Public school education is perceived as a female-dominated industry. But even though more than 75% of public school teachers are female, less than one-third (28%) of superintendents are women. In the edtech space, that percentage is even bleaker: women lead only 13% of edtech companies. As passionate advocates of equality in education and women in leadership positions, we are frustrated and disappointed by these numbers. But we’re also motivated to create change.
Districts where females hold more than three-quarters of school board seats chose female superintendents 48% of the time, while boards dominated by males chose female superintendents only 33% of the time.
While structural changes are needed, there are steps education leaders of all genders can take to achieve better representation in the industry.
Affirm the Power of Servant Leaders
Women are often recognized for having leadership skills like being purpose-driven, self-aware, selfless, and empathetic. Their ability to communicate, nurture, and demonstrate resilience—as well as their firmness, directness, and fearlessness in holding courageous conversations—creates an environment of psychological safety, voice, choice, and adult agency.
Some of these same characteristics fit squarely within being a servant leader. Recent research suggests that “women may be more effective servant leaders,” and evidence points to employees having improved team performance, collaboration, and satisfaction when working for a servant leader. However, the skills of servant leaders may not be recognized during an interview process or when identifying potential talent for leadership roles. Strategies such as implementing equity and bias training, and developing skills rubrics that clearly identify the most critical competencies for a role can help even the playing field for women.
Mentors Help Pave Pathways
Coaching, sponsoring, and mentoring are critical to the success of any woman in leadership. Female-led affinity groups have been instrumental in elevating our skills as effective leaders. In roles such as a superintendency or a company’s C-suite, it’s invaluable to have a place to hold conversations around critical topics, reflect on one’s practices, identify the root causes of problems, and identify appropriate ways to rectify challenges. Sponsors have recognized our achievements, helped elevate our status, and provided professional opportunities within our organizations.
Mentorship doesn’t have to be formalized to be effective; it can simply be someone who serves as a sounding board, helps identify unique strengths, and shares insights from their own experiences.
Even having someone to talk through the realities of juggling leadership responsibilities with one’s personal life can be a meaningful form of mentorship. On the other hand, mentors can also target specific purposes such as educational leadership, innovation, and data-driven decision-making.
Studies have shown women who have mentors are more likely to be promoted. Additionally, in a survey of female superintendents, the key advice they offered women aspiring to administrator roles was straightforward: learn the job. A powerful way to do that is through mentorship.
While we believe in better representation and the power of the adage, “You can only be what you can see,” mentors don’t only have to be female leaders. Male mentors have played meaningful roles in both of our careers. The same can be said for teachers, too. Early in our education, teachers helped inspire us to pursue a professional path in education and aim high for leadership positions.
Join Forces with Others
It can be lonely and isolating in executive leadership. While 70% of employees said “friendship at work is the most important element to a happy work life,” half of CEOs experience loneliness despite constantly being surrounded by others in meetings. Being part of a strong network of peers and colleagues within (and outside of) the industry and encouraging emerging leaders to do the same can help female leaders explore their personal and professional challenges and validate decisions. National associations such as the American Association of School Administrators are great options, as are state-level associations like the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators.
Closing the gender gap in education is not just our ambition; it’s our responsibility as leaders.
Using the actions above as stepping stones to more significant changes in policies and procedures, we can increase the opportunities available for women today in education and create a more equitable future for students.