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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.

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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