5 ways districts can help close the gender gap in the superintendency

Since the pandemic, we’ve seen “historic” levels of turnover in the superintendency as many former leaders realized that the job isn’t what it used to be, in terms of their day-to-day responsibilities. District leadership is now increasingly complex. Superintendents now have to be experts on more than just educating children. They must understand and communicate the latest health issues, an ongoing mental health crisis that contributes to various academic achievement disparities, and so much more. But despite this massive turnover, we’ve yet to see improvements in the long-lasting issue surrounding the gender gap in the superintendency. Simply put, too few women are district leaders. But why?

A new report from ILO Group suggests that of the nation’s 500 largest school districts, only 152 of them (30.4%) are led by women, a nearly 3% bump from 2018.

Julia Rafal-Baer, CEO of ILO Group and founder of Women Leading Ed, said these metrics are nothing to celebrate just yet.

“While there have been modest increases in the number of women leading districts, we should not celebrate,” she said in a statement. “The fact remains: seven out of 10 led by men even though women make up the overwhelming majority of the education workforce.”

Notably, in districts where females make up more than 75% of board seats, women are more likely to be appointed to the superintendence compared to districts with a similar male majority:

  • Boards with at least a 75% female majority chose female superintendents 48% of the time and males 52%.
  • Boards with at least a 75% male majority chose female superintendents 33% of the time and males 67%.

Additionally, their findings highlight the continued issue surrounding turnover in district leadership. According to the data, nearly one-quarter (21.4%) of the nation’s districts saw at least one change in leadership over the past year. As the report suggests, these changes in leadership do nothing to help bridge the gender gap in the superintendence.

“Our latest report shows that gender pay gaps, disparate access to networks and sponsors, and a lack of commitment from boards to elevate women are the largest barriers to progress and the findings reinforce that innovative and focused initiatives like Women Leading Ed are essential if we’re going to bridge this gap,” said Rafal-Baer.

How to close the gap

ILO Group offers several recommendations foundational to helping bridge the gender gap in district leadership, starting with placing a keen focus on equity in your district’s hiring tactics.

Here’s their advice for leaders:

  • Prioritize gender equity in recruitment and selection: Search firms should be transparent with their clients regarding gender bias. Furthermore, they suggest that at least two women and leaders of color be included in any superintendent candidate pool.
  • Be transparent: Neither school boards nor search firms are required to report to state agencies or the public about the number or qualifications of their applicants, “let alone their gender or race/ethnicity,” according to the report. Transparency regarding these factors is an essential step to closing gender disparities.
  • Support families and well-being: Establishing adequate work/life balances can help to ensure women (and everyone else throughout the district) have the time to take care of themselves.
  • Be financially fair: According to data from the Council of Great City Schools, superintendents earn on average $20-$30,000 less than their male counterparts. “The solution is simple: pay women the same as you pay men for the same work,” ILO Group declares.
  • Intentionally foster support systems: District leadership is difficult, and that shouldn’t be a surprise. Support your female superintendents with the following initiatives:
    • Provide coaching on the job to boost retention.
    • Develop networks of women.
    • Sponsor rather than mentor.

“We have the power to change our systems to ensure more women, particularly women of color, are positioned to land the top jobs and achieve success in these roles,” the report concludes.

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