School & District Management

7 Ways Districts Can Increase the Number of Women Leaders

By Denisa R. Superville — April 27, 2023 6 min read
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While women make up the majority of the education workforce, they’re not represented in the same numbers at the top. They run about 30 percent of the country’s 500 largest districts while they make up nearly 80 percent of all public school teachers.

Education Week recently spoke with several female district leaders for a series on women in education leadership.

Here’s what these female leaders said districts can do to increase the share of women serving in the top leadership roles.

1. Create clear career pathways—and ensure that teachers know about them

Developing leadership pipelines that clearly communicate to teachers how they can get from the classroom to school leadership to district-level positions—and the steps along the way—is an important first piece. Districts must couple that with training opportunities and professional development to help teachers improve their skill levels, the district leaders said.

Teachers are busy, and many are not actively looking to leave the classroom. Districts must continue to tap promising and talented women teachers, while informing even the busiest ones about leadership opportunities when they become available.

Succession planning, an important business concept that’s still not widely used in K-12, can also help increase the number of women district superintendents.

That was key for Whitney Oakley, the superintendent of Guilford County Schools, in Greensboro, N.C., who succeeded Sharon Contreras as superintendent.

Contreras was a big proponent of succession planning and elevating women leaders. Oakley, then the chief academic officer, also had numerous leadership opportunities throughout her career in the district.

Whitney Oakley

As Oakley puts it, she always “had a seat at the table.”

“That’s not always true,” she said. “Sometimes you don’t get a seat at the table until you’re in the job.”

2. Revamp hiring practices to weed out bias

Female candidates are still asked inappropriate questions centering on whether they can manage professional duties along with their personal ones.

LaTanya McDade, the superintendent of Virginia’s Prince William County Public Schools, said that hiring practices should be revamped to ensure they are equitable. Hiring committees should be diverse.

Districts should carefully scrutinize the language used in job postings to avoid words that discourage women from applying because they may not think they’ve checked off all the boxes.

“Panels that interview for key leadership positions should be diverse both in gender and backgrounds,” McDade said.

Districts should also ensure “that we have structured protocols for hiring and training for hiring managers, looking at how our job postings are inclusive, knowing that women are going to count themselves out based on a word or the way the language is written in the job posting,” she said.

3. Start with your built-in audience

One of the advantages for K-12 education is that it already has a large potential workforce: its teachers and students.

Start with students, by developing opportunities for them to explore whether they want to get into education, McDade said.

McDade’s district has a “Grow Your Own” program for students who might be interested in teaching, but it also has opportunities for them to explore leadership roles outside of K-12. There is a student senate, and a student representative serves on the school board.

The district also has events for students to meet female leaders working in business and science, for example.

LaTanya McDade, superintendent for Prince William County Public Schools, Virginia.

“It’s important that we are cultivating leadership, especially in our young women, where they see themselves as highly capable and they don’t continue to perpetuate the confidence gap that exists, where women don’t even apply [for opportunities] because they don’t see themselves as worthy,” she said.

4. Develop a playbook to support women in senior positions

Districts must also be intentional about supporting female leaders once they get the job. Many face “a sink or swim” situation, because districts don’t have the know-how or experience in working with a female superintendent.

“Once women get into the job, this is where it can all fall apart,” McDade said.

Both Pilar Vázquez-Vialva, the assistant superintendent of educational services in the Morgan Hill district in California, and Rahshene Davis, the executive director of curriculum and instruction in Houston detailed to EdWeek how they juggled family and professional duties as they moved up the ranks in school leadership. They both found support from their families.

Pilar Vazquez-Vialva, assistant superintendent of educational services, Morgan Hill Unified School District, Morgan Hill, Calif.

Districts can also create networking opportunities, build professional development opportunities into contracts, and provide executive coaching.

Every professional needs some level of executive coaching, said Oakley.

“Part of the role of the coach I have is to talk about balance and complexities of the role and how we figure out the calendar to make sure that I can be good at all [aspects] of the job and not let other things, like home life, be sacrificed,” Oakley said.

5. Don’t forget the central office

District central offices are populated with talented women, working as chief academic officers, assistant superintendents, and curriculum supervisors.

Yet districts still often look outside when vacancies arise. Hire from within; Oakley is a good example.

6. Leverage current female leaders to inspire the next generation

Representation matters. If districts want to increase the share of women in leadership positions, they have to elevate the ones they already have.

McDade and Oakley shared how important it was for students and teachers to see others who look like them in key roles. It expands what they think is possible, the leaders said.

In her early days in Prince William County, McDade ran into a group of students, one of whom was overcome with emotion at the encounter.

The student told McDade she wasn’t crying because she was sad, but because it meant so much to her to see a Black woman running the district.

“… Representation matters, and so that is the weight that I carry as a woman in leadership: understanding that I have to be a model for those who will come after me, as well as honor those who have come before me, who have allowed me to be able to have this opportunity,” McDade said. “It’s not a responsibility that I take lightly.”

Districts shouldn’t either.

7. Provide structured mentoring and networking opportunities

Over and over, the superintendents highlighted how mentors shaped their careers—from bringing specialized training programs to their attention to giving advice and other professional supports.

Davis, for example, credits her mentor—a vice principal with whom she worked early in her career—with steering her into leadership.

Rashene Davis, executive officer of curriculum and instruction in the Houston Independent School District.

It was that vice principal, Sandra Pearson-Ruffin, who observed and gave Davis critical feedback when she was a teacher, encouraged her to become a district-level leadership coach, and pushed her to get a master’s degree.

While at the University of Pennsylvania, Davis met Heidi Gross, another mentor. Gross directed Davis to the New Leaders school leadership training program based in New York, and to additional professional opportunities inside and outside of K-12.

“I would never have done it if Dr. Gross had never connected me to that opportunity, and then pushed me and said to me, ‘You can do this,’” Davis said. “I wouldn’t have met Dr. Gross if it [weren’t] for Ms. Pearson saying, ‘You need to go back to school.’”

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