Disrupting the Biases Inherent in Executive Searches
BY CAROLYN A. BERNAL/School Administrator, March 2020

Carolyn Bernal
Six months ago, I met 30 inspiring female school leaders from across the country at the first-ever AASA Aspiring Superintendents Academy® for Female Leaders. My superintendent had encouraged me to apply to the yearlong academy, which is focused on building relationships and developing a professional network.

I was excited and intrigued and immediately felt a sense of belonging. This was a safe space to intentionally and unapologetically take on the tough issues related to the gender inequity that exists in the superintendency.

When I seated myself at a table with four women, we engaged in conversation about the challenges we’d faced as school leaders. The women were interested in my experience as assistant superintendent in a 5,000-student elementary school district where I serve as chief district negotiator, navigating tense discussions while maintaining positive relations with the teachers’ union. With 15 years of experience at the bargaining table, I’ve learned to assert myself while demonstrating empathy, a balancing act between the traditional gender traits commonly assigned in society.

The academy could not have been more timely given my recent research on this topic, the completion of my doctoral program in educational leadership last spring, and my own desire to one day become a superintendent.

Searchers’ Attitudes
In my doctoral dissertation, I examined the attitudes, beliefs and perceptions that search firm consultants have about male and female superintendent candidates. My intention was to determine whether their views contribute to gender inequity at the highest levels of K-12 public education.

To measure implicit bias, search firm participants were asked to associate as either male or female the various qualities a candidate for the superintendency should have or ascribe to. For example, words such as assertive, decisive and risk taker are associated typically with male-dominant traits. Empathetic, good listener and adaptable often are connected with female-dominant traits.

I also designed statements to measure whether respondents viewed males or females as aligning with specific job-related knowledge or skills, including descriptions such as more capable in budgeting and finance, more family support and a higher level of self-confidence.

While school boards are both collaborators and key gatekeepers in a superintendent selection process and are responsible for hiring the search firms who assist them, my research was limited to superintendent search consultants working for California-based firms. Findings suggest their attitudes, beliefs and perceptions about candidates in a superintendent selection process do influence and control which candidates move forward.

The respondents see themselves as gender neutral, but my research shows they hold implicit gender biases about leadership qualities and characteristics a successful candidate for the superintendency should have. For example, male candidates were perceived as more capable in budgeting and finance, and females were considered by consultants as more likely to allow their emotions to influence their decision making. This presents itself as a contributing factor to the current gender inequity.

Disapproving Women
While the results did not astound me, I was unprepared to discover how disapproving we as females are of ourselves. I found that female consultants were highly critical of how they viewed female candidates in a superintendent selection process. They rarely selected the female as the more qualified candidate.

When I share my doctoral research with other female leaders, none are surprised that women can be their own worst critics. All, however, would like to see a shift from critic to supporter in light of stereotype-defying research, which shows women are rated better than men on key leadership capabilities, such as taking initiative (55.6 percent versus 48.2 percent for men) and bold leadership (53.2 percent versus 49.8 percent). In fact, women outscore men in 17 of 19 leadership capabilities according to the 2019 research by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman of Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy.

With the goal of disrupting the status quo and lifting one another up in leadership, AASA’s Aspiring Superintendents Academy® for Female Leaders is challenging us to examine ourselves as leaders, recognize our blind spots and identify and eliminate self-limiting habits of mind.

CAROLYN BERNAL is assistant superintendent for school and systems improvement for the Rio School District in Oxnard, Calif. Twitter: @HRRSD