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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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Community support is an integral component of the success of schools.  Most communities have very high expectations for schools and also desire high quality information and the opportunity for input.  As a superintendent, I led a team that spent a significant amount of time and energy to improve our communication systems to ensure ongoing community support.  Enhancements to our communication included:

  • Parent advisory councils at school and district level
  • A variety of ad hoc community committees including Alternative Program Advisory Committee, Wellness Committee, Citizens Oversight Committees for Bonds
  • Key Communicator Network of over 2,000 community leaders who received regular updates about the district
  • Board meetings at various locations in district to increase public participation
  • Social media presence – superintendent blog, twitter, school Facebook pages
  • Website enhancements and regular updates
  • Video communication and messaging regarding district mission and process of continuous improvement

An investment in communication should be seen as an opportunity to create or maintain the support of the community.  All community members, whether or not they are parents, want to understand how their tax dollars are being spent and how the schools are enhancing the value of the area.


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High quality systems seek high quality staff and invest in their development and success.  With the support of the board of education, in my role as a Superintendent, we were able to spend a significant amount of time and financial resources in developing the skills of our staff.  Highlights of our programs included:

  • A two-year new teacher program that consisted of training in curriculum development, high quality instruction and integration of technology. In addition, an experienced teacher mentor was assigned to each new teacher.
  • Instructional Technology Teacher Collaborative. This was a two-year, voluntary program for experienced teachers focused on problem/project based learning and technology integration.  In only three years about 1/3 of our tenured teachers participated in this program.
  • Tam Leadership Collaborative. This group included all administrators and teacher leaders.  Training has focused on developing the skills to facilitate the work of curriculum development and instructional improvement.

The investment in training staff is one of the best that we can make as we seek to improve our schools.  Teachers inherently want to learn and grow and sought a career in education to help others.  Most are eager to participate in development programs that will enhance their skills as professionals.

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