School & District Management

Few Women Run the Nation’s School Districts. Why?

By Denisa R. Superville — November 15, 2016 | Corrected: March 08, 2017 10 min read
"I have never been soft," says New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña. "If anything, I know what I want, I know how I want it, but I know that sometimes you take a step backward before you go three steps forward. And how you create the climate to make those difficult decisions is very, very important."
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the size of the Richmond County, Georgia, school district.

Nearly a decade after she was hired as the first woman to run the Council Bluffs, Iowa, school district, Mary Martha Bruckner is often one of the only women in the room.

That was the case last month when about two dozen superintendents and finance officers from Iowa’s urban school systems met to set their legislative agenda for the coming year.

Surveying the room, Bruckner spotted two other women.

“It was like, ‘Wow, things haven’t changed much at all,’ ” said Bruckner, who is used to being a pioneer. In 1986, she became the first female high school principal in the Ralston, Neb., district.

Even though K-12 education is largely a female enterprise, men dominate the chief executive’s office in the nation’s nearly 14,000 districts, numbers that look especially bleak given that the pool of talent is deep with women. Women make up 76 percent of teachers, 52 percent of principals, and 78 percent of central-office administrators, according to federal data and the results of a recent national survey. Yet they account for less than a quarter of all superintendents, according to a survey conducted this summer by AASA, the School Superintendents Association. But that number represents improvement since 2000, when 13 percent were women.

"So many of us go into education to teach children, and there are so many other roles in the education system," says Park City, Utah, superintendent Ember Conley. "I have a responsibility to continue to encourage not only other females, but also our males who have the skills, to become superintendents."

In Utah, the number of women in superintendent’s offices can be counted on one hand. Schenectady, N.Y., hasn’t had a woman in charge in the district’s 162-year history. Just two years ago, Richmond County, Georgia’s 12th-largest district, hired its first female superintendent.

“It’s a huge problem,” said Margaret Grogan, the dean of the college of educational studies at Chapman University in Orange, Calif. “If we have talented administrators, wouldn’t you want all of the talented administrators to move into the superintendency? After all, that’s the position that has the most power to facilitate the growth and development of all of the children and families in the district.”

An Unappealing Job?

Though only a small number make it to the helm, women currently run some of the largest school systems, including those in New York City, Los Angeles, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., and Albuquerque, N.M.

So why do so few women occupy the top job?

Some simply don’t want it. They prefer teaching and being close to students. The hours are punishing, school board politics can be brutal, and public scrutiny is intense. The average superintendent stays on the job less than five years. For some women, that uncertainty is not worth uprooting their families.

SEE ALSO: N.C. Superintendent’s Philosophy on Being a Woman and a Schools Chief: ‘You Just Do the Work’

The search for superintendents also traditionally has pulled from districts’ pool of secondary school principals. Women, who were more likely to be elementary principals, were less likely to be immediately tapped. Part of the problem stems from districts’ lack of planning for long-term leadership, which makes it difficult to spot talented educators, including women, who could be groomed to be in charge. Educators also see subtle biases in how school boards and search firms recruit candidates, and negative stereotypes about women’s abilities to lead large institutions are still pervasive.

And with so few women in the top job, prospective female leaders have limited opportunities to network—losing out on mentors who can advise them on applying for the job, getting the right experience, and navigating difficulties.

"For women, I think you just have to always do more than 100 percent," says Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Michelle King. "You have to go over and beyond to demonstrate you can do it. And then folks have to see that that's happening, and then they'll take a chance."

While educators and scholars say it’s crucial that more women occupy the top leadership positions in K-12, the more than one dozen current or former women superintendents interviewed by Education Week are adamant that they want to be hired because they are qualified.

“I don’t want to be offered a position because I am a woman; likewise, I don’t want to lose a position because I am a woman,” said Julie Mitchell, the superintendent of the Rowland Unified district in Southern California. “It’s really about what you can contribute to the organization, and what you can contribute to the work that can be done, regardless of what your gender is.”

At the same time, Mitchell acknowledged: “I think it would be naïve to think there are not some stereotypes that exist.”

It wasn’t always that way, said Thomas Glass, a retired professor of education leadership at the University of Memphis.

In 1930, when the education profession was even more female-dominated than now, the American school system was mostly rural, and women ran many of the nation’s countywide districts, Glass said. With the end of World War II, and male veterans’ taking advantage of the GI Bill, more men started entering the profession.

“Women kind of got shoved to the back of the bus in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s,” Glass said.

Qualifications, Not Gender

When they do get the job, women often face scrutiny men don’t, some superintendents said. They are told to smile more, their appearances are critiqued, and they can face harsh treatment when they assert their authority.

Deborah Jewell-Sherman, a former superintendent in the Richmond, Va., district, recalled a searing moment when she rebuked a colleague at a meeting.

“I heard somebody pulling him off to the side, and I heard the B-word,” said Jewell-Sherman, now a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“I think [it] was, in part, that I had the audacity to challenge something he was saying,” she said. “Part of it, I think, is race and gender. I think there is an additional burden for women of color in that role.” Jewell-Sherman is African-American.

Gender is not a consideration when hiring a superintendent, some school board members said.

“We only pay attention to the qualifications of the candidates,” said Judy Nieh, a former school board member in California’s Rowland Unified, who was on the board in 2005 when it hired its first female superintendent, Maria Ott.

“As long as the person is a good match with the district, I think that’s far more important than whether they are male or female,” Nieh added.

But Chapman University’s Grogan said board members who don’t look for diverse backgrounds when they consider candidates are compounding the problem, which also plagues other sectors trying to address underrepresentation of women, African-Americans, Latinos, and other groups. Top executive positions in most fields are defined by what worked for the people who’ve held the jobs in the past: men. Two prime examples: long and inflexible hours and the types of previous job experiences believed to be stepping stones.

School boards also have more authority than they might think to attract more female candidates to seek superintendents’ jobs, said Jacinda “Jazz” Conboy, the general counsel for the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

“They can say we value diversity, we want women applicants, we want minority applicants,” she said.

It’s not that women are better leaders or get better results for students, Grogan and others say. But they may bring attributes that can be huge assets. The majority of women superintendents started their careers in classrooms and bring an expertise on good instruction, and because so many were principals, they know how to set goals and work with many players to achieve them, Grogan said.

Barbara Jenkins, the superintendent of Florida’s Orange County district, said those asking for better representation for women are not seeking special preference. The issue, she said, is making sure well-qualified women have a fair shot at landing the job and the right supports to get there.

"My opinion has always been that in this day and age, [gender] shouldn’t hold anyone back, and that we make our own opportunities," says Westminster, Calif. superintendent Marian Kim-Phelps. "But is it noticeable when you go to meetings and there are a lot more males in the room? Absolutely. But that doesn’t hold me back."

Jenkins credits Ronald Blocker, her predecessor in Orange County, with persistently pushing her.

“He’d say ‘Snatch the pebble from my hand, it’s time. It’s time for you to take on that role,’ ” she said, quoting the 1970s “Kung Fu” television show.

Women often must make extraordinary personal sacrifices, and having supportive families and friends is essential, superintendents said. Marian Kim-Phelps, the superintendent in California’s Westminster Unified district, commutes weekly from San Diego, where her husband and daughter live.

‘She Meant Business’

In Bruckner’s case, she was at the right place at the right time.

In 2007, after serving five years as the associate superintendent in the Millard school system in Omaha, Neb., she told her superintendent she was ready for the top job herself in another district.

“I didn’t have as much influence as I wanted to, and I realized that the only way I was going to have more influence was to become a superintendent,” said Bruckner.

At the same time Bruckner was ready to move up, Council Bluffs, a district of about 9,000 students across the Missouri River from Omaha, was looking for a superintendent. It had one of the lowest graduation rates in Iowa. Bruckner officially applied and was the only woman among eight finalists.

The school board hired her.

"I can be very fierce, and I am sure that that comes across with the B-word," says Council Bluffs, Iowa superintendent Mary Martha Bruckner. "I think we've probably gotten to a point in our society that we shouldn't assume that all women are going to be the same or all men are going to be the same, and one or the other is going to be better than the other."

“We needed somebody who could help us as a community turn that around, and she just came across as somebody who would be able to do that,” said school board member David Coziahr. “To be kind of blunt, she meant business.”

Council Bluff’s graduation rate has increased during Bruckner’s tenure, climbing from 68 percent to 88 percent over eight years. In 2015, she was named Iowa’s superintendent of the year.

Coziahr thinks other Iowa districts may be more willing to hire women based on Bruckner’s success.

Bruckner herself credits a cast of mentors and former supervisors—some of them men—for encouraging her, and she said the men she works with do not treat her differently. If her gender has been an issue, she hasn’t dwelled on it, she said. Her salary, however, which is $225,000 annually, draws attention every year from local news media and the community.

“There are people in my life who believe that if I were a male receiving a nice salary, it wouldn’t be as big of a story,” she said. “That may or may not be true. I don’t know. I know I make more money [than most people] in a school district that’s 70 percent free and reduced lunch. But I know I make less money than the bank presidents and big corporate leaders. I make less money than other superintendents in Iowa, but … just wonder if part of the pushback is [from thinking that] females don’t deserve that salary.”

Some states—New Hampshire, California, and New York—have higher-than-average percentages of female superintendents. In sheer numbers, California leads the country, but the state also has the second-largest number of districts, more than 1,000. When the ASSA conducted its survey this summer, California had 335 women running districts.

Finding Solutions

This year, the AASA launched an initiative to find women who are prospective leaders, match them with mentors, and help them become superintendents. The program has enlisted women leaders from education and business to dig deeper into the barriers that women face and how those hurdles can be overcome.

And there are other efforts underway to bring more gender balance to the superintendent’s office. In California, the Association of California School Administrators added a component to its leadership conference that includes mock interviews for women who are ready to make the leap, resume reviews, and advice about things like maintaining healthy work-life balance. In New York City, Chancellor Carmen Fariña launched a leadership development program for stellar principals and others who want to move up. Ten of the 12 fellows currently are women.

Conboy, who is on the AASA’s panel, has been spearheading a similar effort in New York state, where about 30 percent of superintendents are women. It grew directly from what Conboy was hearing from women about the challenges they faced, including blatant bias.

“I hear a lot from women that they are still being asked inappropriate questions in interviews like, ‘Do you have children? How do you think you can do this job if you have children?’ ” she said. Through the initiative, Conboy hopes to identify future district leaders and find ways for them to fill gaps in their experience.

Superintendents of both genders say men must be part of finding solutions. In New York, male district leaders are key allies, signing up female technology coordinators, teacher-leaders, and other women to be part of the women’s leadership development program. Rich Calkins, the superintendent of the 627-student Alfred-Almond district, about 80 miles south of Rochester, N.Y., has recruited five of the district’s female teacher-leaders for the initiative.

“We have a huge amazing force of women who are working each and every day and doing great things in the classrooms,” Calkins said, “and I know with the right support and the right leadership, … they will be great leaders in the district.”

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2016 edition of Education Week as Few Women Run School Districts. Why?


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