School & District Management In Their Own Words

7 Ways Districts Can Increase the Number of Women Leaders

By Denisa R. Superville — April 27, 2023 6 min read
Image of an organizational org chart with male and female employees.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.’”

Events

Student Well-Being Webinar After-School Learning Top Priority: Academics or Fun?
Join our expert panel to discuss how after-school programs and schools can work together to help students recover from pandemic-related learning loss.
Budget & Finance Webinar Leverage New Funding Sources with Data-Informed Practices
Address the whole child using data-informed practices, gain valuable insights, and learn strategies that can benefit your district.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
ChatGPT & Education: 8 Ways AI Improves Student Outcomes
Revolutionize student success! Don't miss our expert-led webinar demonstrating practical ways AI tools will elevate learning experiences.
Content provided by Inzata

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Data Data: How Schools Respond to Student Hunger Over the Summer
The end of pandemic-era flexibility for schools and community organizations has translated into fewer students receiving free summer meals.
1 min read
Children enjoy lunches provided by the Brownsville Independent School District on June 8, 2016, at the Olivera Park gymnasium in Brownsville, Texas. The local school district provides free lunches to any child under 18 who needs a meal, regardless of their status as a student with the school district.
Children enjoy lunches provided by the Brownsville Independent School District on June 8, 2016, at the Olivera Park gymnasium in Brownsville, Texas. School districts and other organizations can sign up as summer meal sites to continue providing meals to students once school is out of session.
Jason Hoekema/The Brownsville Herald via AP
School & District Management Online Training Program to Boost Number of Principals of Color Expands
A New York City education college is the latest to join an online principal training program for educators of color and equity-minded leaders.
4 min read
Business like setting, with Black man on a laptop in a corporate conference room or office collaborating with a Black woman
E+/Getty
School & District Management How Can You Tell What Students Need to Succeed at School? Ask Them
Some administrators let students drive purchasing decisions, shape dress code policies, and voice their concerns directly.
4 min read
051223 Lead Sym Mark L jb BS
Chris Ferenzi for Education Week
School & District Management Fewer Students Are Getting Free Summer Meals After Pandemic Waivers End
Summer meal programs are expected to serve fewer students following last summer's end of a federal waiver.
5 min read
Kids line up for lunch outside the Michigan City Area Schools' converted school bus at Weatherstone Village on U.S. 20 in Michigan City, Ind., on July 22, 2021. The bus makes four stops every weekday as part of the Summer Food Program.
Kids line up for lunch outside the Michigan City Area Schools' converted school bus at Weatherstone Village on U.S. 20 in Michigan City, Ind., on July 22, 2021. The bus makes four stops every weekday as part of the Summer Food Program. Summer meal programs are expected to serve fewer students this summer after the expiration of a pandemic-era federal waiver.
Jeff Mayes/The News Dispatch via AP