Public school teaching remains a female-dominated profession. Nearly 80 percent of classroom teachers in our public schools are women. Yet when it comes to the top job — superintendent — just three in 10 are women.
Nearly half of the country’s 500 largest school districts had a change in leadership during the pandemic, but men still filled more than 70 percent of those vacancies, research by Women Leading Ed, a national network working to grow and strengthen the pipeline of women in education leadership, found. And men often replaced women in the districts where women had been leading — seven out of 10 times.
These are alarming and discouraging numbers. But they don’t have to be the end of the story.
We can strengthen gender equity in education leadership by actively supporting women who aspire to be leaders, opening professional doors for them and changing systems and policies that thwart their ascension to positions of power.
During my own leadership journey to become a superintendent, I have seen first-hand the attrition of talented women in our profession. I have also seen how sponsors, mentors and the inclusion of aspiring female leaders in key decision-making roles can be powerful tools for addressing these unacceptable imbalances, along with thoughtful approaches to gender equity in hiring and promotion.
As a teacher, I worked with about as many male principals as female — which is standard for the roughly 50/50 split nationally. However, central offices were always male dominated.
That continues to be the case in too many of our public school districts.
The lack of representation in leadership meant that when I did get a central office leadership position, I felt a constant need to prove I was worthy of being there. I believed I had to demonstrate daily that I wasn’t only just as good as but even better than my male colleagues.
Imposter syndrome, discussed across many professions, is something I felt and had to grapple with as I rose from building principal to head of curriculum, chief academic officer and beyond. I persisted thanks to sponsorships, through which my professional superiors actively opened doors for me, created trusting leadership environments and encouraged me to see myself in the female leaders who were in positions above me.
I was fortunate to have dedicated and dynamic sponsors and mentors. These leaders, women and men, not only took me under their wings, but gave me the chance to spread my own, even when my title at the time may not have matched the specific requirements of a given leadership opportunity.
Long before I became the superintendent of the school system that I attended as a child and in which I began my teaching career, I had mentors. My predecessor, Sharon Contreras, didn’t just name me her deputy, she gave me broad exposure to new challenges and management assignments.
She and other colleagues encouraged me to “just get in there and lead.” It was vital advice.
Women in leadership must often take their own seat at the table. That can mean inserting yourself into meetings and discussions even when your name isn’t on the invitation.
I believed I had to demonstrate daily that I wasn’t only just as good as but even better than my male colleagues.
It can also mean actively seeking opportunities well outside your official job description. When I served as head of academics for the district I now lead in North Carolina, I would ask another sponsor of mine if I could join meetings on facilities, operations and finance.
She always said yes and pulled me into an increasingly broader set of meetings and management decisions.
Sponsorship works, and as a woman in education leadership I am committed to paying it forward. This is a commitment I know countless of my female colleagues share.
However, there are also systemic levers that we can and must pull in order to bring about real gender equity in education leadership and in leadership as a whole.
Focusing on the composition and function of hiring teams is a good place to start — reexamining who is on hiring committees, what authority each team member holds and who determines the initial hiring pool are all opportunities for placing greater emphasis on gender equity.
Once women are on the job, ensuring that workplace policies and programs support and facilitate their growth and tenure in leadership is similarly paramount.
The reality is that women are more likely to be primary caregivers not only for children but for other family members too. As a mother of two with a job with 24/7 responsibilities, I know that so-called mom-guilt is real and corrosive if not acknowledged and addressed.
So, despite my real and important professional obligations, I make time for my family and demand that our policies encourage my colleagues in leadership and our school staff to do so as well.
Without that understanding, and without ensuring that people have space to meet the demands of their personal lives and make their loved ones the priorities they should be, we will continue to push too many talented, aspiring women leaders out before they can ascend to higher positions.
Well-administered family leave policies, flexible schedules and common decency and understanding can go a long way. The job needs to get done, but we can and must have humane workplace practices as we collectively do the work.
Paying it forward, pulling on the levers of policy change available to us and making gender equity in leadership an intentional priority all helped me and have been drivers of growth for countless women in leadership that I know.
It takes no great leap of imagination to see how powerful these changes could be for gender equity in leadership. The solutions are right there for us.
We simply need to just get in there and lead.
Whitney Oakley is superintendent of Guilford County Schools in North Carolina.
This story about women leadership in education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.