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Women Superintendents Experience Bias on the Climb to Leadership

Women in educational leadership report a range of biases—ranging from interpersonal slights and structural inequities—that make it difficult to attain and persist in top positions.

That’s the key finding of a survey of women superintendents, central office leaders, and state education officials released this week by Women Leading Ed, a network of superintendents committed to expanding the ranks of women leaders.

“Even when women are in the same spaces as men, they still are not playing the same game as men,” said CEO Julia Rafal-Baer.

To arrive at its findings, the organization surveyed 110 women in those leadership roles between November 2023 and January 2024 to ask them about their experiences and perceptions at work.

Among the key findings:

  • Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they have been passed over for career advancement opportunities that were offered to male colleagues.
  • Fifty-three percent of respondents said they believed their gender influenced the outcome of salary negotiations.

A steeper path to leadership

It will take intentional changes in culture and policies to ensure more women take leadership roles in education systems, Rafal-Baer said.

Previous findings show that, while the number of women in educational leadership is growing, men are still far more likely to land the roles than women.

In a September 2023 analysis, the ILO Group, a consulting group also led by Rafal-Baer, 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 organization found. The data suggested those large systems were slightly more likely to be female-led than districts nationally.

The gender imbalance is particularly notable because 77 percent of teachers are women, the latest federal data show.

Women are also more likely to be offered superintendent roles as internal candidates and more likely to first take the job on an interim basis, suggesting they often step into the role at tumultuous times, the group found. Rafal-Baer calls the pattern “the glass cliff.”

Bias compounds the challenges women educators face in advancing their careers, she said.

Concerns about work-life balance: 95 percent of respondents said they “believe that they have to make sacrifices that their male colleagues do not in their professional life.”

“My male counterparts are viewed as being quality role models when they choose to put family engagements above work responsibilities, but I am often pressured not to do the same,” an unnamed leader wrote in response to the survey.

Unfair expectations about appearance and behavior: 82 percent of respondents reported “external pressure to dress, speak, or behave a certain way because they are women.”

“In preparation for a presentation, I was told that I shouldn’t wear pants, I should wear a skirt so that I don’t come off as intimidating,” an unnamed district superintendent wrote.

Bias that affects career persistence: 59 percent of respondents reported that they considered leaving their jobs because of “stress and strain.”

A path forward for women leaders

More than 700 educational leaders, male and female, have signed an open letter in support of recommendations that Women Leading Ed has proposed to promote a equitable hiring processes and to better support leaders when they fill those positions.

Those recommendations include ensuring gender-diverse pools of candidates for leadership roles; setting clear, measurable goals that define success for leaders; job coaching; and comprehensive family leave policies.

At an April conference, Women Leading Ed will work with its members to design a model superintendent contract that addresses structural barriers. That may include measures like protected hours, when leaders know they can focus on family matters rather than responding to non-emergency requests, Rafal-Baer said.

Because 80 percent of respondents reported they had no training in negotiations, the event will also focus on developing members’ skills in negotiating their pay, forging agreements with vendors, and weighing the regular decisions they face on a day-to-day basis.

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