School & District Management

Advice From 8 Women Superintendents for Those Following in Their Footsteps

By Caitlynn Peetz — March 06, 2024 5 min read
Teachers and administrator talking outside school building.
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Despite accounting for more than three-quarters of K-12 teachers, women are vastly underrepresented in school districts’ top position.

This is nothing new. Men have far outnumbered women in the superintendency across large and smaller districts alike for years. And even following some gradual growth in their ranks, women made up just 28 percent of superintendents in the 2022-23 school year.

One recent study out of Texas examining the years between 2010 and 2021 also documented a longer professional trajectory for women and people of color before they end up in districts’ top jobs, and gender pay disparities for equally experienced superintendents.

Still, one analysis published last year found that the United States could reach gender equality in the superintendency by 2035 at the current rate, but it will take a lot of work. The same analysis, after all, found that men made up two-thirds of superintendents hired in recent years. Among superintendents who left their jobs from 2019 to 2023, 22 percent were females whom males replaced; in 18 percent of cases, females replaced departing males, according to the analysis by Rachel White, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.

Women who hold superintendent positions now say it’s important for aspiring female leaders to believe in themselves and their abilities, create and lean on a network of supportive colleagues, and build relationships in and out of school buildings.

As March—and Women’s History Month—gets underway, here are the top tips from eight female superintendents for women aspiring to education leadership positions. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.

LaTonya Goffney, Aldine, Texas

Female leadership benefits not only women, but everyone. Female leaders bring a unique perspective and set of skills to the table, and when you have a seat at the table, you have a responsibility to contribute to the conversation. Be prepared and ready to contribute; be visible and be heard. Don’t be afraid to share your unique experiences with others, as it may help them to navigate their own personal journey.

Lee Ann Wentzel, Folsom, Pa.

Try and be willing to fail—just fail forward. There is no need to wait until someone gives you permission, or the time is “right.” Balance in your life will be elusive, some days will be 30/70, or others will be 90/10. So, find and know your center; it is the core of why and how you lead, which helps create the ability to ride those shifts of balance for any outcome.

N. Shalene French, Caldwell, Idaho

Leading in today’s environment takes real courage, grit, and fortitude. It also takes forgiveness, vulnerability, and love—love of others and love of self. And, more importantly, it takes building positive, meaningful relationships. We need each other.

Public schools are emblematic of what it means to build lifelong relationships and to put others before oneself. Surprisingly, as leaders, we navigate through all these qualities, characteristics, interactions, and emotions (and many others) daily.

Heather Perry, Gorham, Maine

My biggest piece of advice is to know yourself and to have confidence in yourself. So many women in leadership give in to the nagging voice in their heads that says, “You aren’t enough, you aren’t strong, you can’t do budgets, you can’t do...you can’t do….” We all have these voices (even our male counterparts). Don’t listen! Lean on others when you need to, because that is what strong people do, but don’t ever think you aren’t “enough,” because YOU ARE!

Gladys Cruz, Castleton, N.Y.

Stay true to your core values and build a community of support around you. Have a mentor and a network of professionals who will lift you up. Develop strong relationships with the community, from staff and students to parents, families, and business leaders. Remember the importance of fostering a sense of community where everyone feels valued and heard. Bring stakeholders together to collaborate and solve problems that lead to the success of all learners.

Whitney Oakley, Guilford County, N.C.

I was given vital advice that I hope others will follow: “Just get in there and lead.”

I was fortunate to have dedicated and dynamic sponsors and mentors. These leaders—women and men alike—not only took me under their wings, but gave me a chance to spread my own, even when my title at the time may not have matched the opportunity. I would encourage others in leadership to also pay it forward with sponsorship because it works. This is a commitment I am willing to make and know many of my fellow female colleagues share.

Women in leadership must often take their own seat at the table, even when we aren’t invited. That can mean inserting yourself into meetings and discussions, even when your name isn’t on the invitation. It can also mean actively seeking out opportunities well outside your official job description.

Heidi Sipe, Umatilla, Ore.

This is the best job in education. The difference you can make for students is profound, yet the responsibility of the job is overwhelming at times. Instructional quality, transportation, budget, safety—it all falls to the superintendent’s office for final decisions. It is an exciting challenge and a stressful duty. Use the knowledge of others. Don’t be afraid to ask other superintendents what they’ve done in similar situations, and what they would do differently in the future.

The job feels lonely, but it does not have to be a solo role. Colleagues are here to help and they’re only a call away. It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help, it’s an acknowledgment in the strength of collective wisdom, and every leader, male or female, can benefit from fresh ideas and veteran experiences.

Michelle Miller, McDonald, Pa.

As a fellow female leader in education, I want to share with you the importance of resilience and perseverance in navigating the challenges of school leadership. Embrace every opportunity to learn and grow, lean on your strengths, and never underestimate the power of building strong relationships within your school community and in various leadership networks. Remember, your passion for education and commitment to student success will guide you through any obstacle you encounter on this rewarding journey.

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