Women—the backbone and brain trust of America’s public schools—are vastly underrepresented in the superintendent’s chair. And as turnover in that crucial role seems to be worsening, especially in large school districts, the churn could be weakening women’s already tenuous hold on the top job.
In a review of the 500 largest school districts, 186 have completed a leadership transition since March of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic exploded in the United States—and those districts overwhelmingly hired men, finds an analysis by the ILO Group, a women-founded education policy and leadership group.
Even in those cases where replacements haven’t been settled, the crop of departing leaders include some of the country’s highest profile, longest-tenured, and well-respected women leaders: Barbara Jenkins in Orange County, Fla.; Brenda Cassellius in Boston; Susan Enfield in Washington state’s Highline district; Sharon Contreras in Guilford County, N.C.; and Janice Jackson in Chicago. Many of these leaders are also women of color, who are especially rare in the upper echelons of K-12 leadership.
For Julia Rafal-Baer, a co-founder of the ILO Group, the findings are a clarion call for the K-12 field get a handle on the entire pipeline for sourcing promising women leaders, coaching them, and ensuring they get a fair crack at hiring.
Right now, she said, these patterns send an implicit signal to women educators that there’s no place to rise—even as the teacher pipeline gets thinner, with fewer enrollments in the college programs that prepare the bulk of teachers. They also reinforce the decades-old message that it’s not possible for women to square family responsibilities with those of an executive.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to get done so that we minimize biases, that we recognize the impact that a job description can have, and make more public and transparent contracts that make room for men or women who have to take on larger shares of family and elder-care responsibilities,” Rafal-Baer said.
The pandemic seems to have exacerbated the problem
Just what is driving the pattern remains unclear, but researchers suggest that, as in almost every other sector, the demands of child care, parenting, and elder care during the pandemic have fallen much more heavily on women than on men.
On top of that, the new pressures of the job—ever-shifting COVID protocols, protests over masks, rage over how race is taught or perceived to be taught—have exposed superintendents to a lot of vitriol. And women superintendents say that the criticism they endured was not merely abusive—it was also gendered.
“I didn’t hear communities say to male superintendents: ‘You hate children,’ the way they would to women. Or, ‘You’re trying to hurt children,’ ” said Sharon Contreras, the superintendent in Guilford County, N.C., who will be departing that district at the end of the school year. “That is particularly difficult for women, as we are mothers. We bear children, so that is particularly stinging to us.”
Even those women who remain committed to staying in their districts acknowledge the tenor of criticism has changed.
“What I noticed particularly as we headed into the challenges of online learning and managing COVID was that I’d hear specifically from male parents who made pointed comments about how if I weren’t female, I would make a better decision,” said Sue Reike-Smith, the superintendent of the Tigard Tualatin district near Portland, Ore. “That was a frame that was consistent in those emails.”
In some cases, the discourse has become distinctly threatening. In Washington state, someone defaced property in Enfield’s district, spray-painting “racist superintendent” on an administration building last year, apparently in response to her position on returning to in-person schooling. (Susan Enfield is vice chair of the board of trustees for Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit publisher of Education Week.)
In Guilford County, Contreras last year had to get police protection after a right-wing disinformation site disseminated a misleading video about her on YouTube, resulting in a flood of racist, expletive-laden emails and phone calls.
On their own, those signs would be concerning enough. But as school boards have sought talent during the pandemic to fill slots vacated by women, they have tended to hire male candidates. The ILO Group found that, of the 51 women in the sample of districts that had made new hires, three quarters of their replacements have been men.
It’s a pattern that shows up regionally as well as nationally. A 2021 report conducted by the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators and several other Oregon agencies found that more than half of that state’s 17 women superintendents left that year, and only 12 women were hired. (The state has about 200 districts, plus 19 education service districts.)
Supply and demand a tough nut to crack
As many education scholars have noted over the years, there is perhaps no other field in the United States in which women make up the bulk of the workforce while the top job is so disproportionately held by men—and white men at that.
It’s a problem that has festered even as researchers say it’s challenging to untangle exactly why it remains so stubbornly lopsided.
“I don’t think there’s anyone out there that knows exactly why there are fewer women. It’s not one thing, it’s 17 things,” said Rachel White, an assistant professor of K-12 education leadership at Old Dominion University in Virginia. She’s among the researchers who are working to better illuminate what those factors are and how they work.
Using first names as a proxy for gender, she found that in the 2019-20 school year, just 26 percent of superintendents were women. What was more surprising, though, was how those patterns broke out by state and region.
I didn’t hear communities say to male superintendents: ‘You hate children,’ the way they would to women.
Some states, like California, Arizona, and Virginia, were much closer to achieving gender parity in the superintendency than others—like Utah or Iowa, where there were more than 7 men on the job for every 1 woman superintendent. Such findings raise questions about whether requirements like credentialing criteria, the structure of boards, or the size of districts could be a factor in who gets selected. (Women were more likely to work in urban and suburban districts than in towns or rural areas.)
And White found some preliminary evidence that women are more likely to lead districts with a higher concentration of students in poverty. A vicious cycle may be at work: Women are leading districts that tend to be under-resourced and have higher staff turnover.
White is currently working to extend the project and create a dataset of every district and its leadership over the past three years, similar to the ILO’s Group’s project but on a larger scale. She’ll analyze it for more insights about what patterns show up over time. So far, she said, the evidence suggests superintendent turnover was slightly higher among women than men in 2019-20 but the inverse in 2020-21. And strikingly, a fifth of districts that had a woman leader in 2019 kept one, while hiring a leader of the opposite sex was comparatively rarer.
Part of the challenge, she said, is that researchers keep stumbling into an interpretive problem: Is the core problem one of supply—that well-qualified women aren’t applying for the open spots? Or is it selection, that they’re applying and not getting chosen?
And because many searches are run by private firms, there are barriers to getting a full picture about how boards go about sourcing candidates or what other dynamics might be in play.
Plenty of talent, but an absence of hiring
What is clear is that there’s no lack of talent.
Federal data show that women earn around two-thirds of all leadership degrees in education, usually the foundational credential needed to advance to the principalship. There seem to be plenty of qualified, talented, and even credentialed women leaders, but relatively few of them ever advance to the superintendency.
Other research points to some of the cultural and sociological obstacles that get in the way. Women face both explicit and implicit bias in hiring; they are often asked in coded (and not-so-coded) ways about “family commitments”; they often have less access to mentors than their male peers or to the networks that open doors to new positions, concluded the Oregon report, which relied on focused interviews with women superintendents.
One woman leader who requested anonymity described what happened when she was a finalist for a city school district search in 2020. After several rounds of strong interviews, board members’ attitudes changed almost immediately after the candidate mentioned that she would be driving home on weekends to visit her daughter, who was completing high school in another district about 200 miles away.
Though such an arrangement is commonplace for men, board members in a public hearing explicitly mused whether that meant that the candidate wouldn’t be completely committed to the district. It was a horrifying spectacle for the leader—and a devastating one for the candidate’s daughter, who watched the whole thing play out on TV.
“The fact that my child was brought into the conversation about whether or not I was a good candidate is just completely foul,” she said. “I’ve never seen them discuss that about a man.”
And the double standard is not always limited to hiring. Contreras said she’s noticed women’s personality traits are frequently discussed, rather than their knowledge, skills, and performance. What really hit that lesson home for her was the time one of her board members commented that they’d heard that Contreras was a “mean girl.”
“I thought, ‘Wow, have we ever referred to a man as a ‘mean girl?’ I’ve never heard a man called mean, ever,” she said. “Not in business, not in the private sector, not in the public sector.”
What are some of the solutions?
The solutions to undoing those patterns are going to be complex. They demand more transparency in the hiring process, for search firms to hold themselves accountable to goals for increasing the number of women candidates they field, for pay equity—women leaders tend to be paid less than men—and for better networking and support systems for women leaders, said Rafal-Baer. Even job descriptions, she said, can be written in ways that seem to prioritize skills traditionally viewed as masculine.
Other long-standing traditions that disfavor women should be reconsidered, added Contreras. In her view, the process of parading superintendent finalists in front of the board in successive public meetings amounts to a big popularity contest that doesn’t actually do much to illuminate the specific skills and strengths candidates bring to the job.
And she believes all contracts should explicitly set norms for board-superintendent relations, detailing that bullying and shouting are not appropriate ways to communicate.
The woman leader who lost out on the big-city job added that districts can also more explicitly signal a healthy balance between work and life in contract language.
“I think at some point, there needs to come a time where there’s a level-setting on what’s a realistic expectation for that role. Right now you have to be a medical expert, a statistician, a diplomat, a [certified public accountant]. You have to understand the law. It’s just so unrealistic,” she said. “I think they can make the job just a little bit more attractive to someone who has a family. Women want to have a life; they want to have work-life balance.”
There are some hopeful signs on that front. Newer contracts in places like Oakland, Calif., and Atlanta are evidence that some boards are reconsidering whether it’s healthy for the job to be so all-encompassing. Kyla Johnson-Trammell’s most recent contract in Oakland gives her a sabbatical option, while in Atlanta, Superintendent Lisa Herring’s most recent contract extension grants her 10 wellness days to use as she sees fit.
Rafal-Baer believes other districts that want to signal they’re serious about attracting women leaders will have to follow suit—by setting clear boundaries about availability on nights and weekends, for instance.
“These jobs are 24/7, they are highly political, and they are highly impactful and have an ability to be transformative,” she said. “To get to a place where they are sustainable and reflect the reality of what pandemic recovery is going to require, this combination of focusing on health and wellness—as much as overall compensation—is going to continue to be a trend.”
Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.