School & District Management

Women in K-12 Leadership Don’t Get Enough Support. Here’s What Needs to Change

By Denisa R. Superville — June 01, 2023 7 min read
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Fairer family-leave policies. Sponsorships. Pay transparency.

Those are some of the policy shifts and practical changes a national organization says are critical to boost the number of women and women of color serving as K-12 superintendents.

The five-point advocacy letter—a kind of “playbook” for increasing and supporting women in district leadership—was released on Thursday by Women Leading Ed, a national network that prepares women for district leadership and support them while in those roles. It calls for district, state, and federal action to get more women to the top position in K-12, where the workforce is predominantly female but the leadership still largely male.

While women comprise nearly 80 percent of teachers in the 2020-21 school year, those percentages drop in leadership, declining to around 30 percent in the superintendency in big districts.

“We’re advocating for policies and practices that will make superintendencies not only more attainable for women, but also more sustainable,” said Kyla Johnson-Trammell, superintendent of the Oakland school district, in a statement.

“Our advocacy letter is really about articulating how to build the pipeline for women and women of color by providing on-the-job coaching and professional sponsorship, by creating more flexible work options, by ensuring women and men are paid equally for the same job and the same experience, and by providing high-quality benefits and leave. These are policies that don’t just benefit women, they make the job better for men, too.”

‘A playbook’ for women

The letter, which is accompanied by a more detailed report, highlights five key areas where districts and policymakers can start. And, it notes, the proposals are hardly new.

1. Professional support for women: The letter calls for “intentional” support, through formal sponsorships and on-the-job coaching, to help women as they ascend the leadership ladder. Sponsorship, which is different from mentoring, allows the sponsor to play a lead role in shaping another person’s career. It also calls for “coaching trees,” a practice that’s common in professional sports, including in the National Football League, where a head coach takes responsibility for preparing assistants to do the job.

2. Hiring: Districts should change hiring practices to reduce bias in the process, including providing training to school board members and revamping search processes to ensure candidates from diverse backgrounds apply. For example, districts can ensure that their search committees are made up of people from diverse backgrounds, by race and gender, and shield candidates’ identities when they apply.

3. Family-friendly workplace policies: Women continue to be primary caretakers for children and parents. The letter calls for fair and equitable family-leave policies and practices, including those that will allow women to take time off to care for their families without punishment, and others that support employees’ well-being. Hybrid and remote work policies, for example, can allow women to continue their jobs while shouldering those personal responsibilities, according to the report.

4. Transparency: The letter calls for districts to set public targets for gender diversity on school boards and in senior district leadership positions. The letter also calls on state and federal governments to gather data on gender diversity in K-12 leadership. States, for example, can require districts to make public the list of the finalists for superintendents’ positions, or release general information about the finalists’ race and gender. States can also publicly recognize districts that are making gains on their district leadership diversity goals. Districts can ensure that their searches have two women or candidates of color among the finalists.
There’s a role for the federal government, too, which could require states and districts to submit baseline superintendent data, including information on race and ethnicity, as part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection. (There is currently no centralized data collection on superintendent characteristics.)

5. Pay equity: The letter asks districts to take several steps to increase pay transparency and ensure that female superintendents are paid on par with their male counterparts, including ways for women to compare salary offers, pay audits to unearth and root out disparities, and adding salary ranges to job postings. Research from the Council of the Great City Schools, an advocacy group for the country’s largest, mostly urban school systems, showed that, on average, female superintendents in urban districts were paid an estimated $20,000–$30,000 less than their male peers.

Gathering support

Signatories to the letter include female school, district, and state education leaders. In addition to Johnson-Trammell, the Oakland superintendent, they include Susan Enfield, the superintendent of the Washoe County school district in Reno, Nev.; Margaret Crespo, the superintendent of Laramie County school district in Cheyenne, Wyoming; Candice Castillo, the deputy secretary of identity, equity, and transformation in the department of education in New Mexico; and Christina Grant, the state superintendent of education in the District of Columbia.

Susana Cordova, who was announced this week as the sole finalist for the education commissioner’s job in Colorado, has also signed the letter, according to Julia Rafal-Baer, the founder and CEO of Women Leading Ed.

Crespo, the first woman and Latina to lead her district, said district leaders must model flexible working environments that allow leaders to balance personal and professional responsibilities.

“You’re in a leadership position, the expectation is that the work will be done,” she said. “Long gone are the days of the punching-the-clock kind of mentality. We model that in the organization. We take care of each other and have open dialogue about what we are navigating and what we are working on, so that we can do the doctor’s appointments, eldercare, chemotherapy, whatever that is. That has to be modeled and expected.”

Crespo said it’s way past time to take the necessary steps to make district leadership more representative of the students they serve.

“When you think about the fact that so many women are teachers compared to leadership, it’s an imbalance in the system,” she said. “You are literally modeling for the future generations, and if the future generations only see an imbalanced system you’ll never move that.”

Johnson-Trammell said sponsorship requires those already in the superintendency—whether male or female—to use their power to help those coming up the ranks. That includes intentionally sharing networks, knowledge, and resources.

“It’s about, ‘I am in this particular network where we talk about technology in the education sector, for example. I am going to introduce you to someone who runs the network. I am going to introduce you to other members of the network, so that you can develop and cultivate a relationship; so that over time what is my network [becomes] part of your network,’” she said. “It’s a small thing, but it pays quite largely in terms of dividends and building someone’s leadership skills. Sometimes those doors are closed until someone decides to open them for you.”

She credits a male superintendent, who knew the “grueling, stressful, and complex” nature of running a public school system, with helping her successfully complete her initial year.

In addition to mentoring and coaching support, he helped her navigate the contract process and connected her with statewide organizations and superintendents.

“Yes, it’s about talent, but the job is too complex and grueling to go after it on your own,” Johnson-Trammell said. “Had I tried to navigate it on my own, I don’t think I would have been successful or I would have been able to make some of the initial contacts I was able to make. It fortified my support system. It added a lot of value to my own leadership in terms of being able to connect with others when I ran into various dilemmas or I just needed a thought partner before making a decision.”

The advocacy letter was one of the by-products of Women Leading Ed’s first annual summit, which drew about 75 female district leaders.

Rafal-Baer, who also co-founded the ILO Group, which conducts research on women in district leadership, said schools and students are missing out on talented leaders if women continue to be overlooked for district leadership positions.

ILO Group’s research in 2022 showed that even during the pandemic when superintendent turnover increased, women did not gain ground. Of the 246 districts that got a new superintendent between March 2020 and March 2022, men got the job in 60 percent of those cases.

“The problem is not a lack of capable women,” Rafal-Baer said.

“Studies show that women are just as likely as men to aspire to leadership positions, and there are many women in education who are skilled, savvy, and ready to step up into executive roles. But we also know that there continue to be these barriers, both informal and systemic, that hold women back from reaching the top job, and until we take intentional steps to change those, America’s students and schools will continue to miss out on huge swaths of talent.”

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