School & District Management

Female Principals Are Paid Less Than Men. That’s a Big Concern

By Denisa R. Superville — April 21, 2021 5 min read
A conceptual image of gender pay gap.

Female principals make about $1,000 less than their male colleagues annually, according to new research on principal compensation—and that gap can even persist when those women are leading similar schools, have similar evaluations, and work about the same number of hours as their male peers.

But what’s driving that pay disparity in school leadership isn’t quite as clear. While factors that undergird salary differences in the private sector—discrimination and personal choices, for example—may explain some of the differences, they don’t explain all of them, said Jason Grissom, a professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University.

Grissom is the lead author of “Unequal pay for equal work? Unpacking the gender gap in principal compensation,” which was published this month in the journal, Economics of Education Review.

Pay disparity can have huge implications for the profession if not addressed and could lead to difficulty recruiting women for the top school leadership job if women feel that they are not equitably compensated, or to women leaving the profession early, Grissom said.

And that kind of turnover is not good for students or staff. Previous research by Grissom and others has shown that principal turnover negatively impacts both staff and students and has financial consequences for districts that invest in principal preparation.

In addition, “There’s a basic fairness issue, even when there are not policy consequences,” he said. “You have to worry about any case where it appears that workers are being treated differently, [and] their compensation is different based on a character like gender, ethnicity, race, and so forth.”

Female principals are both underrepresented and underpaid

While the percentage of women in school leadership has been increasing, women still account for a smaller percentage of principals than they do in the teaching force. Women comprise nearly 80 percent of teachers, but just a little more than half of principals.

“There is a representation gap, and factors like compensation might contribute to that,” Grissom said. “That could be a barrier to increasing the representation of women in the workforce.”

Grissom and his colleagues—Jennifer D. Timmer, Jennifer L. Nelson, and Richard S. L. Blissett—looked at Missouri principal data from 1991 to 2016 to find out if a gender pay gap existed in the principalship; how it’s changed over time; and whether factors such as education, the type of school a principal runs, or other characteristics that may explain the salary difference.

The other possibility here is that there is discrimination when districts are exercising their discretion over pay offers; that women lose.

In addition to the data from Missouri, the researchers relied on data from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Schools and Staffing Survey for the years 1999-2000 and 2011-2012, as well as a sample survey from the National Teacher and Principal Survey from 2015-16, when principals reported their salaries before taxes.

The analysis of the Missouri data revealed that the pay gap between men and women shrank from an average of about $4,000 in 1991 to about $300 in 2005. But it had increased to about $3,000 from 2013 to 2016. (Women actually had a slight edge during the Great Recession, they found.) Overall, the researchers found the state’s female principals earned about $1,450 less annually than male principals during the period studied.

And using national data, Grissom and colleagues found that, on average, male principals earned $1,000 more than their female colleagues annually.

Is discretion in setting salaries the culprit?

What’s behind this disparity?

Men were already paid more as assistant principals, so it was likely that they’d earn more than women when they moved into the principalship, Grissom and colleagues theorized. Men were also more likely to lead high schools, where principals generally make more than those running elementary schools.

And they also tended to make more as teachers, from extra-duty pay such as coaching a sport or taking on leadership roles. A possibility was that when districts were hiring men, they were adding incentives to compensate them for the income they’d lose from having to forego coaching or other duties.

But when Grissom and colleagues dug deeper, they found that those factors didn’t fully explain the difference. Even when men and women with the same level of experience were running similar schools (secondary schools, for example) the gap persisted.

Normal labor market dynamics— including men being more willing to move for jobs and as a result getting raises for doing so—don’t seem to hold for principals. Neither do longer work hours, or higher education levels or quality, Grissom said. (Female school leaders tend to have higher educational attainment.)

“We can say it isn’t any of the usual suspects,” Grissom said. But the study “doesn’t tell us what it is. Certainly, lurking there is the possibility that there is discriminating in wage-setting. But there are also some possibilities that we can’t rule out, but we can’t observe.”

The researchers found that the pay gap existed even when districts had salary schedules for principals.

That means that districts still have a lot of discretion in offering incentives, and those tend to favor men more than women.

“Even when there is a schedule, districts don’t have to follow it to the letter,” Grissom said.

It could be that that men negotiate differently and secure higher salaries that way, he said.

“But then the other possibility here is that there is discrimination when districts are exercising their discretion over pay offers; that women lose,” he said. “I think the first step is recognizing that these gaps exist, and then the question is what’s the right approach to address the fact that, while in percentage terms it looks like the gaps are small, ... in absolute amount, the gaps matter.” The $1,400 disparity “is not trivial for someone’s paycheck.”

Grissom said future exploration of the factors propelling the gender pay gap, what those gaps look like in other states, and how compensation affects outcomes that are measured—like leadership turnover and job satisfaction—can lead to greater understanding of the issue.

Coverage of principals and school leadership is supported in part by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/programs/education-economic. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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