School & District Management

How This Sisterhood Is Empowering Female Superintendents

By Caitlynn Peetz — March 29, 2024 6 min read
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During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic—when school buildings across the country were shuttering and districts were making historic shifts to online classes—A. Katrise Perera saw a news clip that sparked what turned out to be a life-changing idea.

It was about how people were attempting to fight off the loneliness of stay-at-home orders and stay connected socially through online video calls.

Perera, now the superintendent in Lancaster, Texas, was struggling with feeling isolated professionally and overwhelmed by the number and magnitude of decisions she had to make, and decided to give it a try.

She reached out to roughly 20 other women in superintendent positions across the country—some of whom she knew well, others not so much—and asked if they’d like to meet over Zoom for an hour or two of chatting, brainstorming, and being in the presence of other women who “just get it,” Perera said.

“When you’re superintendent, you’re the only person in that role in the whole district and everybody’s looking to you for all the answers, and I didn’t have all the answers,” Perera said. “I was able to talk to people who were experiencing the same things and could ensure I felt empowered, validated, and encouraged to continue working.”

The calls became a weekly affair during the pandemic. Many of the women said they would rearrange their personal schedules to attend. And over time, what started as a cry for professional support became lifelong friendships and a particularly important network for a group of people who are vastly underrepresented in the superintendency across the country.

Just over a quarter of superintendents leading the nation’s school districts are women, a stark contrast with the teaching workforce, which is more than three-quarters female. So, in theory, finding a fellow female district leader to connect with could prove challenging. But, in practice, many women who hold a superintendent position say they’ve made deep personal and professional connections with other women who understand their jobs, and the challenges and causes for celebration that are unique to those leadership positions.

Those informal networks have helped propel the women through hardships and celebrate victories both big and small, Perera said. Now, the group of women call themselves the “Sister Supes”—an ode to their deep professional and personal ties.

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A bond based on shared experience

Smaller groups of women superintendents supporting each other have been around for years, but they’ve generally been more informal with more sporadic conversation, often stemming from connections made at conferences, said Martha Salazar-Zamora, the superintendent in Tomball, Texas, and a part of the “Sister Supes” group.

But then COVID-19 hit, upending education and creating endless new challenges for district leaders. From virtual learning to new health and safety protocols to personal health concerns and increased stress, superintendents were “building the plane as we were flying it,” Salazar-Zamora said. The women superintendents Perera had brought together “began really leaning on each other as thought partners, and that grew into real, lasting friendships.”

In the thick of the pandemic, the women came together for weekly Zoom calls on Sundays during which they could let their guards down for a few hours to discuss challenges, ask for advice, brainstorm ideas, or just have a drink and connect with like-minded women.

“It was a very uplifting time where, no matter what was going on in my life, I was going to be on that call,” Salazar-Zamora said, “because that was time I needed as a leader and as a person.”

It’s not that the women feel unsupported by male superintendents—in fact, many said men have been big supporters of and advocates for them. But some experiences are unique to women, and only other women will understand them, Salazar-Zamora said.

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Sometimes, it didn’t even take words to feel the bond, said LaTonya Goffney, the superintendent in Aldine, Texas.

“There’s this powerful connection where you don’t really have to say, ‘I had a tough board meeting,’ or ‘I’m having to raise my daughter during all of this.’ You can just say, ‘I need prayers,’ and the women don’t have to ask questions, they just understand,” Goffney said.

Even superintendents who have been on the job for a while have found solace and support in the group.

Heidi Sipe, superintendent of Umatilla schools in Oregon, has been a district leader for more than 17 years, and was part of the original group of women who joined the weekly Zoom sessions.

At the time, it was a much-needed outlet during a stressful and overwhelming time for which there was no playbook. There were times, Sipe recalled, when someone on those calls would notice she just wasn’t herself and follow up privately afterward to check in or send a note of encouragement.

“It has really embodied my favorite phrase: ‘You can’t compete with me because I want you to win, too,’” Sipe said. “Our female colleagues are often hesitant to ask for help because they don’t want to be seen as unprepared or like they don’t know what they’re doing, but everyone in this job wants every single other superintendent in the nation to be successful.”

New connections reignited a passion for mentoring

Even with the height of the pandemic in the past, the women have maintained a group chat and talk regularly. They also periodically meet up for a Zoom for old time’s sake. Participants often connect at conferences and other events for dinner. Some recently held a celebration for Salazar-Zamora, a finalist for the 2024 Superintendent of the Year award, in February at a conference in San Diego.

When they meet women who have just become superintendents, it’s not uncommon for new additions to flow into the group chat, be invited to an event dinner, or hop on a Zoom call, Salazar-Zamora said.

There’s never a set agenda. The women have exchanged advice about an upcoming performance evaluation, celebrated when a member lands a job in a new district, traded intel on ed-tech vendors, cheered the birth of grandchildren, and grieved the death of parents.

“Our lives are bigger than our work, and when you can share the both the personal and professional, I think that’s when the magic happens,” Salazar-Zamora said.

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For Sipe, it also reignited a passion for supporting her colleagues across the country.

Before the pandemic, she was actively participating in and forming local groups of women leaders, but as time passed, her enthusiasm for this networking died down. But the Sister Supes reminded her of the power in numbers and camaraderie, and prompted her to continue forging new connections.

She’s since been instrumental in forming an Oregon-specific Sister Supes group, arranging informal gatherings of fellow women superintendents at local restaurants, and organizing local women in leadership conferences.

“It was the boost I needed to reignite some of the passion for that work, and it reminded me that if I’m supporting someone else to get better, then I’m going to improve, too,” Sipe said. “It’s through that support for one another that we can all grow and improve, which all ties back to the children winning, which is all that we ever want.”

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