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Despite Progress, Women Superintendents Face Steep Path to Gender Parity

The portion of female superintendents leading the nation’s largest school districts has increased slightly in recent years, but men still lead the lions’ share, and women often face hurdles in taking on the role, new data show.

That men still lead about 70 percent of the nation’s 500 largest districts is particularly striking in a field where77 percent of teachers are women, said Julia Rafal-Baer, the CEO of ILO Group, an education consulting firm that promotes women in leadership.

“As you look at the trend data, we are starting to see an uptick,” she said. “But overall, we continue to have a major crisis in our country. We believe this needs to be focused on with real intentionality.”

Lacking federal data on the demographics of district leaders, ILO Group collected data about the superintendents of the 500 largest school systems dating back to 2018. In July 2023, women led 152 of those districts, compared to 139 in 2018. The data suggest those large systems are slightly more female-led than districts nationally.

About 21 percent of those districts experienced a leadership turnover in the 2022-23 school year, in keeping with higher rates of superintendent departures during previous years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the analysis found.

The data also suggest that women often become superintendents after stepping up during tumultuous periods in their districts.

Of the women superintendents included in the data, 53 percent were internal candidates who were already working in the district before being selected for the job. And seven of 10 of those internal candidates were appointed on an interim basis before taking the position more permanently, the data showed.

In districts led by external candidates, 27 percent have women superintendents, compared to 34 percent of districts led by internal candidates, ILO Group found.

The number of female candidates first hired on an interim basis suggests that women superintendents often face a “glass cliff,” taking the helm of school systems in times of crisis or following sudden departures of former leaders, making it more difficult to demonstrate their value to school board members, said Emily Hartnett, the senior managing director at ILO Group who helped compile the data.

“Women are more often required to prove that they can succeed in the position before they are hired more permanently for it,” she said. “That really speaks to the gender imbalance.”

In the business sector, researchers have found companies are more likely to hire women CEOs if they have more female board members. ILO found a similar phenomenon. Districts where at least three quarters of school board members are female were more likely to hire women superintendents than districts were at least three quarters of members were male, ILO Group’s analysis found.

Rafal-Baer said districts could work toward greater gender balance in top jobs by taking deliberate steps. They can:

  • Prioritize gender diversity in the finalist pool for superintendent roles so that women receive equal consideration.
  • Share demographic information about who applies for leadership roles.
  • Use clear, standards-based language in superintendent evaluations so that leaders of any gender know what is expected to succeed in the role.
  • Provide professional supports to help women leaders weather the unique challenges of the role.

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