A Seat at the Table: Where Are All the Female Superintendents?

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The governance meeting led by Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4).

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

All the Bexar County school district superintendents who attended a February Intergovernmental Relations Committee meeting were men.

On a mid-February afternoon, the City gathered its most powerful education leaders to talk about school finance, and a startling picture emerged: All the superintendents at the table were male. In Bexar County’s 15 public school districts, only one woman serves as superintendent while more than 70 percent of teachers and the majority of principals are female.

Superintendents are the most powerful officials employed by K-12 districts. They earn the highest salaries and arguably have the greatest ability to affect children’s educations. Statewide, women hold less than 25 percent of school districts’ top jobs.

In Bexar County, Superintendent Gail Siller of tiny Fort Sam Houston Independent School District – serving just over 1,500 students – is San Antonio’s lone female district chief. She was not present at the Feb. 13 meeting.

Women face a myriad of challenges on their paths to the superintendency: too few willing mentors, added family responsibilities, and sometimes, reluctant ambition.

“If a first-year male teacher [is asked], ‘What do you want to be in 10 years?’ and he says superintendent, people say, ‘Oh, fabulous,’” said Linda Skrla, professor emeritus, educational administration and human resource development at Texas A&M University. “If a woman teacher says that in her first year, she gets varying versions of, ‘Well, aren’t you full of yourself.’”

With three local superintendent searches underway – in Edgewood, Alamo Heights, and Judson ISDs – school districts have an opportunity to address the disparity.

The Candidate Pool

When faced with the glaring gender imbalance in Texas’ superintendent ranks, some point to the candidate pool as the problem. If there aren’t enough qualified women, how can districts have gender parity?

In Texas, superintendents must obtain certification to fill a district’s chief role, and the majority of applicants earn accreditation through university programs. Programs that seek out diverse students can have an outsized impact on the pool of candidates who will eventually interview for superintendent jobs. Right now, in Texas, more men than women are certified, but with programs targeting women, the candidate pool is on track to include a greater number female candidates.

Before serving as the CEO of Pre-K 4 SA, Sarah Baray ran the superintendent preparation program at Texas State University. When she started, white males comprised the vast majority of the program’s participants.

Sarah Baray is the new CEO of PreK 4 SA. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / Rivard Report

Sarah Baray is the CEO of Pre-K 4 SA.

“One of the things that we know about leadership development is there are some people who will step forward naturally and say, ‘I want to be a leader,’ because they have been socialized to believe that is a role that is available to them,” she said. “There are other people who would be excellent leaders but … if they have not seen leaders who look like them, they would be less inclined to put themselves out there.”

Baray said she made a concerted effort to recruit students from different backgrounds, meeting with teachers and principals who may not otherwise have applied for the program.

Within a few years, the program enrolled a class that was comprised mostly of minorities and women.

Over time, Baray said, increasing the number of qualified, diverse candidates should result in more minorities and women applying for and getting superintendent jobs as turnover creates open positions.

The number of women obtaining certification to become a superintendent in Texas is growing, but the number of women occupying superintendent jobs has remained stubbornly low. In 2014-15, more women than men were certified. That year, women comprised 22.7 percent of superintendents statewide. Three years later, there has barely been a bump up, with 23.4 percent of superintendents being women.

Pipeline Problems

Skrla, who currently chairs the Educational Administration and Leadership Department at California’s University of the Pacific, received her doctorate in education administration from the University of Texas at Austin. Prior to that, she worked in Texas public schools as a teacher and campus administrator.

Based on her background and research, Skrla said the most common pathway to the top district spot typically involves experience as a high school principal. In this position, as in the superintendency, women are in the minority.

Southside ISD Assistant Superintendent Genese Bell sees many similarities between the two positions. Besides working with many department heads, similar to the setup of a central office, a high school principal must be available long after the school day ends as activities continue on campus. She said a large high school typically operates six days and four nights a week, which closely reflects a superintendent’s schedule.

In Bexar County, men also are over-represented as high school principals, occupying roughly two-thirds of the total jobs.

Even though more men occupy high school principal positions, women hold a greater share of overall principal positions due to their representation in jobs at the middle and elementary school level.

“It is really this hierarchy of thinking still that the nurturers, people who work with young children, are women, and people that work with older folks are men,” Baray said. “Although we have made a lot of progress with a greater gender representation in principals, the [higher in grade level] you go, the less [female] representation there is.”

Beyond that, Skrla said, the so-called “second shift” syndrome means some women leave their salaried teaching jobs at the end of the day but remain responsible for most family duties at home. Because superintendents shoulder round-the-clock responsibilities, the ability to devote time and energy to their jobs is paramount.

Michelle Young, executive director for the University Council of Educational Administration, an organization for faculty who teach in administrator preparation programs, researches how to create equitable experiences for anyone who works or learns in a school. She said the perception that women have added family responsibilities could also just be another instance of gender bias projected onto female applicants.

“Most people are going into the superintendency after they have taught and led at the school level,” she said. “There is going to be a very small percentage who still has kids that are school age by the time an individual becomes a superintendent of a school district.”

Regardless, family support, for both male and female candidates, is important. Bell, who previously served as superintendent of Splendora ISD outside of Houston, emphasized the need for a support network to perform the job well and satisfy its demands.

“I am very ambitious and give my time commitment up even though I do have a family,” she said. “My husband has definitely been a partner.”

Since deciding to pursue a job at the top of the district, Bell and her family moved so she could attend the preparation program at the University of Texas at Austin, then to Splendora ISD for her job as superintendent, and most recently, to Southside ISD.

“The only thing that has made it possible for my career…is that my husband has not ever balked, not one time,” Bell said. “You can’t advance inside a system staying in the same geographic location. You have to be willing to move.”

To emphasize her point, Bell listed numerous female superintendents whom she considered to be successful. The unifying factor: family situations that allow for mobility.

Good Ol’ Boys Network

Young said having a mentor is another necessity when pursuing a superintendent’s job.

“When women are [superintendents], it is because they were mentored or tapped by a powerful male who has identified some real leadership potential,” Young said.

Alamo Heights ISD Superintendent Kevin Brown, who will soon take on the executive director position at the Texas Association of School Administrators, said it is up to current superintendents to mentor potential leaders.

“I think it is incumbent on those of us who are in the superintendency now to really encourage our female administrators to get into leadership positions,” he said. “I think you want the very best superintendent you can find and I think that so much of the talent in public schools is with women.”

Bell said her “sponsor,” one of her previous bosses in Elgin ISD east of Austin, changed her career path’s trajectory by coaching her through interviews and providing general encouragement.

But having a mentor is not a fix-all, Skrla said, and it can raise additional questions that reflect gender bias.

Linda Skrla, professor emeritus of educational administration and human resource development at Texas A&M University San Antonio.

“If you have a powerful man mentoring a junior woman, that raises issues of speculation, and that doesn’t typically happen with a man mentoring a younger man, although certainly that could be an inappropriate relationship as well,” Skrla said. “But that makes men super cautious about mentoring a younger woman.”

In more than 10 interviews for this story, references arose to the “good ol’ boys network” – the idea that who you know may be just as important as what you know when competing for a job.

There have been efforts to create stronger networks designed specifically for women in executive school roles. For example, the mission of the Texas Council of Women School Executives is to promote equity and quality in leadership roles through a united community of its members.

Do Women Want to be Superintendents?

Another reason cited for the lack of female superintendents is that more women do not apply for such jobs because they simply aren’t interested.

Northside ISD trustee Carol Harle started as a teacher and worked her way to a job as assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Harlandale and San Antonio ISDs. She said it can be hard to see the direct impact of a superintendent in a classroom, but her role as assistant superintendent allowed her to work closely with teachers.

Harle’s job involved working with educators on the best ways to obtain stronger student outcomes. Each month, she would meet with fellow curriculum directors from other Bexar County districts and collaborate on best learning practices.

“There is a group of us that just really loves curriculum, instruction, and mentoring, and the superintendent job is not that,” she said.

For these reasons, Harle said, she never wanted to become a superintendent. But several of her female peers from Harlandale ISD’s central office have enrolled in a superintendent preparation program at Texas A&M-San Antonio with that goal in mind, she added.

Skrla said that growing up, everyone is “soaked in the same soup” of gender bias. Women learn quickly that their ambition can be associated with negative traits, while men are rewarded for expressing higher aspirations, she explained. As a result, women may not voice the same ambition and, thus, settle for lesser positions.

Limited Success

Just outside Bexar County’s borders, women lead seven of the 20 adjacent districts: in Atascosa, Bandera, Comal, Guadalupe, Kendall, Medina, and Wilson counties. One additional woman serves as the interim superintendent in Poteet ISD. However, these districts are rural and serve much smaller student populations than those inside San Antonio.

Skrla said this trend is fairly common throughout Texas. Women take on the superintendency at “starter jobs” and often struggle to advance, while men often lead the largest districts and get the highest salaries.

Fort Sam Houston Superintendent Gail Siller

This is true across the state – in 2016-17, only two of the top 20 highest-paid superintendents were women. Brian Woods, the superintendent of Bexar County’s largest district, Northside ISD, made $317,362 in 2016-17. Siller, Bexar County’s only female superintendent, made $175,600. Their district sizes vary by more than 100,000 students.

Women often make headway in districts that struggle academically, Skrla said, because boards look for candidates with a stronger grasp of curriculum to address poor test scores. With 75 percent of teachers being women, a female candidate makes a more natural fit for academically challenged districts.

Overall, Skrla said it is important to remember that districts miss out when they lack gender parity. For Texas superintendents, parity doesn’t mean a 50-50 split between men and women. Skrla said true parity should reflect the makeup of Texas teachers, three-quarters of which are women.

“The women who make it into a position to be considered for the superintendency are actually much more well prepared because you are pulling 25 percent [of superintendents] out of 75 percent [of female teachers],” she said. “So, you are getting the cream of the crop. If you are pulling 75 percent [of superintendents] from 25 percent [of male teachers], you are going pretty far down in the pool just to get a man.”

When Skrla completed her preparation program at UT Austin in 1997, she said only 12 percent of superintendents were female. In the two decades since, that number doubled.

Young said she sees progress, but there is still no clear answer for how to create gender equity among superintendents.

“Even though we have seen some increases in numbers over time, you could probably have written this same story 15 or 20 years ago,” she said. “Without a real clear sense of what is the intervention….what will it take to change?”

9 thoughts on “A Seat at the Table: Where Are All the Female Superintendents?

  1. You’ve eloquently described a systemic problem in regional—if not national—education with its good ol boy culture at the highest ranks. And, you’ve also named another huge problem: there are 15 districts! And my blood boils every time I see my property tax bill. All of the wasted duplication of expense! Come to think of it, the two problems are likely interrelated… think about it.

  2. As an aspiring superintendent who happens to be Hispanic and female, I believe these are important discussions to have. It has been a long time coming. Less than 25% are female, less than 2% are Hispanic female. Time to start encouraging our young ladies of color in the classrooms to aspire! #growthmindset #girlscandoittoo

  3. Thank you for your report, Emily. I don’t fully agree with some of the statements made, but it got me thinking to make sure I’m being logically consistent and reasonably fair.
    I am glad that the discussion is still happening and steps are still being made to have qualified and quality-superintendents, across the spectrum of humanity’s faces. Our children deserve the best school leadership!

  4. Interesting point. However, seems that every time I here cites of male teachers at 10% to 25% population within school districts, no one ever states that we need more male teachers. Now, there’s a ‘gender equity’ no one ever considers to be fixed. Superintendents? If all school superintendents were female, would we achieve excellence in education? Really…isn’t this just another education distractor? Isn’t this just another political card…’gender equity’? Shouldn’t Excellence in Education be the real goal? Sure, I would like to see more female superintendents. I would like to see more Hispanic superintendents. But, would that really achieve excellence in education? How about this? I would like to see more superintendents with real world employment experience. I would like to see more teachers with real world employment experience, not just long and extended teaching experiences. There was a time when many of our teachers were formerly employed at regular jobs and within the corporate world. Some of our teachers actually went back and forth between the classroom and outside jobs. They were great teachers and were highly respected. Notice that I made no mention nor hint of ‘gender equity’. America, since its founding, progressed with an educational system which far exceeded the rest of the world. Only since we started injecting political ‘distractors’ has our educational system begun to flounder. Maybe that is too harsh a word? Sure, there are other real problems within our education systems. Final point. I’m sure that some very fine and quality female educators will fill the ranks of school superintendents, on their own and when they are ready. [Notice that I didn’t say just ‘qualified’ females.] And, I do look forward to that day.

    • Actually, we say that all the time about male teachers. Having male teachers, particularly in middle school, is a huge positive. Many of us would like to see more in middle and elementary school levels. Not because men are better teachers, but because it provides a balance to the population and a different perspective.

      What IS odd, is what is described in this article: that a profession that is predominantly female, is mostly male in the senior ranks. Actually, that isn’t odd, it’s common place in many professions.

      The author does a brilliant job of explaining why our current superintendent population is nearly all male, and it’s not a simple matter of choosing female candidates. It requires encouraging, mentoring, and supporting female educators from the start.

  5. That is a great question and as a former Bexar County science teacher and parent, I understand the huge disparity – some I think, goes way back to the mid-1900’s when it was felt (and enacted) that only strong male coaches could be good MS or HS Principals and that was most of the pool for Supts.
    But, Ms. Donaldson and Mr. Rivard, the REAL question you should be asking those school districts, the people and taxpayers of Bexar County, plus the do-little to fix education Texas Legislature is: WHY IN THE WORLD DOES ONE COUNTY IN TEXAS HAVE OR NEED, 15 SCHOOL DISTRICTS AND THUS 15 HIGHLY PAID SUPERINTENDENTS? PLUS 15 + ASST.’S, STAFF, OFFICES, VEHICLES, EXPENSE ACCTS., OTHER PERKS? WHY 15 SCHOOL BOARDS WITH THEIR EXPENSES/TRAVEL/ELECTIONS AND MOSTLY TO PREP POLITICAL WANNABE’S?

    WHY HAVE WE NOT CONSOLIDATED INTO ONE LARGE ISD TO EQUALLY SHARE THE PROPERTY TAX MONIES AND HAVE EQUAL SCHOOLS AND EDUCATION OP’S FOR ALL OF OUR CHILDREN? BE ABLE TO PURCHASE MORE EFFICIENTLY AND CHEAPLY, OPERATE SCHOOL BUS FLEETS BETTER, ONE PERSONNEL OFFICE, ONE SECURITY FORCE, ONE NURSING/HEALTH GROUP, ETC.? WHY NOT? I LIVED AND WORKED IN WYOMING AND ONE ISD PER COUNTY WORKED GREAT AND IN OTHER STATES AS WELL. OUR SYSTEM IS OLD-WORLD AMERICA AND NEEDS DRASTIC OVERHAULING IF PEOPLE AND OUR REPS HAVE THE INSIGHT AND COURAGE TO DO SO – THINK OF HOW MUCH OF PRESENT BUDGETS COULD BE PUT BACK INTO STUDENTS AND SCHOOLS AS INTENDED AND NEEDED. WHY?

  6. To the folks who ask why we have 15 districts…one need look no further than the Dallas and Houston ISD’s, which have had myriad problems of their own as large, monolithic districts. Centralizing functions into one gargantuan pot isn’t always the best solution for everything – exhibit A, our Federal government :/

    Also…for those of you north of I-90, I’d invite you to check your tax bill if you’re a property owner. I am staring RIGHT at the Alamo Heights folks covering their eyes in the corner 🙂 Check out your tax bill for NISD, NEISD, AHISD…now, go ahead and check your bill if you are in HISD, EISD, or SSISD. Go ahead and gasp. If Heights folks paid the same percentage of property tax as folks in EISD, HISD or SSISD do, there would be pitchforks and waving torches at City Hall. Would you like a scenario where we tax EVERY property owner at the rate they do in our property-poor districts? I thought not.

    “Well, why not just have one big district with every urban and suburban district rolled up into one San Antonio school district, and then lower property tax rates in those impoverished spots where it’s higher? We could equitably fund everyone like that.” Nice idea. But that speaks to the larger problem – northern districts don’t WANT to hitch their wagons onto southern districts. Texas law stipulates recapture of funds for wealthy school districts that make too much in property taxes. Some districts in our town send back hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars to the State every year. Texas law offers other options instead of that…including busing kids from other areas of town to the schools in those districts, for parents who want to send their kids there. To my knowledge, no San Antonio-based property-rich school district does that on any kind of significant scale. Why? Because it’s easier to write the check and complain nobly to your taxpayers about how the state gouges them and makes taxation unfair…than it is to literally put your money where your mouth is, and bring in kids from other parts of town who would like the chance to study at some of those high-flying high schools.

    Unifying districts would undoubtedly enjoin some savings – insurance negotiations, materials purchases, staff consolidation, and the like – but those same benefits are the reason that many San Antonio districts would fight consolidation tooth and nail. Why would NISD or a similar district want to see their rates for things go up because they’ve now rolled in every other smaller albatross district (some of which are smaller and have less negotiating power) in San Antonio? Conversely, why would HISD or a similar district’s central admin want to consolidate with 14 other districts when most of their staff wouldn’t have a prayer of landing the same job in a unified school district? Too many obstacles to it, and the cure might well wind up being worse than the affliction.

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