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If you are looking for a great opportunity to network with prominent women in school leadership, don’t miss the 2015 AASA/ACSA Women in School Leadership Forum.  This year the forum will be held on October 1-2 at the Coronado Island Marriott Resort and Spa in Coronado, California.

I have attended and presented at this conference in past years and in my experience it is well worth the time to attend both in terms of professional learning and networking opportunities.  The 2015 conference promises to be great.  The presentation strands are:

  • Leading Equity and Accesibility
  • Coaching/Mentoring
  • Balancing Work and Life
  • Instructional Leadership

One tip about this conference – the years that I have been able to bring a team of women from my district were the most productive.  As a group, we were able to ensure that at least one person was in all of the relevant presentations and could share the material with everyone.  We also took the time to de-brief as a group and discuss the most interesting aspects of the presentations we attended.  Finally, we were able to set aside time for district planning time.

Save the dates!  The program is not available yet, but its sure to be another great conference.  Check for updates and the full program in late summer or early fall.

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Developing strong relationships with other female leaders is of the utmost importance for those who already hold administrative positions and as well as for aspiring leaders.  Women can be a support network for each other and can easily learn from one another, which makes the development of professional relationships with your colleagues and those who work for you is essential.  It’s a mistake to believe that you need to only seek and develop relationships with those in the positions you aspire to.  Good relationships at all levels of a school or district are always helpful.  Make it clear to your colleagues that one of the most essential parts of your relationship is their feedback and pushback on your ideas.  You will perfect the art of leadership if you accept the feedback of those you trust.  Similarly, thoughts and ideas can develop if you are willing to share them with others and accept their feedback.

In addition to the professional relationships that we develop, having good relationships with your colleagues often produces a few lifelong friendships.  The long hours you spend at your job and then the further responsibilities you have at home can make it difficult to develop friendships with women outside the field of education.  When we befriend each other, we start with an already established common interest and a passion for teaching and learning.  I’m proud that some of my best friends are former colleagues.  Developing these types of friendships takes the willingness to take a risk and ask someone to do something with you during their precious free time.  I’m a better person professionally and personally because of my close relationships with several of my former colleagues.

Because women are so significantly underrepresented in educational leadership, the development of mentoring relationships is also extremely important.  Remember, a mentor can be a man or a woman and if we are lucky, we have multiple mentors throughout our careers.  I’ve often heard the advice to find someone you admire and to ask him or her to be your mentor.  I have to admit that I’ve never thought that it works in that way.  My mentoring relationships have always grown naturally with colleagues in my school or district.  I’m quite fortunate that my closest mentor is an amazing female superintendent and while she certainly knows that she fills this role in my life,  I have never asked her pointblank to be my mentor.

Several of my colleagues asked how I developed this mentoring relationship and when I reflect on it, I think it was by being extremely supportive of her leadership.  I took her advice, I implemented the things she requested, and I was her biggest fan with the board of education, teachers and other administrators.  I pushed back on a few of her ideas in private, but not in public.  We discussed personal issues and well as professional, and developed trust over time.

I also can’t stress the importance of giving back by mentoring others.  I have made it clear to the administrators on my team that I am personally invested in their careers and that they can consider me a mentor both while we work together and after.  I feel fortunate to have had several mentors throughout my career and feel that it is my obligation to try and help others succeed as well.  When my mentees experience success, it is also a win for me.

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“Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder.”

Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

Sheryl Sandberg may work in the tech industry, but her words ring true for women in education as well.  The traditional career path for educational leaders has been teacher, assistant principal, principal, district office director, assistant superintendent and finally superintendent.  In the past, one job was completely necessary to get the next and most educators would not ever be considered for a job without at least a few years in each of the prerequisite jobs.

This traditional career path is often difficult for women, especially those who are also mothers.  Typically, the transition from assistant principal to principal occurs at a time in careers when people are likely to have young children.  The incredibly long hours that a principal works are often not attractive to women and so, many choose to stay as an assistant principal or to go back to the classroom.

The great news is that the notion of a career ladder is disappearing!  There are many viable options for career paths of leaders in our schools.  I have counseled many talented assistant principals and department chairs to consider a move directly to the district office, usually into a director position.  These jobs are intellectually demanding and require a great deal of skill and finesse but usually without the long hours required by a principal.  Several of the most talented leaders with whom I have had the pleasure to work have moved directly from assistant principal to directors of curriculum, directors of technology and directors of professional development.

In every circumstance where I have asked an assistant principal to move to a job in the district office, they express concern about the “missing” principal job and what they believe will be a gap on their resume.  Again, the great news is that the idea of the “jungle gym” is gaining acceptance.  Career paths aren’t necessarily all the same or a straight shot to the top.  I always counsel administrators to find and take a job that feeds their passion rather than the one that they think they should have next or the one they believe people expect to see on their resume.

In the end, success in our jobs will occur when we are doing something that we find meaningful and important.  For some women, that job is principal and for others it’s a district office job.  Both paths are valid and important and we need to recognize the value and support our colleagues in either choice.

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If women are going to make headway on increasing their representation among the ranks of educational leaders, they have to continue to earn the appropriate credentials, apply for open positions and then successfully navigate the selection process.  One of the first hurdles is the interview.  Despite the fact that almost everyone has been trained not to ask questions about age, race, sex, disability, gender, religion, etc., most women I know have been asked some strange and often illegal questions.  It helps not to be caught off guard by the odd questions that are sometimes posed.

Let’s start with a few real-world examples of strange questions.  These are actual examples of  things that either I or some of my colleagues have been asked:

  • What does your husband (or father in the case of one young applicant) do for a living?
  • Tell me about your childcare arrangements.
  • Do you plan on any leaves in the near future?
  • How would you deal with an office with “too much female energy”?
  • How would you deal with staff members who don’t respect you because you are a woman?
  • If your spouse/partner were offered a job in another state/town, would you move with him?
  • If you take this job, would your spouse/partner move here with you?

As I discussed this issue with my colleagues, we agreed that the best way to handle these types of questions is to remain calm and focused on your qualifications for the job.  Do not display your shock and even if the question is not legal to ask, it’s best not to point out the error interviewer at that time.  Your best bet as the interviewee is to redirect your answer back to the job and why you are a good fit.

For example, if you are asked any one of the questions about your spouse, you may want to briefly mention how supportive he or she is of you and your career and then quickly return to your qualifications based on your skills, experience and passion.  You can also use this as a great opportunity to expand upon a previous answer by saying something like, “my spouse is quite supportive of me so that won’t ever be an issue; however, I would like to take a moment to return to your question about X and add to my response”.

Almost every female administrator who is also a mother has been asked about childcare at some point.  Again, this is best handled in a similar fashion by acknowledging that you and your partner (if you have one) have always had childcare covered and so it is not a worry and then quickly pivot back to discussion about the job and why you are qualified.  In short, the best way to overcome stereotypes or sexism is with concrete examples from your past leadership experiences.

Although it is best not to point out an illegal question in an interview, this is something you may want to follow up on later.  If you accept the job, you won’t want your employer asking questions that could result in legal action at some point.

On a final note, you may want to think about your fit or desire to work in a district or school  where they have asked you odd or unnecessary questions during an interview.   You will want to at least gather more information about the district and the experiences of other women leaders who work there.  Accepting a job that is not a good fit can lead to difficult circumstances or sometimes even disastrous outcomes.  Remember, you are interviewing each other and its ok to wait for the right job at a school or district that will be supportive of your leadership.

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Most think of education as a job field with many opportunities for women.  Although elementary school teaching positions have bee predominantly held by women, the same is not true of high school teaching positions and of school and district leadership positions.  Although the numbers have improved slightly over time, women are still very much under represented in leadership positions, especially at the high school and district office level.

Women in Public Schools, by Job Title and Level
2007-2008 (percentage)

  Elementary Secondary All
Teachers 84.8 59.3 75.9
Principals 58.9 28.5 50.3
Superintendents n/a n/a 21.7

Source:  US Department of Education, National Center for Educational

Statistics, Schools and Staffing Survey


Some have hypothesized that this underrepresentation is because women do not aspire to leadership positions.  However, women have earned the majority of degrees awarded in the field of education.

Female Degrees in Education (percentage)

  Bachelor’s Master’s Doctoral
1979-1980 73.8 70.2 43.9
1989-1990 75.0 75.9 57.3
2003-2004 78.5 76.7 66.1
2006-2007 78.7 77.3 67.5

Source:  US Department of Education, National Center for Educational

Statistics, “Earned Degrees Conferred”

In 2005, The American Association of School Administrators (AASA) commissioned a study regarding women in the role of superintendent.  The researchers, Grogan and Bruner, asked women leaders in education if they aspired to become a superintendent.  They found that 40% of female district office administrators aspire to be a superintendent and that 74% of them had earned or were working on the appropriate credential.  Clearly, the barrier to upper level  leadership positions for women is not the desire for the job.

Unfortunately, the odds are not in favor of women who seek to become superintendents.  A 2007 study by Shakeshaft, Brow, Irby, Grogan & Ballenger found the following factors as barriers to leadership positions for women:

  • Lack of confidence
  • Lack of motivation
  • Family and home responsibility
  • Working conditions & sex discrimination
  • Lack of support, encouragement or counseling

Women who aspire to leadership positions typically held by men learn a few lessons along the way.  Perhaps the most stereotypical is being viewed by as either weak or wicked.  Assertiveness is typically seen as a negative trait in women and often, competent women are viewed as unfeminine.  Many female leaders report that when they make a decision they are labeled as “top down” or a “micromanager” and if they do not make a decision, they are labeled as “weak”.  Under these circumstances, it can be difficult for a woman to find the right balance in style.

As a woman who has held a variety of leadership positions, I have had more than a few occasions where I wondered, would they say that to a man?  Here are just a few examples:

  • Countless comments on clothing, shoes and jewelry including being told I look “lady-like” on a day I wore a pink jacket
  • Being told that wearing my hair straight (as opposed to my natural curl) made me look “softer”
  • Being told that I remind an employee of his mother
  • Hearing a rumor that I must be pregnant
  • Hearing rumors that I must be gay on one day and that I must be having an affair with a male colleague on another day
  • Being told I had a “crush” on a consultant by a board member

Clearly, women face a different set of expectations than men in leadership positions.  Although comments like those above are often unpleasant, it helps to maintain a sense of humor and to know that most people do not mean offense.   As women, its important that we overcome the barriers so that we can lead organizations to doing great things for students.

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