Why are women so underrepresented in educational leadership?

Seventy-two percent of the education workforce consists of women. But only 26 percent of high school principals are women, and just 24 percent of superintendents are women.

Learning Leadership column, November/December 2012 edition of eSchool News—Recently, I had the unique opportunity to be one of a handful of males who sat in with a group of 300 women in school leadership when they convened in Newport Beach, Calif., to network, share, and learn from one another.

This was the second year that the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) had collaborated with the Association of California School Administrators to put on the “Women in School Leadership Forum.”

Last year, the event was held in San Diego and drew about 150 participants. Attesting to the success of last year’s event, this year’s attendance doubled. When asked how many would return if the event were held again next year, the majority of women enthusiastically raised their hands and promised to bring a friend, indicating that next year’s attendance might double once more.

Seventy-two percent of the education workforce consists of women, yet the number of women in leadership positions falls far short of that statistic. They fare best in the role of elementary school principals, with 54 percent of these jobs being held by women. But at the secondary school level, only 26 percent of principals are women, and in the head job of superintendent, 24 percent are women.

Thelma Melendez, former assistant secretary of education under Arne Duncan and currently superintendent in Santa Ana, Calif., will tell you that it takes a woman, on the average, 15 years to move into an administrative position—whereas it will take only five years for a man.

The frustration is palpable, and the women come together to look for mentors, to network, to share their experiences, to learn from those who have reached the pinnacle of their profession, and to unravel the mystery behind the gender gap that is a reality in school leadership.

For other recent columns by Dan Domenech, see:

How to achieve true educational transformation

It’s time to blow up the current grade-level structure

U.S. education is still the best in the world—but here’s what we can learn from others

AASA has existed since 1865. We will be celebrating our 150th anniversary in two years. Yet, in that entire period, only three women have been elected to preside over the organization, and a fourth is in line to assume the position next year. Four women in 150 years. Two of the women, Pat Neudecker, superintendent of the Oconomowoc Schools in Wisconsin, and Amy Sichel, superintendent of the Abington, Pa., schools, were in attendance at the forum.

In her remarks, Pat spoke about redwoods, those incredibly tall and majestic trees that grow to be over 300 feet tall and sport a considerable girth. You instinctively assume that the redwood has deep roots to help maintain its balance, but that is not the case. Instead, Pat explains, the redwood’s roots spread out, combining with the roots of the other trees to create a mesh, a network of roots, that gives the trees tremendous strength and durability.

The analogy was clear to the women leaders: Creating and maintaining a network with other women leaders is essential to their success. Pat also would indicate that including men in that network is essential as well. She was our president last year, and she is a highly respected and effective superintendent and education leader.

Amy Sichel is AASA’s president-elect and has been superintendent in Abington for 12 years. She smiles as she tells me how, still today, in a room full of males, no one will assume that she—the only female—is the leader, the superintendent of schools.

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