Posted by: Jonelle Brown | January 24, 2020

Women as Leaders in Public Education

As a future educator myself, I have been interested in learning more about the lack of female leaders in education, particularly in the public school system. I have considered even becoming a school administrator or member of a local school board, should I choose to stay within the public school system. Not only are there a lack of female superintendents and principals, but there are an even fewer number of black women or women of color in these positions today.

Of our nation’s 13,728 superintendents, 1,984 today are women. Yet 72 percent of all K-12 educators in this country are women, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

When you think of teachers that you’ve had throughout your primary and secondary school career, do you generally think of female or male teachers? According to a 2017 article by Kirsten Schmitz entitled, “Where Are All the Female Superintendents,” the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) produced a report in 2016 that shows that about 76% of teachers are women, yet the vast majority of superintendents today (about 77%) are male. Although the percentage of female superintendents has improved since their 2000 survey, in which only 13.2 percent of superintendents identified as women, the data still shows that women dominate classroom spaces but not top-tier administrative spaces. When you include women of color into this conversation, the statistics are even lower.

“As a whole, people of color make up just 8.1 percent of district superintendents. Men of color represent just 5.5 percent of school leaders, while women of color, just 10.8 percent” (Schmitz). This discrepancy is reflected not just in the lack of gender and racial equality, but wage gaps as well.  “On average, women earn 80 cents for every dollar paid to their male peers…for every dollar paid to white men, African American women earn only 63 cents, and Latinas only 54 cents” (Schmitz). Therefore, one can conclude that female superintendents and principals are not only represented less, but they are also paid less, especially if they are a woman of color. This is substantial because as a woman of color myself, the likelihood of me or anyone like me earning a higher position within the education sphere is shockingly low, although there are steady improvements every year.

Another finding from the AASA survey is that while women make up a majority of the teaching profession, women who do eventually work their way up the tier enter leadership roles later in life, and with more experience than men. So why aren’t there more female superintendents and principals? The 2000 AASA survey results argue that this is due to a few reasons:

  • Women are not in positions that normally lead to the superintendency
  • Women are not gaining superintendent’s credentials in preparation programs
  • Women are not as experienced nor as interested in district-wide fiscal management as men
  • Women are not interested in the superintendency for personal reasons
  • School boards are reluctant to hire women superintendents
  • Women enter the field of education for different purposes (other than superintendency)
  • Women enter the leadership realm too late

While some of these seem more obvious than others, I would hope that more recent data would disprove or show changes in these results that are geared less towards societal pressures on women. This report also deduced some strategies for recruiting or attracting more women, such as: changing the nature of the job to be less stressful and pressure-filled (which could also be improved with an increase of funding); allowing women superintendents to excel in more hands-on activities or external monitoring than currently exists; providing further incentives for women to gain the necessary certification; and lastly, providing incentives for districts to hire more women and minority superintendents.

I hope that in the future, women across the world are able to gain more access to positions that could best serve them — especially at the top of the decision-making tier. Have you ever experienced a female administrator, principal, or superintendent, and if so, how did that shape your educational experience? What are some arguments that you could make to justify the inclusion of women at the administrative table?


  1. When I was in middle school I had a principal that was a woman. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but looking back I think it made my middle school experience much better than if it had been a man. I felt comfortable talking to her and seeing her in the halls. She was very caring but was also able to show effective leadership. I remember one day my best friend had moved away suddenly and another friend and I were upset that we had not gotten to say goodbye. Our principal noticed we were upset and let us eat lunch with her in her office. That is something I will never forget, and something that I don’t think a man would have done. She even went on to be a superintendent my 8th grade year. However, she was replaced with a man. I think it is great that she was able to move up in education, but as a superintendent, young ladies no longer see her in the leadership position.

  2. When reading your post, I was interested in looking into the requirements of becoming a superintendent of a school district to see if there are other factors besides those that the AASA survey mentioned as why there are not as many female superintendents. According to Cournoyer, a news contributor to, many states (i.e. Colorado, North Carolina, Utah, etc.) are starting to enact laws that allow people without a master’s in teaching or even experience in teaching, become superintendents. The article discusses how there are programs that offer alternative ways to obtaining a superintendent certification, such as receiving training from the Broad Superintendents Academy (Cournoyer, 2011). However, it is important to note that most states still have laws stating that the superintendent has to have a master’s or bachelor’s degree in education and is required to have a certain amount of teaching experience. To me, that should be a no-brainer to give the superintendent role to an experienced professional in that field, such as women and men who have served as teachers first. Now I can also see the other side of the argument, where a school district may hire a professional with certain skills in management and finance to head the district to better elevate its status or aspects of the educational system of that district that lacks particular strength.

    Thus, I do not think the overarching reason for why we do not see as many women in the superintendent position is due to personal reasons or disinterest in the financial aspect of it; yet, maybe it is because by opening the position to people without teaching experience or qualifications, more competition is created for the job, which can cause possible limitations for women teachers who are seeking a promotion and leadership role but did not originally desire to be an administrator/principal or superintendent when initially entering the field. In some respects, this is a prime example of the labyrinth analogy expressed by Eagley & Carli (2007, pp. 5-8), where the path to reaching a leadership position in certain fields, especially for women, is indirect and not always fair. It is almost as if you have had to already know from the onset that you would want to become a superintendent. Even though most states follow the logical progression of qualifications to be a superintendent of a district (i.e. have teacher experience and a degree in education), there are still those discreet hurdles that exist for women in the education sector.

    Eagley, A. H. & Carli, L. L. (2007). Is there still a glass ceiling? In Through the labyrinth: The truth about how women become leaders (pp.1-8). Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

    Cournoyer, C. (2011). Do superintendents need classroom experience? Governing: The future of states and localities. Retrieved from

  3. I also am a future educator! I want to eventually go into more of education policy or an administrative role but I feel it is extremely important to start in a classroom. But I was very interested in learning more about this and reading this post and comments. I also have had this question on my mind – where are the female superintendents? I think there can be multiple answers to this. It is not as simple as they aren’t qualified. I think there is a deeper lack of ambition for a lot of female teachers – not because they wouldn’t be capable or do a good job, but because they haven’t seen female superintendents as a reality. Perhaps this makes them more accepting – probably subconsciously – of there role below the hirer ups.

    This quote is from Sarah Baray who is the CEO of Pre-K 4 SA that capture what I am trying to say –
    “One of the things that we know about leadership development is there are some people who will step forward naturally and say, ‘I want to be a leader,’ because they have been socialized to believe that is a role that is available to them,” she said. “There are other people who would be excellent leaders but … if they have not seen leaders who look like them, they would be less inclined to put themselves out there.”

    Like Gabby mentioned, this shows elements of the labyrinth that one might not think of initially, but a simple lack of representation might deter a lot of competent women leaders from going after this “out-of-reach” position.

    It is very interesting to think about what kind of implications the leaders in public school districts are showing to their young girls whether intended or not.

  4. I really appreciate that this is something we are discussing because my county back home has yet to have a female superintendent. Similar to what has been said, women and men do not have an equal place in the school system. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, ASCD, and AASA, although women make up 76.3% of public elementary and secondary school teachers, they only make up 27% of superintendents. I do not think this is because these women are “less qualified” than their male counterparts or because they are not “interested” in these higher positions. In a 2016 article written in the Education Week online database, it was mentioned that these women have few opportunities to network or gain advice about how to obtain superintendent positions; therefore, because they have no foot in the door, they cannot even get close to being considered for the positions. Women are not being advised by other women on how to get better positions and they are also not getting to see people who look like them in positions of high authority. Not to mention, “women often face scrutiny men don’t…they are told to smile more, their appearances are critiqued” and therefore they are discouraged from wanting these positions. I have only had one female principal, and truthfully I did not like her very much because she felt like a bossy old woman to me. Now I see that besides childish immaturity, this feeling was also likely in part due to the expectations that are set on women and how they are often not encouraged to reach for promotions in their jobs. Women have to live up to even more expectations than men because they are expected to be “gentle” and “nice” while men are allowed to be “tough” because it is more in their “nature”. I think few girls are encouraged to take on positions that are traditionally seen as “male-dominated”. We see this in other jobs in public spheres: news, politics, and anything STEM-related. I think continuing this dialogue will lead to more change and if we encourage the women in our lives to run after their dreams, no matter how “lofty” they may seem, the numbers will start to reflect that.

  5. Reading this post really made me think back to my primary and secondary education experience. Thinking back, I definitely had a majority of my teachers that were female. Almost all of my teachers, especially the ones who really had an impact on my life, were females. There were little to no male teachers until I reached college. I was lucky, however, to have a female principle in both elementary and middle. And to be honest, they did way better than my male principle in high school. Looking back, the two female principles I had were way more liked than the male principle. They were way more adored and loved by the student body. I am not brining this up because I’m trying to say women are better than men at these positions. I bring it up because I find it interesting and shocking that women have had principle positions and are loved yet there is still such an imbalance in the ratio of men to women.
    It is shocking that still in 2020 women are having trouble getting positions of higher power. Women have more access to entry level jobs, yet they are still struggling to reach the top. This is truly the case in education. There are more women teachers than men, which show they are getting these lower-level positions. However, it is obvious that they are still not reaching positions of power because there are way more men superintendents and principals. It makes me wonder what other professions this is happening to. I’m sure this happens in other industries to. I know in film it is much harder for women to become directors and producers than men. You see way more male producers and directors at the top than women. This just goes to show that women have a harder time reaching these levels of higher power because they have a labyrinth to go through in order to reach the top.
    To get back to answering your question of justifying the inclusion of women at the administrative table, there should absolutely be more females represented. Without more women being present at the administrative table in schools, we are missing their knowledge and leadership. Until women are more represented in administration, there will not have an equal say in how school operate and in the education of children. Although there are a lot of female teachers, they have to answer to a majority male principles and superintendents.

  6. Firstly, I want to discuss my experience with female administrators. In elementary school I remember fearing the vice-principal because I rarely saw her smile and she almost always had a gruff look on her face. Conversely, in high school I had a male principal; he always smiled at students as he walked the halls, participated in school events such as dunk tank fundraisers and student talent competitions, and made it a point to memorize students’ names. Looking back with more education and experience, I have begun to speculate the differences in these two leaders.
    Since my high school principal was a man, he didn’t have to prove to students that he could be stern and a rule enforcer when he needed to be, so he had the freedom to express his more feminine emotions. The opposite was true for my female elementary school vice principal. She was vice principal during all of my six years at the school dating back to 2005. Perhaps she felt like she had something to prove being a female in a male dominated role or perhaps she wanted to ensure that her disciplinary actions be respected, so she put on an “I mean business” exterior to achieve this. Whatever it may be, I do think there are very different pressures that are placed on males and females in these higher administrative positions.
    As for the importance of including women in these administrative positions, I refer back to the Wilson excerpt in which she discusses that the change for women in leadership now focuses on changing the culture. Having these women in high administrative positions shows kids form an early age that this is a possibility and normalizes women in these leadership positions. The more you are exposed to things as a child and as you grow up, the more normalized they become.

    Wilson, Marie C. (2007). Closing the Leadership Gap. New York: Penguin.

  7. I too hope this statistic will change in the modern world. I believe it could be due to the notion that women should be nurturing homemakers, therefore, in the field of education, the role of women is supposed to involve working directly with students in the position of their teacher. Men, on the other hand, are tough and can deal with difficult issues per the typical stereotypes. Therefore, it is thought that men should take over the difficult tasks of management and leadership. However, in my own personal experience, I had only female administrators, superintendents, and principals for most of my school years. My last year of high school I had my first male principal. It was an interesting dynamic because though I never thought anything of it at the time, looking back, their were clear distinctions to my experience. The women were known to be more approachable and nurturing. All in all, closer to the students than the men by taking on mothering roles to the students. However, because they were leaders, they seemed overly assertive, dominant, colder than other women. The male principal I had seemed more competent for the job based on his gender alone according to the community. He was assertive and dominant and easily managed the student population. However, he was not as nurturing or close with the students. Women certainly dominated the teaching field. I did not have my first male teacher until middle school. Typically I’d only have one male teacher a year compared to the large number of males I am sure were in the administration. Seeing the women lead made me see women leadership as more normal than some students would typically observe. I think this exemplifies the need for women leaders to provide examples for children in the education field to look up to, to influence their future careers. Personally, I am unsure I would be pursuing such a intensive future career path if it were not for my prominent examples of women leadership in my life.

  8. When I was in elementary school, I had a female principal. To be honest, I don’t really remember much about her. I found her a bit scary and intimidating, but that’s how I felt toward all authority figures. Additionally, both my parents work in elementary schools under female principals. I feel like when dealing with primary schools, I have encountered mostly female principals, which makes some sense considering the majority of elementary school teachers are women. However, when moving up to middle and high school, male principals are more common, at least in my experience. I remember my first year of high school, we had a female principal. She was widely nicknamed “miss man” by students both because of her appearance; she was really tall and didn’t really smile much, and because of her mannerisms. She was not really the warm, motherly figure that is typically expected of women, and therefore was deemed manlike. After she left, we got a male principal who was overall very well liked by students. He was pretty involved with school activities and put forth effort to get to know the students. In my first year of high school, with the female principal, she was not really a central part of the school and for the most part went unnoticed. The man, however, was highly regarded and was a well known figure in the school.
    As someone who wants to go into education, I think it is important to have superintendents and principals who have direct experience with teaching in the classroom and the politics of education. Since teaching is a female dominated field, I do find it strange, though not surprising, that there are not more women in leadership positions since they surely have the capabilities to do it. Education has the dynamic with females at the forefront of the subordinate roles, with mostly men actually in charge. I do not think that there is a shortage of women interested in superintendent and other leadership roles, considering the sheer amount of women in education. Having more women in these leadership roles would allow for new ideas and policy to surface as well as show students and others looking from the outside that women are capable of leading.

  9. The only principal or superintendent that I had while in grades K-12 was in elementary school. My principle was loved by everyone and spent every morning welcoming the students to school. The principals and superintendents I had during both middle school and high school took a more managerial role and were rarely seen besides pubic announcements and disciplinary interactions. Due to my experience it makes sense to me that women may not want to become principals and superintendents because it is a very different job than being a teacher. However, rather than not becoming principal and superintendent I would encourage the idea of changing the job and role of these positions, making them more student oriented considering those are the people they are trying to help. I think the idea that women just do not want to become superintendents and principles over simplify the complexity of the problem that is the lack of women in higher level positions in the education system.

  10. Through elementary, middle school, and high school, I only ever remember having one female principal. She was the principal of my high school, and I do remember people being somewhat afraid of her. The reasons that were used for why there are not more female superintendents seemed to not really explain the discrepancy since it sounds like there are not structures in place in which women are able to get those certifications as easily. I wonder if there are any programs being pushed in Virginia to improve this number? Or if other states have had success in increasing the number of female superintendents they have?

  11. I think your post really emphasizes the points of several readings completed for class: Women often are not placed in roles of leadership, and women of color are at a greater disadvantage in this than white women.

    In response to your paragraph on discrepancies in pay between female and male superintendents: Is it possible that women are not being paid as much in these leadership roles because they are not negotiating their salaries as much as men do? I’ve often heard and remember from our reading that women often accept the salaries given to them while men are more likely to negotiate.

    In response to your comment about women getting hired later in life with more experience than men. Why are men getting hired earlier with less experience? To me, this is an obvious display of the double bind from our readings today. Women are held to higher standards of competence and expected to have more experience in order to acquire leadership roles compared to men. In general, I feel that the reasons this article lists regarding why women are not hired as superintendents more often more has to do with bias against women leadership rather than any personal reasons or disinterest in the job that women may have.

    In response to strategies for hiring more women: Are they assuming (the writers) that women want less stressful jobs than men? How do they quantify stressful? I.e. are they implying that women are not as capable of handling thi stressful job compared to men? In general, many of the strategies they suggest seem to involve “feminizing” a more traditionally “masculine” job which in my own opinion, is not the problem. They seem to have a hard time acknowledging how difficult it is for women to acquire leadership positions compared to men.

    In general, this article you’ve cited seems to be very biased against women by not considering possible issues regarding gender in this position rather than personal reasons for not taking a job while also assuming women are not as capable of holding a “stressful job”.

  12. Thank you for bringing up this issue, as it is one that is very near to my heart. I think that not only is this statistic shocking, but also very sad in terms of the education profession as a whole. As women, we are told in so many different aspects that “our characteristics” are being caring and nurturing, which are very beneficial in terms of the field of education and working with students of all ages. Therefore, one would think that the administration in the field of education would also reflect this want for women as educators. However as stated above, this is not the case. This is also something I see as I made my way up the education system in regard to the administration and the teachers as well. Throughout primary school and kindergarten my principal a majority of the teachers were women, not only in the main subjects but the electives as well. Then as I went to elementary school while a majority of the teachers were women, our principal changed 3 times over the course of 6 years and all of them were men. When I was later talking to my dad who sat on the parent board who helped appoint and search for the new principals, he stated that each time they interviewed the Vice Principal for our school, a woman, had interviewed and was passed up each time. In addition, the reasons that these principals were leaving, were because they were promoted to higher positions in the school system. Then finally, in high school, we had subschool principals for each of the grade levels, who followed us as we moved up through the school system. This was the first time that I had a woman principal, and many times it was the girls in my grade level who had problems with her, as they believed that she was being too hard on them. When in the past the male principals had done similar changes and there had not been any disputes for it. Even so, she was the only female principal, while all of the subschool administrative assistants were women. Why was this the case, and still the case in education, and how can we as a new wave of possible educators change that?

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