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Women In School District Leadership: Rarer Than You Think

Let’s conduct a little thought experiment.

First, imagine your third-grade teacher. Hold that memory in your head.

Second, call to mind your high school principal. Got it? Good.

Now, conjure up the image of the superintendent of the school district you live in or attended as a young person.

The first person you recalled, your grade school teacher, was almost certainly a woman. Nearly 8 in 10 public school teachers are women.

The odds of your high school principal, the second person, being a man or a woman are about even. Slightly more men were principals than women until around 2000. Since then the numbers have flipped: about 55 percent of principals are now women, about 45 percent are men.

The last person you thought of, the superintendent of the school district, was very likely a man and that still holds broadly true, according to data just released by AASA—the School Superintendents Association. While the gender imbalance at the top job in the district has improved from the 1980s when 90+ percent were men, just over 1 in 4 superintendencies today are held by women—with women of color representing just a small proportion of that total. Disappointingly, despite progress from the 1990s through 2010, that number has not moved appreciably across nearly a decade and a half.

During the pandemic, things actually went in the wrong direction. According to researchers at the woman-owned ILO Group, of the 154 school districts that made leadership transitions during the pandemic, 70 percent of the newly appointed superintendents were men. Of the 51 female leaders who left their roles during the pandemic, 39 of them, or 76 percent, were replaced by men.

Somewhat surprisingly, if we look beyond the superintendency, we again see greater gender parity. In recent decades, local school boards have begun to approach gender parity despite a history of male dominance. Chief state school officers are similarly improved: about half of top state officials, including D.C. and U.S. territories, are women.

So what’s lost by this gender imbalance in the district superintendency? What would students, schools and communities gain by having more women leading school districts?

A lot, as it happens. Superintendents sit at the very top of local school districts, setting strategic direction, guiding curriculum decisions, setting standards and overseeing personnel decisions down to the school level. A superintendent can transform a failing district or lose gains achieved by their predecessor. The personal experience, skills and perspective that these leaders bring are essential factors in their effectiveness.


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