School & District Management

Why Are Only a Quarter of School Districts in Texas Led by Women?

By Caitlyn Meisner — July 11, 2023 6 min read
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Women are underrepresented in K-12 school district leadership in Texas— following a trend researchers have long found across the nation.

In the more than 1,000 districts in the Lone Star state, only 26 percent are led by women. That is according to findings published last month by the ILO Group, an education strategy and policy firm, in partnership with Educate Texas, an educational nonprofit.

Texas has over 5 million public school students across those districts, and more than 75 percent of their teachers are women. Yet they are a minority in the superintendency in the state, according to the ILO Group.

“For the better part of the last decade, we’ve seen a complete stagnation in the percent of women nationally who are leading education systems,” said Julia Rafal-Baer, CEO of the ILO Group and Women Leading Ed. “As we started to look at geographic trends, there were certain parts of the country where [it] was even more troubling,” notably in the south and the west.

Previous research from the ILO Group has found that only 30 percent of the nation’s 500 largest districts are represented by women. Between March 2020 and September 2022, 49 percent of these districts underwent or were currently experiencing leadership changes. 66 percent of the female superintendents that left were replaced by men.

What the research found in Texas

In Texas, women are less likely to become superintendents and spend 3.3 years longer in lower level administrative positions than men do. This finding suggests women face additional barriers in their progression to the superintendent position. Women in the position have spent, on average, about one year longer than men in the field.

In the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years, a majority of women were not hired by any form of search entity, whether a firm or school board. Men were chosen 70 percent of the time in these cases, and they were chosen 84 percent of the time when education service centers—regional support systems to assist districts in obtaining state objectives—conducted the search for a new superintendent.

Spanning the state’s hundreds of rural districts and tens of urban districts, women trailed in leadership positions across the board. Women were slightly more likely to lead a suburban district (30 percent) in comparison to rural districts (24.6 percent).

Emily Hartnett, senior managing director at the ILO Group, said researchers looked at the gender difference in doctoral attainment. She said women were around seven percent more likely to have a doctoral degree than men, but still were less prevalent in the superintendent role.

"[This] goes to show that women have to prove themselves and be more qualified for the role than men are expected to be,” Hartnett noted.

In the country's top 500 largest districts, 30% of superintendents are female. In Texas, the gender gap is widening. In the 2022-23 school year only 26% of superintendents are female according to ILO Group and Educate Texas.

She also pointed out how each of the 20 regions supported by education service centers demonstrated low female representation. It ranged from 13.51 percent in Wichita Falls in north central Texas to 48.78 percent in Corpus Christi, a southern coastal region in the state. The largest gaps in male and female superintendencies were seen in the San Antonio, Lubbock, Abilene, Midland, and Waco regions.

The study also looked at the effects of a unique practice in Texas when naming a lone finalist for the position. A state statute declares that the identity of the lone finalist is made public at least 21 days before being formally appointed. Prior to this, the identity and application are confidential.

The study found that this practice limits transparency with the public and limits their input into the selection process. It does this by only providing the lone finalist, not the pool of candidates being considered for the position. But, this practice allows school boards to focus on a single candidate and thoroughly investigate their background.

What leaders had to say

Many of the female leaders in the state—who were interviewed as part of the research—cited having a challenging professional journey when considering district leadership. Hartnett said there were several references to a “good old boys” network that hindered their ability to pursue higher-ranking positions.

She explained that for many of the women in Texas, coaching and mentorship meetings often felt like a compliance exercise rather than a meaningful investment into their careers.

“Women often cited [how] they would watch many of their male counterparts being given advice, coaching, and support that was more focused on big picture strategy and operations,” Hartnett said.

On a national level, interviews with leaders have found women suffer from the skewed pipeline challenge.

“More often women were being coached and supported into advanced pathways geared more towards instructional leadership and teaching versus their male counterparts being encouraged to take on systems operations and financial aspects,” Hartnett explained.

Both Rafal-Baer and Hartnett emphasized the importance of providing an intentional support system for all district leaders—especially women—to develop their skills, overcome challenges, and achieve long-term goals. They highlighted coaching, mentorship, and professional development opportunities.

Women leaders describe the power of mentoring

Shannon Trejo, chief academic officer in the Dallas school district—a member of the district’s leadership team that works closely with the superintendent—said her mentors throughout the years assisted her in her career advancement.

“Had I not had those people in my life, I would not have been able to move in this direction,” Trejo said. “Through the advocacy of great mentors—particularly female mentors—I’ve had the opportunity to learn, grow, and have access to an upward trajectory [in my career].”

As someone who works closely with the superintendent in the district, Stephanie Elizalde, Trejo said she is constantly inspired by Elizade’s leadership.

“She is very willing to mentor and support me in learning what it feels like to be at these top levels,” Trejo explained. “There are so few females in the superintendency in the larger urban areas, so having an opportunity to see that happen is a blessing.”

Candice Castillo, former executive director of student support in the Houston school district, echoed Trejo’s emphasis on having supportive mentors.

“The reason why I think I have evolved in my leadership journey is because I value being part of networks that support not just leadership, but specifically female leadership,” Castillo said.

Castillo said as a Latina woman, it was particularly important for her to connect with other Latinas in leadership positions who can relate to her experiences.

Castillo also said that she wasn’t surprised that Texas falls behind in female representation. But she noted this is an opportunity for the state to intentionally support women leaders to reach these positions with the right systems in place.

What researchers are calling for

In an effort to change the landscape of the position in the future, the ILO Group recommended strategies to assist the state in reaching equity.

  • Prioritizing gender equity in recruitment. Clear expectations must be set regarding diversity between districts and those conducting the search process. The group also called on school boards to consider reversing the 21-day rule and make the finalist pool of candidates or demographic information public.
  • Transparency. Consistent data reporting of progress on searches and hires is critical and should be made available publicly on a regular basis.
  • Supporting families. Policies should be in place to promote work/life balance for all employees. Districts must recognize that women disproportionately take on child care responsibilities and implement policies that address employee wellbeing.
  • Financial fairness. Gender-pay disparities are prevalent in the superintendency, and pay equity is vital to ensure equal opportunities to succeed are given to women.
  • Intentional support systems. Mentorship, coaching, sponsorship, and professional development are essential in fostering successful female leaders to rise in each district.

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