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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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The true measure of any superintendent or leadership team should be rooted in student achievement.  As a superintendent, I was fortunate to work in a district that was not only successful but more importantly, engaged in a process of continuous improvement.  State testing and measures showed a continued pattern of increases in student achievement and Advanced Placement passing rates were significantly above state and national averages even as the program continued to grow and access to non-traditional students expanded.  Similarly, student performance on the SAT and ACT measures grew over the seven years of my tenure. Although we celebrated our success, data were used primarily to plan for the future and to improve student outcomes.  If the purpose of a school district is the ensure that every student learns at high levels, then the best way to measure success of the individuals in that system is through student achievement.  When asked how we should be evaluated as leaders, the answer should always be that we should be held accountable for student growth.

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Leadership in education requires a collaborative, team approach. As a superintendent, it was my responsibility to create a team to lead in the direction set for us by the Board of Trustees.   This work began by assembling a team of individuals with a variety of skill sets and backgrounds but with a shared and unwavering belief that all students can learn at high levels and that it is our collective responsibility to ensure that it occurs.  Our leadership team cared about one another personally and professionally and were committed a collaborative style in which we brought ideas from conception to implementation as a supportive team.  Our meetings were focused on student learning and were a safe place to problem solve, reflect, share and give constructive feedback.  My own success as a superintendent was a reflection of my team’s growth and accomplishments.

School leadership should be inclusive of the teacher voice.  As a superintendent, I worked to establish a reliable system of teacher leadership.  When I came to the district it quickly became apparent that teachers saw themselves and their work as separate and distinctly different than administrators.  There was little understanding of leadership and no structures to work together.  In order to flatten the organizational structure, we worked with the union to negotiate new teacher leader positions so that we could have the power to work together to create a Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum and improve instruction.  Once the structure was created and the positions filled, we invested in several years of significant professional development in order to build the leadership capacity of our teacher leaders.  The end result was a newfound collaboration between all staff members on behalf of our students.

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