School & District Management Opinion

Female Equity Leaders of Color Are Undervalued and Undercut

3 ways to set Black women and other women of color up for success in district equity leadership
By Ann M. Ishimaru — January 09, 2023 5 min read
Illustration of a black female leader at the top of a ladder looking off into the distance.
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Yet again, Kiara found herself at a table of mostly white district leaders. As the equity director for her district, Kiara regularly drew on her professional expertise, formal training, and personal experiences as a Black woman and mother to raise pointed questions, advocate for those not at the table, and flag racial inequities in the system. She knew if she spoke now, though, her insights would be resisted by Janice, the white woman director of student services. Janice had recently complained about Kiara’s “aggressive” approach and leadership. And yet Kiara’s role required her to raise precisely these concerns. Feeling exhausted, she took a deep breath and spoke in a calm, measured tone.

In my research and professional work with district leaders over the past decade, I have seen and heard versions of Kiara’s hypothetical scenario play out over and over in school systems across the country. Female leaders of color often face not only outright resistance to their equity efforts but must also manage routine racial and gendered microaggressions and stereotyped assessments of their leadership.

To enable these educators to sustain their leadership and advance racial equity in schools, we must disrupt the organizational dynamics that exact such a high toll on these leaders. Self-care practices might be be helpful, but individual remedies do not address the roots of the harm: that schools rely on Black female leaders while undervaluing and mistreating them.

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Over the past six years, I have researched district equity leadership with my colleagues Terrance Green at the University of Texas, Austin, and Decoteau J. Irby at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Black women and other women of color are at the vanguard of equity leadership in U.S. schools. According to the American Superintendent 2020 Decennial Study, women of color represented just 12.9 percent of superintendents nationally; yet, more than 54 percent of the respondents to our 2022 survey of equity directors identified as women of color, with 30 percent identifying as Black women.

Based on our research, we suggest three ways districts can begin to better set these Black women and other women of color up for success in their district equity leadership:

1. Provide substantive organizational resources.

Not surprisingly, equity directors feel better able to accomplish their work when they are provided the resources, people power, and respect they need to realize their charge. We found that Black women and other women of color equity directors, like Kiara, tend to have higher educational attainment but fewer organizational resources to accomplish their work than white and male survey respondents. They tend to have fewer staff members, smaller budgets, and fewer opportunities to be heard by principals, teachers, and schools. They were more likely to be further in the district hierarchy from executive decisionmaking with the superintendent and school board. We call this the organizational “double jeopardy” of race and gender in P-12 district central offices—a phenomenon that scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw have long noted occurs in U.S. law and policy.

So, if you are hiring an equity director, be sure to position the role with ample access to district leadership and resources to effectively take up this challenging work, regardless of who occupies it. If you already have someone in the role, take a hard look not only at the work they are expected to do but also their budget, direct reports, and organizational access.

In one of our studies, we found that many Black women equity directors were working to strategically reshape their roles, but such effort often required additional unrecognized labor, a “tax” specific to women of color in this position. Influential positioning and ample formal supports in the role constitute a first crucial step in valuing the work and expertise of women of color in district leadership.

2. Trust their expertise.

Money, staff, and access to decisionmaking amount to little if leaders are constantly belittled, marginalized, or even dehumanized for the very expertise and work their jobs require. Black women and other women of color equity directors can only be effective in their roles if they are respected by their colleagues and the district’s decisionmakers.

Superintendents play a crucial role in modeling an approach that trusts the expertise of their equity directors and supports their work both publicly and privately. When equity work comes under attack or the political climate gets heated, equity leaders need to know their superintendent and colleagues have their backs. And when other district leaders leave a Black woman or other leader of color as the only one asking the hard equity questions (like Kiara in the opening vignette), colleagues should speak up in the moment to express solidarity instead of communicating affirmation afterward.

Finally, district leaders can educate themselves and seek feedback from equity directors to ensure their leadership assessments are not based on racially gendered stereotypical tropes (such as the angry Black woman, hot-headed Latina, or tiger mom Asian woman).

3. Build professional supports and networks.

Those leading the charge for more equitable systems often have few peers in their own system who can share their knowledge and skills. Districts can provide resources for equity leaders to access peer networks beyond their own districts and participate in professional-development opportunities to learn together and share practices.

Culturally specific coaching or mentoring can also be a crucial support. Since the vast majority of superintendents are white men, they cannot provide mentoring tailored to the racial and gender dynamics that women leaders of color commonly encounter. Professional networks can also help systems leaders to identify and access such coaching expertise.

District central offices are not neutral organizations with regard to race, gender, or power. But many reforms act as though they are. For instance, district office reforms to reorganize departments and roles to support instructional improvement often take a technical approach focused on “driving” with data, but they disregard the racial, cultural, and sociopolitical dimensions of student learning, instruction, data, and systems leadership.

Likewise, solutions focused primarily on women of color leaders exercising self-care and mindfulness can place the burden of change on the very individuals impacted by the double jeopardy we found—and imply that their experiences of anti-Blackness and gendered racism are a matter of their mental states, rather than an organizational and societal problem.

While the strategies we suggest here are only a start, our research suggests districts can create conditions to better enable district administrators, like Kiara, to build the equitable education our young people deserve.


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