• Home
  • Blog
  • Empowering Women Superintendents: Closing the Leadership Gap
women superintendents

Empowering Women Superintendents: Closing the Leadership Gap

Horace Mann, the father of American public schools, once called education the great equalizer.

Perhaps nowhere has that power been more evident than in the closing of the “education gap” between male and female students.

Today, in the United States, women are more likely to have a college degree than men, according to the Census Bureau. That’s never happened before—and they’ve been keeping that stat since 1940!

But, despite obvious progress in some areas of our society, huge gender inequities remain, especially when it comes to pay and career advancement. Gender inequity has been a hot topic this campaign season.

While the gender playing field appears to have leveled—perhaps tipped—in classrooms, the same cannot be said for school leadership positions.

In a five-year study of American school superintendents released in 2015 by AASA, the School Superintendents Association, it was revealed that just 27 percent of district superintendents are women.

Now, school districts, advocacy groups, and education experts are taking a hard look at the gender disparity in education leadership, and looking for ways to close the gap.


Root of the problem

On its face, the apparent lack of female school superintendents seems counterintuitive, especially when we consider that nearly three out of every four K12 teachers and half of all public school principals are women. That, according to findings from the National Center for Education Statistics.

So what keeps female educators from climbing the school district career ladder?

The reasons are varied and systemic, according to this article in the Houston Chronicle.

Here’s just a few of the contributing factors:

Less early leadership opportunities

Most female teachers are elementary school teachers. Since elementary schools rarely have department heads or assistant administration positions, there’s less opportunity for women to start working their way up the career ladder.

Longer career paths

While many males make the jump from school principal straight to district or division superintendent, females often take more steps in their career journey, from teacher to school principal to the central office to superintendent. This is a big reason why many first-time women superintendents are older than their male counterparts.

For more on the future of school leadership, sign up for the TrustED newsletter to get regular updates. Just enter your email below.

The demands of motherhood

Many qualified women school leaders either pass up attainable superintendent opportunities or start their careers later in life to focus on starting a family and taking care of their children.

Inherent, but unconscious bias

Communities and school boards want the most qualified candidates to lead their schools. Sometimes searching for women and minority candidates is not a top priority. Since white men make up the largest pool of candidates for these jobs, by default they’re the ones most often hired.

What can we do?

If tackling such a large and systemic problem seems daunting—it is.

But that doesn’t mean more cannot be done to reduce gender inequities in schools. And everyone has a role to play.

  • Parents and teachers can do more to encourage girls to pursue career trajectories that put them on the path to school leadership.
  • Local school boards and communities can more actively seek qualified women during the hiring process.
  • School leaders can implement professional development programs for women interested in pursuing leadership roles earlier in their careers.

For starters, school leaders should encourage dialogue with their community around this important subject, and ask for ideas to help close the gender gap.

What does your district do to encourage gender equality among school leaders? Tell us in the comments.

Is your district facing these or other leadership challenges? Want more ideas about how to engage your community around sensitive topics? Read more about the issues facing today’s school leaders.