Closing the Gender Gap in Educational Leadership

From coast to coast, men are replacing women in education leadership at alarming rates.

By: Julia Rafal-Baer

The pandemic has impacted every facet of American education and the consequences, both academic and beyond, could reverberate for decades to come. But while much of the focus of the pandemic’s effects has been on classroom experiences and learning acceleration among students who need it most, there is another crisis stemming from COVID-19: staggering turnover rates among school superintendents — and the corresponding gender equity gap in district leadership.

Over the course of the past year, my team conducted a first-of-its-kind analysis to look at the issue closely. Since March 2020, 39 percent of the 500 largest school districts in the country have undergone or are currently undergoing leadership changes, an alarming number at a time when school systems need steady leadership and stability. Leadership changes can be disruptive to districts and their staff, and that level of disruption in central offices takes districts’ attention away from where it needs to be: on our students.

But the issue is not just that turnover is happening; it’s that men are replacing women at alarming rates. From coast to coast, the gender gap is worsening dramatically in education leadership.

Our research found that of the 83 percent of districts that have completed superintendent transitions and appointed a new superintendent since the pandemic began, 70 percent of those replacements have been men. That means the cumulative proportion and share of male leaders in the largest school districts increased from 65 to 69 percent. Further, in those districts where female superintendents left during the pandemic, 76 percent were replaced by men.

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As a sector, we seem to be oblivious to this alarming national trend.

It’s also worsened within the last 12 months. Since July 1, 2021, 44 of the 500 largest school districts in the country have announced that their superintendent will be outgoing at the end of the year. Of the 17 who have named a replacement as of March 2022, 16 have been men.

For decades, women have fought an uphill battle when it comes to serving in leadership positions in a K-12 education system built deliberately by and for white men during a very different time in our country. Despite the education workforce being dominated by women, inequities persist at the top levels.

In fact, although women make up the vast majority of the workforce in schools—76 percent of teachers are women—the number of women drops to less than one-third at the superintendent level and our research shows that this trend is only getting worse for women.

At first blush, there appears to be a silver lining at the state level: Right now, women make up the majority (53 percent) of those serving in state-level superintendent positions. And proportionally, there are actually far more female state superintendents than there are women leaders within the top 500 largest districts. But a closer look reveals that the women holding these jobs at the state level are being paid up to 26 percent less than men. If we truly want to eliminate gender-based inequities, we need to immediately address the pay gap.

Inequities in hiring and pay persist in part because of societal factors. Stereotypes about the capabilities of women continue to abound even in 2022, and definitions of “leadership” predicated on traits associated with men continue to be dominant. We also know that women typically take on a disproportionate share of family and elder caretaking responsibilities, and that has an impact as well.

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Longstanding systemic forces coupled with a widespread unawareness of the problem across the field are delivering these outcomes. All of it culminates in systemic discrimination in American education.

But importantly, this isn’t just about fairness. Representation matters to children, educators, central office staff and anyone in education, particularly as we work to reimagine an education system that better serves all of our kids. Millions of children need to see themselves in district leadership.

If we want to shatter the glass ceilings in other sectors and make good on our promise to students that they can indeed grow up to be anything they set their minds to, we also need to recognize the systemic obstacles that exist in our own field. We, as a society, cannot simultaneously strive for full equality across the nation without addressing it in education.

As we work toward helping a generation of children recover from the pandemic, we have to keep an unwavering focus on the academic crisis, the student mental health crisis, the exhaustion caused by the past two years that educators and leaders are experiencing, and the innovations that could help mitigate generational catastrophes for the next generation of Americans.

But we also need to ensure that our education leaders reflect the diversity of the systems and students they represent and that they are compensated equally in those roles. It’s the right thing to do, and our students deserve to benefit from the full pool of talent to help navigate the obstacles and opportunities that lie ahead.

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