Education is among the most female-dominated of professions.
Yet strikingly few women make it to the top role in America’s state and district education systems. And along the path to leadership, they face a familiar and frustrating pay gap compared to their male colleagues.
If we want to promote more women into education leadership, it’s incumbent upon us as a nation to stop this pattern of discrimination.
Pay gaps in education start in the classroom and follow women into the principal’s office. For example, a 2018 study in Illinois found that female teachers make, on average, $2,000 less per year than their male colleagues, and the gap grows to $4,000 at the administrative level. This is even though the profession is majority-female up through school districts’ top tier of administrators, called the superintendent’s cabinet.
Two-thirds of school superintendents — and most state education chiefs — are men, and they out-earn their female counterparts by an average of $20,000 to $30,000 per year, according to the Council of the Great City Schools.
We at Chiefs for Change found a similar gender gap of $25,000 when we examined the most recent publicly available salary data for education leaders at the state level. The barriers that keep women from ascending to the top post are many, and we explore them — along with potential solutions — in a recent report.
A particularly unnecessary and easily solved barrier is the pay gap. The causes of the gender wage gap in education are complex and rooted in a long history of women making less than men in every profession, even ones where women have traditionally worked. Regardless of the reasons for why such gaps exist, fixing gender-based pay inequities should be a priority for governors and mayors as well as state and local education boards.
They must send a strong signal that female education leaders unequivocally will receive fair and equal pay.
The low rate of women ascending to education leadership isn’t just a fairness issue; it means that families, students and communities are missing out on their talent. And as our report shows, the issues are even more pronounced for women of color.
At Chiefs for Change, we are working to train diverse leaders and help them build networks so that our schools can benefit from the talent they’ve been missing out on. We have called on states and cities to step up and address the gender gap in the hiring of school and state-level leadership. One part of that is doing away with wage discrimination at the top.
Our report calls for several changes that can help in this effort, particularly the creation of more family-friendly policies like limiting evening and weekend meetings, offering child care and related transportation, helping with spouse/partner job searches, and crafting compensation packages to include benefits that explicitly attend to the health and well-being of the chief. There is no reason why the role of a chief — who oversees schools for the benefit of children and the well-being of a community — should be at odds with the care of children or a healthy individual lifestyle for the person sitting in that position.
In schools, we tell all children that they can be anything they want. It’s a striking irony, then, that the leaders of our school systems — district superintendents and state chiefs — are so commonly white and male and earn more than their female counterparts.
We are squandering the potential of many of the nation’s most talented education leaders, and it’s time to change that. A good place to start? Paychecks.
This story about women education leaders was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Julia Rafal-Baer is Chief Operating Officer of Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district education chiefs. A former assistant commissioner in the New York State Education Department, Rafal-Baer earned a Ph.D. in education policy from the University of Cambridge, where she was a Marshall Scholar. She began her career as a special-education teacher in the Bronx.