School & District Management

A New Study Details Gender and Racial Disparities in the Superintendent’s Office

By Caitlynn Peetz — December 05, 2023 6 min read
A conceptual image of a female being paid less than a male.
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It takes women and people of color longer in their careers to be appointed to school districts’ top leadership positions, and, once they are, they’re usually paid less, according to a new study out of Texas that paints a detailed picture of gender and racial disparities in top school leadership jobs in the nation’s second largest state.

The study—which analyzed data about superintendents in Texas between 2010 and 2021—found that the leaders of the state’s more than 1,200 school districts are predominantly white, mirroring national trends, but there had been modest gains in diversity over the past decade. It also documented a longer professional trajectory for women and people of color before they end up in districts’ top jobs, and pay disparities for equally experienced superintendents.

The study from researchers at the University of Texas at Austin builds on and reinforces the findings from a slowly growing body of research into the superintendency, a seldom examined but influential position in public education. It dovetails with an analysis released in July by the ILO Group that documented gender disparities among Texas superintendents. And the findings are reminiscent of research that’s shown that women hold less than 30 percent of superintendent positions nationally.

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Across Texas, the percentage of women superintendents rose from 20 percent to 27 percent during the study period—while women accounted for 76 percent of the state’s teachers and 66 percent of principals in the 2020-21 school year. And despite 73 percent of students in Texas identifying as people of color, only 21 percent of superintendents are people of color, according to the study.

That’s likely due, at least in part, to structural barriers that work against women—who are generally expected to prioritize their families and are less likely to have professional networking opportunities—and people of color, and implicit biases that favor white men, said David DeMatthews, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Texas at Austin, and the lead researcher on the report.

The report, released in November, is the first from the newly formed Texas Education Leadership Lab, which is researching a number of K-12 education topics, including the teacher and principal workforce, school finance, and the impact of state and local policies on school and district leaders’ work.

“There’s a real need to make sure that aspiring superintendents from any group, but especially women and women of color, are given adequate opportunities to move through a process that’s not discriminatory against them,” DeMatthews said.

Women and people of color also are less likely to be promoted from principal directly to superintendent, often having to hold several positions in the district’s central office before receiving a promotion to the district’s top position, according to the research.

Thirty-five percent of men who became superintendents during the study period were promoted from principal to superintendent within three years, compared with 27 percent of women, the study found. Additionally, 65 percent of white administrators were hired as superintendent directly from a principal position, compared to 40 percent of Hispanic administrators and 24 percent of Black administrators, according to the study.

The ILO Group’s study released over the summer found that women spend 3.3 years longer in lower-level administrative positions than men.

“As a state, we are doing a disservice to our students by not tapping into our women leaders to be superintendents,” Tory Hill, superintendent in Channelview, near Houston, said in the report, which included a handful of superintendent voices. “In the classroom and in the principal’s seat, we have phenomenal women leaders. We’ve got to build better pipelines to the superintendency.”

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DeMatthews said he’s optimistic that as more diverse leaders hold principal positions and there’s more parity between men and women in those roles, that progress will show up in the superintendency, too. The increasing diversity in lower-level administrative positions shows “women want these leadership jobs,” DeMatthews said.

Women with comparable experience earn less as superintendent

Women superintendents, on average, also earn smaller salaries than men in the state, even if they have the same level of experience. Women with 20 to 25 years of experience, for example, made a median salary of $126,517 in 2021, compared with a median salary of $136,364 for male superintendents with the same amount of experience.

The gap grew with more experience.

Women who had 26 to 30 years of experience had a median salary of $125,000 as superintendent, compared with a median salary of $148,620 for men with the same amount of experience.

“The work is the work, no matter the gender. We all carry the same weight,” Superintendent Roberta Trevino of Zapata County schools, on the U.S.-Mexico border, says in the report. “If I am paid equally, it sends a message that my experience is valued and there is trust in the work I am doing.”

While the study was specific to Texas, DeMatthews said it’s an example of the information that could be more readily available to policymakers if the U.S. Department of Education was more intentional about collecting data about superintendents nationwide. The National Center for Education Statistics, a division of the Education Department, routinely collects information on teachers and principals, but not on superintendents.

In fact, information about superintendents nationally is lacking. There are some surveys, like one conducted annually by AASA, The Superintendents Association, that collect data about superintendent demographics and salaries. But responding is optional, and usually less than a fifth of district leaders respond each year.

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That leaves plenty of room for growth in monitoring some of the most influential people in education, DeMatthews said.

“This data can help guide targeted investments in the superintendent workforce, monitor progress along the way, and … identify areas for improvement,” he said.

Other findings from the Texas research include:

  • The disparity between the diversity of student populations and superintendents in Texas is largest in rural areas, where Black and Hispanic students make up about 50 percent of the population but 90 percent of superintendents are white. There doesn’t “need to be a perfect proportion all the time,” DeMatthews said. But “when there’s virtually no movement in communities, I think that’s very problematic.”
  • High-poverty districts—where more than 90 percent of students are economically disadvantaged—were more likely than affluent districts to have high superintendent turnover. Twenty percent of high-poverty districts had four to seven different superintendents during the study period, about double the proportion of districts where less than 10 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. DeMatthews noted that students in high-poverty districts need consistency in their education to be more successful long-term, and superintendent churn can disrupt that consistency as new leadership comes and goes with different priorities and initiatives.

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