For women superintendents, the path to leadership has meant trudging through self-doubt, “imposter syndrome,” and occasional bouts of anger at a biased system. If you ask them, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Kyla Johnson-Trammell, Barbara Jenkins, and Susana Cordova shared their experiences serving in district leadership during a Wednesday panel discussion, exploring the question, “Why aren’t more women running our school districts?” The panel was part of Education Week’s Leadership Symposium, a three-day virtual event for school district leaders to discuss current education issues, which concluded on Wednesday.
Since March 2020, school districts have seen a “potentially historic” turnover of superintendents, said Julia Rafal-Baer, co-founder of ILO Group, a women-funded education policy and research group. In a review of the country’s 500 largest school districts, ILO Group found that 186 experienced a leadership transition since March 2020.
Seven out of 10 of those jobs went to men, Rafal-Baer said. The research group also found that women superintendents make on average 12 percent less money than male counterparts and are more likely to be hired if they served as a deputy or interim superintendent in the past.
And in a field where women represent the majority of workers overall, other research has found that in the 2019-20 school year, 1 in 4 district superintendents were women.
“Men are being hired and promoted on the basis of their potential to do the job, where women are hired and promoted only when they generate results and knock it out of the park,” Rafal-Baer said.
Pushing for higher aspirations
The data resonates with the experiences of female superintendents. Jenkins, who is the superintendent of Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, Fla., said she never intended to apply for the position, feeling content as deputy superintendent.
It wasn’t until her predecessor and mentor, who is a man, encouraged her to apply for the role that she realized she might actually like being superintendent.
“A male will think, ‘If I know about 50 percent of the job, maybe less, I will go for it,’” Jenkins said. “Females think, ‘I’ve got to learn every single part of the job before I go for it.’”
Mentorship was also key in Johnson-Trammell’s journey to leading the Oakland Unified School District in Oakland, Calif. The superintendent said she had to prodded by mentors who prepared her for the political complexities and other realities that come along with it.
Johnson-Trammell made it all the way to the interview process for the position without fully believing she would be the one to get the top job.
“At one point, I was saying ‘I’m going to interview for practice,’” she said. “One of my mentors said, ‘Stop saying that. You’re not practicing. You’re interviewing for this.’”
Cordova, who is the deputy superintendent for the Dallas Independent School District and who previously served as superintendent in Denver, said she also had to push through imposter syndrome before she made it into the leadership position. As with Jenkins and Johnson-Trammell, she had mentors that helped her get to the role.
But even in conversations with her mentors, Cordova had to advocate for herself. In one instance, she remembers a superintendent mentor who suggested that his successor would be a man with less experience than she.
“I just remember feeling like, ‘You give me all of these things to do and I’m doing all of this work for you and you don’t actually see me as ready or capable of moving into that seat,’” Cordova said. “That really stuck with me both in adding to imposter syndrome and [it] made me angry, frankly.”
Developing a CEO mindset
If districts want to see more women in leadership, they’ll need to focus on mentorship, bias training, and overall awareness of systemic barriers, the panelists said.
Johnson-Trammell said she’s started to strategically mentor women who are two or three steps away from the superintendent job, like principals and assistant principals. She compared it to the goal-setting and networking skills often taught in high schools.
The panelists also emphasized the importance of building networks for women who are interested in district leadership. ILO Group has partnered with school districts and state leaders to expand its networking group called Women in Leadership, Rafal-Baer said.
Even with great mentors and networking tools, women are going to face barriers that men don’t. Often women find themselves having to be more amenable and answer to societal pressures, including on issues involving family demands, during interviews for the superintendent position.
Jenkins said she’d like to see more training on the school board level, so board members can more often hire without biases getting in the way. Women should look at the job of superintendent as they would a role running a major corporation, she said.
“There certainly needs to be some ability to blindly screen those applications and remove gender at the initial application period at least,” Jenkins said. “We have to encourage women too to make sure their application presses this notion that they are CEOs and executives.”