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Many men reacted to the choice of Sen. Kamala Harris as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee too predictably. Former U.S. Education Secretary Bill Bennett told Fox News she was “rough” and “vicious.” One of her most notable faults was being “a very ambitious person.”

Even some Democratic backers worried, behind the scenes, that Harris is too ambitious, because her goal has been to become president — as if male vice-presidential nominees haven’t ever harbored the exact same hope for their own careers.

Anyone who insults a woman who pursues a leadership position as being too ambitious has an agenda of their own — sexism. But it’s an agenda that permeates nearly every institution in this nation, including the one in charge of teaching girls what to aim for in life: our public schools.

Just 27 percent of superintendents are women; women account for 76 percent of public school teachers.

While the vast majority of teachers are women, it’s hard for women to move up into leadership roles in the public-school system. Women have to work harder and longer to become principals, and the gender gap is even bigger for the jobs with the most power: superintendents. According to a 2020 study published by the AASA, referred to as the School Superintendents Association, at least two thirds of superintendents are white men; only 27 percent are women. Based on a survey of nearly 2,000 school superintendents across the United States, the decennial study examines national trends in demographics, professional development, equity and other factors related to superintendents’ working lives.

We need more women with ambition to take leadership positions in education if we truly want to uproot the kind of sexism now aimed at our first Black and Asian-American vice-presidential nominee and teach our kids that the upper reaches of power are not a male-only domain.

The AASA report found that the share of women who lead districts is rising incrementally, but steadily, from 24.1 percent in 2010 to 26.68 percent in 2020. That’s more than double the percentage of female superintendents documented in 2000 (13.1 percent), according to the education news site Education Dive. However, the percentage of women who serve as superintendents is in stark contrast to the percentage of women in the teaching ranks. Women represented approximately 76 percent of public school teachers in 2017-18, with a lower percentage of male teachers at the elementary school level (11 percent) than at the secondary school level (36 percent), according to the National Center for Education Statistics

The AASA report also found that the percentage of people of color in superintendent jobs is lopsided compared to the demographics of both the students they serve and teachers they oversee. Fewer than 9 percent of survey respondents identified as people of color in 2020. This is up slightly from 6 percent in 2010 and 5 percent in 2000. Among Black, Latino, Asian and Native-American superintendents, approximately 42 percent are women. 

Related: Black women teachers need better working conditions 

Anyone who insults a woman who pursues a leadership position as being too ambitious has an agenda of their own — sexism.

Representation matters. Our social identities influence decisions about how resources are distributed among various communities. The people in leadership determine who is awarded contracts, prestige, control and money. Calling women ambitious as an insult maintains the narrative that men are born leaders, pre-ordained by a higher power or testosterone to rule, and is a poorly veiled campaign to preserve gender hierarchies and hoard wealth and power.

Black Women’s Equal Pay Day was observed last week, highlighting the fact that Black women must work until August 13, 2020 to earn what white men earned by the end of 2019. This pay gap accounts for almost $1 million loss in lifetime earnings. Because wealth is a driver of health, education and other quality-of-life measures, women’s striving for equity shouldn’t be described pejoratively as being ambitious. Aiming for leadership is also about survival.

Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress in 1968 and, in 1972, the first woman and Black person to seek the nomination for president of the United States from one of the two major political parties, famously said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” If you see more women sitting in folding chairs at next school board meeting in your area, don’t say they are ambitious. Say, “About damn time.”

This column about superintendents was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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  1. As a 50 year old AA female growing up in the Biblebelt, being ambitious was a curse in itself. As a little girl I had a whimsical imagination and prolific writing skills. I wound doddle and write for hours on hand…looking out of my bedroom window I would travel the world. I would often fantasize and see myself everywhere yes everywhere and I could do everything.
    Growing up in church listening to bible stories from my pastor deepened my desire for beauty, abundance and opulence. My childhood pastor is the greatest storyteller I’ve ever heard til today!! So I learned to dream BIG!! Just have faith and believe God for the outcome.
    Unfortunately, the world wasn’t ready for this ambitious, brown girl with a twinkle in her eyes. See, I wasn’t just dreaming, I was planning. I had major plans for my life.
    As I began to develop and wanted to precede in real-time on my dreams and plans there were obstacles. I was often told NO! Pretty girls don’t take auto mechanics they take typing … but I like fixing things that are broken. Pretty girls don’t play basketball they enter pageants…. but I enjoy sports. Pretty girls don’t join the military… they get raped…but I wanna learn top secrets, too.

    When you’re in primary school girls are thought to develop their imagination but limited on its uses. As I began to mature into a young lady I got push back from both male and female adults. I received little to no support and was redirected to a more suitable profession “nursing”. That was never my dream but someone else’s dream for me. Women could not be successful leaders, not in the Bible belt. See women couldn’t stand in the pulpit and they must have their heads covered…when in church.
    “Women are to be seen and not heard”
    So today I’m fighting a mental battle just to continue to believe in myself. I want to encourage and empower all females to discover your innate talents and explore all opportunities. Dream Big!~ M23

  2. Women do aspire to be school leaders and superintendents. Educational leadership programs are dominated by women, and more than half of all K-12 principals are women. Women are in the pipeline, they are simply not selected for the position by key gatekeepers. It is simplistic to say that women need to be more ambitious because ambition alone does merit a promotion. In addition, organizational norms provide a system of advantages for men and disadvantage women. Furthermore, women are subject to the sociocultural boundaries of our society. Superintendents are hired by school boards, and gender stereotypes about men and women leaders influence hiring decisions.

    We do not need more ambitious women, they already exist. Women are not at fault for their lack of representation in educational leadership, however, your column suggests they are – if only they were more ambitious, the problem would be solved! It is so much more complex than that.

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