Women on a Plateau in the Superintendency
Two veterans have their theories and suggested remedies for promoting more female candidates into the top district roles
/School Administrator, March 2020

Highline Public Schools superintendent Susan Enfield reads a proclamation at a school board meeting in Burien, Wash.
Seventeen years ago, a brand-new superintendent was excited to attend her first statewide conference of superintendents. She thought she would use this opportunity to learn, meet new colleagues and mentors and find a support network.

As she picked up her name badge along with other administrators and entered the elevator to head to the conference’s first session, a male superintendent asked, “Where are you from?” As she greeted him and his male colleagues with her name and district, one looked at her and said, “I didn’t think superintendents were supposed to bring their pretty, young secretaries.”

It is worth noting the year was 2003, not 1953.

A Disturbing Trend
Comments such these, by a small number of individuals, have been made to both of us and our fellow female superintendents repeatedly through the years. Rather than defeat us, they have fueled our desire to educate people on why their statements may be offensive and how they can do better moving forward. In most cases, we have found an incredible cadre of male superintendents who support their male and female colleagues alike. Yet considerable work remains to be done.

Walk into any school district across the country and you will likely see a significant number of female teachers. What you are less likely to see today is a female superintendent. While we were making progress in the 1990s and early 2000s when the percentage nationwide rose from single to double digits, we have seen a plateau in recent years. According to AASA surveys, the percent of female superintendents in 2010 was approximately 24 percent, yet in 2019 it had moved to just 25 percent. This begs the question as to why more female educators are not supported and promoted into the superintendency — and what can be done to create a springboard off the plateau.

With more than 25 years of combined experience in the superintendency, the two of us have some insights about the reasons for the stymied growth. We also have identified some of the barriers preventing more women from becoming superintendents and what we collectively can do about it.

A Good Ol’ Boys Club
When the chief academic officer for a large urban district was appointed as the interim superintendent several years ago, a columnist for the local newspaper wrote about her steep learning curve given she didn’t have a finance background. Bear in mind she had previously served as the chief academic officer following roles as deputy superintendent and director of teaching and learning in similar-sized districts. And while she was in charge of teaching and learning in those roles, the budgets she managed were large and very real — no magic beans involved, just real dollars.

When she left the district the following year, the school board hired a man who had been a superintendent but in a considerably smaller system. Nobody questioned his ability to manage the budget, just as they did not question his salary, which was significantly more than hers had been. This is not to call his qualifications into question but to highlight the fact that his female predecessor’s fitness was questioned at every turn. And this too often is the case still for women superintendents.

THE REMEDY: All of us have the responsibility to question these situations when we see them happening. Remaining silent does not just make us complicit, but it also perpetuates the “good ol’ boys club.” Our male counterparts also must seize opportunities to bring new female superintendents into their networks so they have the collegial support that is so important in these sometimes lonely and isolating jobs. Having someone to call during difficult times or sit with at a conference makes the role just a little easier. And though we are focusing on female superintendents here, this advice certainly holds true for all superintendents.

In addition, superintendents must make purposeful decisions when identifying who in the organization should attend aspiring leaders’ professional development, community events and state and national conferences. How often do we examine the demographics of those whom we are promoting and encouraging into leadership? It can be these deliberate nudges that prompt aspiring leaders to take the next step in their professional journey.

Queen Bee Syndrome

Kristine Gilmore, superintendent of Wisconsin’s D.C. Everest Area School District, with assistant superintendent Casey Nye.

While women often look to other women for mentoring and support, it is a sad reality that we sometimes undermine one another. We have seen too many cases where a female superintendent is reluctant to promote other women into senior leadership roles because she views them as competition. While uncomfortable to acknowledge, we cannot ignore that this happens. However, there may be another reason why women do not do more to promote their female colleagues.

In her Harvard Business Review article last August titled “A Lack of Sponsorship is Keeping Women from Advancing into Leadership,” London Business School Professor Herminia Ibarra addressed the distinction between professional mentorship and sponsorship: “While a mentor is someone who has knowledge and will share it with you, a sponsor is a person who has power and will use it for you.” 

She goes on to explain, however, that the barrier to women having more sponsors in the workplace is that leaders have a limited amount of political capital, which is especially true for women. Using that capital to advocate for the advancement of a colleague means less capital to use elsewhere. This may result in female superintendents not advancing other female colleagues — not out of a fear of competition, but out of concern they need to exert their influence elsewhere.

THE REMEDY: Female superintendents must intentionally sponsor other women into the role, period. This can occur through in-district opportunities or through other programs such as the AASA Aspiring Superintendents Academy for Female Leaders. It is essential that female superintendents offer their time to not simply mentor but also sponsor their female colleagues whether they are in their district or elsewhere. Put simply, those of us in the role must use our positional leadership and political capital to actively advance other women.

School Board and Recruiter Biases
Recently, a highly qualified female central-office administrator who had applied for a neighboring superintendency shared that, when the search firm consultant called to tell her she was the runner-up for the position, the consultant also told her, “Well, the district had a female in the past. Did you really think they would hire two in a row?” Tokenism remains a barrier, as do stereotypes.

When a superintendent position becomes vacant, most school boards turn to a search firm to lead the recruitment and selection process. Some of these are private-sector firms and others function as arms of the state school boards association. When launching a search, some boards carry preconceived notions of what they want in a superintendent. This may include the belief that male superintendents have better fiscal management skills or stronger leadership qualities overall. As the gatekeepers to the superintendency, boards and search firms ought to recognize a “fit” for the district today may differ from the past.

THE REMEDY: Those of us in the superintendent chair have the opportunity and obligation to help our board members understand the importance of female leadership at the school and district levels. We must ask ourselves who we are asking to present in front of the school board and community? How are we talking about our leaders with the board? And for those of us who teach in graduate pro-grams in educational administration or assist search firms in identifying superintendent candidates for open positions, these also are opportunities to actively advance women in the profession.

Motherhood Paradox
Female leaders often feel like it’s a no-win situation whether or not they have children. Prevailing perceptions of motherhood and how these views define a woman’s identity factor into female leaders’ lives in a way that is not true for men.

Going into the superintendency, one female colleague did not recognize how much her parenting choices and priorities would be questioned. Starting the job with three children under the age of 6, she thought her biggest issue would be her ability to juggle both worlds. However, it seemed that if she were attending a late-night event, she was questioned about who was taking care of her children. And if she were at a non-district event for her children, her commitment to the job was questioned as if she was putting family before work.

Interestingly, when we ask our male colleagues if they have faced similar scrutiny, they uniformly report the question never has come up.

Conversely, when those of us in the super­intendency who do not have children make a decision that is unpopular with our constituents, we sometimes hear, “Well of course she would do that because she doesn’t have kids of her own so she just doesn’t get it.”

THE REMEDY: We must change the rules and make the job doable for all parents — mothers and fathers alike. Do we model making time for family and self? Or share how we successfully climbed to the role while balancing the joys and responsibilities of mother-hood? Too often individuals like to point out the struggles of the position versus the positives. We also must challenge those who question our leadership ability based on whether we are parents or not. This should not be a zero-sum game.

Better Path Forward
Strong leadership is essential for student success. Our profession needs the best and brightest to aspire to the superintendency. If we are committed to inspiring more women to serve in the top posts, we must challenge outdated belief systems and practices that have traditionally held women back.

To be clear, this is an issue for us all, male and female alike. We know representation matters, and if the majority of women working in public schools today, from the classroom to the central office, do not see more female superintendents, they will be less likely to envision themselves in the role. All of us must actively sponsor and mentor aspiring female leaders by providing them with connections, guidance, support and leadership opportunities.

This still may not be enough, though. Perhaps it is time to reimagine the role of the superintendency in a way that makes it more manageable and appealing for everyone, but women in particular. For this to happen, those of us in the role today need not only to remain in our positions beyond a couple of years but also to model realistic job expectations by setting the stage for work hours, work-life balance and a family-friendly workplace.

We can rewrite the rules and in doing so ensure that more qualified, committed leaders become superintendents. Our students deserve nothing less.

SUSAN ENFIELD is superintendent of Highline Public Schools in Burien, Wash. KRISTINE GILMORE is superintendent of the D.C. Everest Area School District in Weston, Wis.