female educators should also not let a failed first attempt at earning a superintendency discourage them from reaching their goals. “Most importantly, I believe it is females supporting other females to pursue these positions and to break glass ceilings where they currently exist,” Bresnahan says. “It is important for me to serve as a role model for other districts who have yet to break the cycle of only males in this role.”
Are women actually falling behind?
There is some evidence that female leaders are now losing ground after years of slow but steady gains. Between March 2020 and March 2022, 40% of the nation’s largest school districts experienced a turnover of their superintendent. Some 70% of those systems filled the post with a man, according to data compiled by the ILO Group, an equity-focused education consultancy and executive search firm. And just since July 1, 2021, 16 of the 17 new superintendents hired by those districts are men.
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“I don’t see progress–I actually see a lot of newly concerning trends,” says Julia Rafal-Baer, the ILO Group’s co-founder and managing partner. The firm’s data also shows that when females leave the superintendency, they are being replaced by men about 75% of the time. However, trends vary across the country: In the Northeast, for instance, 43% of superintendents are women while only about a quarter of superintendents in the Southeast are female.
The gender imbalance is also clearly evident in women’s experiences on the pathway to the top role. The route to the superintendency runs through posts such as high school principal and then to deputy superintendent or chief operating officer. Female administrators, however, are more likely to become curriculum directors or elementary school principals, the latter of which is much less externally focused than their high school counterparts, Rafal-Baer says.
Also, women are more likely to be hired as a superintendent when they are internal candidates, especially when they’ve served as the interim superintendent. “Women have to be in that role and knock it out of the park in order to be promoted into the top role vs. men who are able to come in from outside at a higher rate and get that job,” she says. “That’s important for us to know when looking at this issue and what to do about it, particularly around bias and what happens during the decision-making process.”
The first step for school boards, search firms and communities is to be aware of the persisting gaps and be more intentional about diversifying the superintendency and eliminating bias in the hiring process. “Unfortunately, stereotypes about what a leader sounds like and acts like continue to lean toward more male-dominated traits,” she says. “That impacts so much of this and is skewing the pipeline.”
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There’s almost a bright spot at the state level. More women than men hold state superintendents’ posts and that would be a sign of progress except for a few other factors, one of which is that women are far more likely to be elected than appointed to the position. Elected state superintendents earn 40% less than do the appointed officials. “Women comprise the majority of state-level leaders but they’re not being paid the same as men,” Rafal-Baer says. “That is not acceptable.”
Hope on the horizon
Combatting bias and the other factors holding female educators back has required “a heavy lift” over the past 15 years, from a time when the percentage of women in the superintendency was in the low teens, says Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association. He acknowledges the position is still dominated by white males but finds hope for progress in the fact that women comprise the majority of college graduates and more and more female educators are being hired as principals.
Having children continues to be a hurdle as the responsibility for caring for families still tends to fall more heavily on women. Female educators may have more space to succeed in a 24-7 superintendent’s role when they have a spouse or partner who takes on an equal share of the family responsibilities, Domenech says.
And there is plenty of work left to do in further diversifying K-12 leadership, he adds. “Where we have not made real progress is in the area of superintendents of color,” Domenech says. “We’re still at the 6% level, and most of these superintendents are in urban areas where the populations are predominantly minority students. In rural and suburban districts there are very few superintendents of color.”