Executive Perspective

Women Atop Our Own Ranks
By Daniel A. Domenech/School Administrator, March 2020

EVEN THOUGH the majority of teachers in our schools are women, the number who reach the superintendency is low, though it has shown growth. In 1982, only 1.2 percent of superintendents were women. That number is now 24.1 percent, according to AASA national surveys.

AASA was formed in 1865, yet it was not until 122 years later that June Gabler, an education leader in Fort Dodge, Iowa, was elected by her peers as the first woman president in 1987. I spoke to her recently about that experience.

June had been working on her doctorate (on reading readiness programs in kindergarten) while serving as a superintendent in Ohio. As part of her dissertation research, she turned to AASA publications. At that point, in the 1960s, she was not an AASA member and women superintendents were a rarity. Paul Salmon was the AASA executive director at the time and his assistant reached out to June to do an article about her for the AASA publication. During the interview, the association staff member took the opportunity to recruit her.

As a woman superintendent with a doctorate, June says she began gaining notoriety and invitations to speak on how to get ahead as a career woman. Balancing a professional career with family was a problem for women, but June was fortunate to have a husband who supported her and helped to raise their nine children.

Eventually, she was encouraged to run for the AASA Executive Committee and was elected. June credits the support she received from male superintendents who encouraged her to run for president and voted for her. There were not many woman members at AASA in those days so June found it challenging to engage in AASA social activities with mostly male colleagues. To her chagrin, she felt AASA’s few female members did not especially want to see women in leadership positions. Nevertheless, she considers her AASA experience to have been a highlight of her professional career.

A Warming Climate
It took another 20 years before Sarah Jerome, an education leader in the Midwest, became the second woman elected AASA president in 2007. By that time, Sarah found more women in the superintendency and a greater awareness of women in leadership roles.

I asked Sarah how she broke the barrier to become the second woman president. She was at an AASA event in Vancouver, British Columbia, where AASA past presidents in attendance were recognized on stage. All were male. Nobody looked like her. Upon her return to her Wisconsin district, she called her state association executive and told him she wanted to run for AASA president, and he supported her goal. It was totally spontaneous but, with the backing of her Midwest colleagues, she was elected.

In the years since, Wisconsin has provided the association with two additional female presidents: Pat Neudecker and incumbent Deborah Kerr.

Unlike June’s experience, Sarah says she was encouraged and supported by other women leaders. Although she received support and encouragement from her male colleagues, Sarah believes it is important for women to encourage other women to step up. While acknowledging the difficulties of reconciling career with family life, she notes it is easier with a supportive spouse.

Her election, Sarah adds, was facilitated by changes in AASA’s election rules that eliminated much of the costly campaign tactics that had discouraged many potential candidates from running for office. Sarah was AASA’s president when I was appointed executive director.

A Promising Pipeline
Since Sarah’s election, five more women have been elected to the association’s top position: Neudecker (2011), Amy Sichel (2013), Gail Pletnick (2017), Kerr (2019) and President-elect Kristi Sandvik (2020). Although it took 132 years to elect two women presidents, five have been elected in a 13-year period.

In the principalship, the percentage of women also has been growing. As of 2016, 54 percent of principals at all levels were female, a 10 percent gain since 2000. Because the pipeline to the superintendency tends to lead through the principalship, it will not be surprising to see more women principals advancing into the superintendency.

AASA has adopted an aggressive role in the development of women leaders. The AASA Women in Leadership initiatives are designed by women for women, and the programs are open to superintendents, those aspiring to the job and women interested in leadership development.

The initiative, launched in 2015 with a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, includes the Women’s Leadership Consortium, regional forums that have served more than 1,400 women, mentoring programs, online collaboratives and national recognition, such as the Women in School Leadership Awards.

DANIEL DOMENECH is AASA executive director. Twitter: @AASADan