Why are women so underrepresented in educational leadership?


I asked her why she thinks it’s important for women to convene this way, in the absence of men (with this reporter being an exception). She believes that women need the opportunity to talk about issues they would not be comfortable discussing with men present. If men believe women to be the weaker sex, disclosing insecurities or demonstrating any lack of confidence—which are natural occurrences in the developmental process, regardless of gender—would further reinforce the concept.

Nevertheless, Amy believes that after this catharsis, it’s also important for women to have these discussions with their male counterparts. Many of the women’s mentors are males.

Marilyn Shepherd, superintendent in the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District, is a 28-year veteran who has successfully navigated the challenges of being a woman administrator. In a frank discussion with a rapt audience, she shared with the group the difficulties that women leaders face trying to balance family and career. She spoke of the innuendos that accompany women who seem to move quickly up the career ladder. She referenced the rumors that circulate when women, because of the demands of the job, work closely with the men who supervise them. She also expressed her frustration at the fact that women seem to be the toughest critics of women leaders.

Also speaking at the conference were women business leaders. Nancy Dahl, the president of Lifetouch, the company that takes most of the student pictures in our schools, received a resounding standing ovation after her keynote presentation. She runs a company of 18,000 employees and $800 million in revenue. Nancy proudly displays her femininity but portrays herself as a fierce competitor. She is a wife and a mother, but she also revealed herself to be a motor biker and a hunter. Her speech focused on authentic leadership, for women to be true to themselves. She quoted Dr. Seuss: “Why fit in when you were born to stand out?”

Nancy firmly believes that women have to take charge of their destiny. Do not allow others to define you, she urged. Her message resonated with the audience and was echoed by many of the other women leaders who shared their experiences with the group.

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

One of the event sponsors, Farmers Insurance, established the “Women in School Leadership Award” several years ago. This year, the two finalists in the Superintendent/Assistant Superintendent category are Amy Sichel and Ann Blakeney Clark, deputy superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina. Both women evidence strong records of accomplishment; Amy has been Pennsylvania Superintendent of the Year and is a 2010 recipient of the Tech-Savvy Superintendent Awards from eSchool News, and Ann has been chosen as a Broad Superintendent Academy Fellow.

Also named were the two finalists in the Central Office and Principal category: Harriet MacLean, middle school principal in San Rafael, Calif., and Kim Morrison, director of federal programs in Winston-Salem, N.C. The winners will be announced at AASA’s annual conference in Los Angeles this February.

At the closing session, the women were asked to provide feedback on the event. The forum was referred to as a rejuvenating experience that provided many networking opportunities and allowed the participants to be inspired and motivated by the women leaders who shared their stories.

At one point, the few males in the room were acknowledged, and a participant wondered what our reaction might be. We knew better than to volunteer any remarks, but I left with a better understanding of the complex issues that women must deal with in moving up the education leadership ladder and a sense that, given the quality of our women leaders and their resolve to succeed, parity will not take long to arrive.

Daniel A. Domenech is executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

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