Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Glass Chalkboard

Every summer the Kansas School Superintendent’s Association has a summer conference to give superintendents an opportunity to network and learn from each other.  I have been attending these meetings for longer than I care to think about.  At this year’s meeting, a couple of old-timers noted how much the meetings have changed over the years.  The biggest change noted by this individual was in the number of female superintendents.  I chimed in, saying yes, I can remember when it was just Sandi and Winona.    They looked at me and said, “Who?”

In 1985 I was finishing a year of graduate school and searching desperately for a district willing to take a chance on a 25-year-old principal candidate with 3 years of teaching experience and a load of student loans.  My son, who recently graduated from WSU with a biology degree (anyone hiring?) described the job search process as throwing resumes over a cliff and hoping one of them gets stuck on the way down.  That was my experience, exactly! 

Then one day, I got a call from the Ell-Saline School District.  Dr. Sandi Terrill wanted me to come for an interview.  Even better, after the interview, she offered me the job!  Obviously, female superintendents have EXCELLENT judgment? 

The primary point of this trip down memory lane is that Sandi Terrill was the only female superintendent in the state in 1985.  The secondary point is that Sandi was a great superintendent, and I learned so many things from working with her.  One of the things I learned is that sexism was alive and well in Kansas in 1984, and she dealt with it with grace and professionalism.  I confirmed a belief that women can be great educational leaders.

So 30 years have passed, what is the state of gender equity in the superintendency in Kansas?  Fortunately, those statistics are readily available.  There were 304 school districts in 1984, so the percentage of female superintendents was .03%.  It didn’t change much for the next decade, ranging between two and three females until 1991 when it finally jumped to over 1% (4). The chart below shows a fairly steady increase until the past three years, when progress has flattened out at 15% (45 females).

Some context might be helpful at this point.  While the general population has slightly more females than males, in the teaching profession females out number males significantly.  A 2011 report in "Education News" showed that Kansas had the lowest percentage of female teachers in the country at 70%. However, the national percentage of female superintendents is 24%.  Still low, but much higher than Kansas.



So we know that in Kansas, 70% of the teachers are female, but only 15% of the superintendents.  Maybe female teachers just aren’t interested in being administrators?  But look at the graph again.  The blue line represents the percentage of female principals.  There has been a steady increase to 41%.  The green line shows the percentage of assistant superintendents who are female- 63%!  Almost the 70% one would expect.  So we have 70% of teachers, 40% of principals, 63% of the assistant superintendents and 15% of superintendents who are female. 

Why the drop-off at the top?  There has been a lot of speculation about this.  Dr. Dawn Johnson wrote a dissertation on the subject for Wichita State University.  She also has good, research-based suggestions for women who hope to attain the superintendency.  Her work focused on the individual seeking the job.  Because Kansas has such a low percentage of female superintendents (24% national v 15% state), should we all ask ourselves what “we” could do to expand and improve the pool of potential candidates and not assume it is all on “them”? If people are still holding a grudge against women because Sandi Terrill hired me as a principal, it's time to get over it!

What can local boards do? Begin by refusing to accept a too commonly held belief that “our community isn’t ready for a female superintendent” or “a woman isn’t tough enough for this job.” Consider all candidates equally and respectfully.

What can your state associations (KASB, KSSA, et al) do? Use more female superintendents to assist in the search process.  Help board members see that we have successful female superintendents all over Kansas, not to mention a highly successful female commissioner!  Provide training and opportunities for networking for potential superintendent candidates. Help mentor and develop strong leaders, regardless of gender.


Being a school superintendent is a tough, but very rewarding job.  We have thousands of female teachers who are in the trenches every day excelling at a tough and rewarding job.  We should encourage more of them to rise to the top leadership role and shatter the glass chalkboard.