Laurie Kimbrel | Women in Educational Leadership

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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