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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

Want to Build Pathways for Women to Become Superintendents?  Should It Start With Men?

3 key areas for building a better pipeline for women to ascend to leadership positions
By Michael Nelson — October 19, 2023 5 min read
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Recently, I wrote an article for the Instructional Leadership Collective’s Unreasonably Good Leadership newsletter about three important women in my life and their persistence to break through the barriers of being a woman in the workforce.

That got me to thinking. Did I really do all I could to remove the gender suppression felt by women in the district where I was superintendent? I couldn’t help feeling that I could have done more. Then, my wife, Britt, said to me: “It takes men seeing gender suppression in the workforce for it to ultimately change.” Her statement made me pause again and decide to draft this letter to all superintendents but with a particular focus on my male colleagues.

Dear Superintendents,

According to the 2020 American Superintendent Decennial Study, 26.7 percent of our nation’s superintendents are female. That number has basically remained flat as it is just up 2 percent from the 2010 study. Getting more women to the top position in our public schools is a critical need for so many reasons. Among them, our young girls need to know and feel they can be our future superintendents!

James Clear in his book Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results discusses the concept of “a motion” and “an action.” Clear states, “The two ideas of motion and action sound similar, but they’re not the same. When you’re in motion, you’re planning and strategizing and learning. Those are all good things, but they don’t produce a result. Action, on the other hand, is the type of behavior that will deliver an outcome.”

The relatively flat/slight increase of female superintendents in the last decade might suggest our plan and desire to change this statistic has us using strategies that are keeping us in the realm of motion rather than action. Here are three areas in which we might build a culture for supporting a dramatic increase in the percentage of women superintendents by 2030.

The Role of the School Board

School boards play an important role in communicating the mission, vision, and values of the school district and setting policy that strongly aligns with them. In recent years, many boards have embedded equity into those policies. Writing policy is a form of action, but if the intent of the policy is not carried out, then the policy is simply a motion.

  • How might you lead your school boards to look at equity data, including gender ratios of high-level administrative positions?
  • After looking at the data, what action steps might be taken?
  • How might you support and share your school board’s study on gender equity among staff be communicated to the public?
  • How might the school board engage in dialogue with current female staff about what they are experiencing in the school district?

Creating Time and Space for Female Leaders to Connect

Currently, I am the assistant executive director for professional learning at the Washington Association of School Administrators (WASA). In my first year in this role after having been a superintendent for nearly 14 years, I led the Women in Leadership initiative. One of my first actions was to bring a core group of women from across the state together to discuss their professional learning wishes for the year. There were two comments shared that will be forever etched in my mind.

  • My superintendent told me if I am going to attend the Women in Leadership conference, I must pay for my own registration, hotel, and meals. I did pay for it as I wanted to show how much I valued this conference.”
  • “Mike, we like you, but please don’t attend our event.”

They wanted me to recognize I had the opportunity to build understanding with some of my colleagues about the importance of our Women in Leadership events. They also wanted me to be sure I understood the importance of having a safe place to be together. Our WASA conferences continue to be affinity groups (groups of individuals that share a common identity or interests) for the female leaders in our state.

  • How might you create opportunities for female leaders in your organization to meet and connect in a manner in which they feel safe?
  • How might you support your female leaders in attending Women in Leadership events outside your district?
  • Is there a neighboring district or two in which you might partner to provide Women in Leadership opportunities?

YOU as Superintendent

When I was a superintendent, I loved to be in schools visiting classrooms and talking with staff and students. At a family dinner one Sunday, my brother Tim, a teacher in the district, said, “You recognize you are not my brother when you are walking around our school, right? You are the superintendent, and with that title means they are watching every move you make and what you are saying. They debrief your visit during lunchtime in the staff room!” My actions and nonactions were being closely monitored. If I am advocating building pathways for female leaders, I need my staff to see, hear, and feel it.

  • How might your staff and community, by your actions and nonactions, see you championing female leaders?
  • How might you connect with women leaders in your district to seek ways to develop additional opportunities?
  • How might you increase female candidates in your hiring pools for top positions?
  • Are there opportunities in which you might bring a female leader with you as a guest at superintendent events?
  • Is there a female leader that might represent you at schools or at a community event?
  • How might a scholarship program be created to support the coursework advancement of female leaders in your community?

Even though the majority of both elementary and secondary teachers are women, female students are looking for role models at all levels of the school district including top leadership positions, the superintendency among them. I know I can do more to help women attain those positions. I hope this letter resonates as a call to action and you will join me in supporting and championing female leaders in your district, particularly for the role of superintendent. Let’s change the number before the 2030 survey.


Mike Nelson

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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