Why do men still fill most district leadership positions, and what can be done about it?
Just as a fish does not realize it lives in water, school leaders and education policy makers often fail to see that even after decades of mainstream acceptance of equal opportunity workplaces, public education careers and promotion pipelines continue to be shaped by narrow gender norms.
As a longtime academic and elected school board member, one of us (Robert Maranto) has observed this gendered career system over three decades and in more than 200 public schools across the United States. Today, as in past years, when he asks female education leaders about their career paths, they often mention that they left a previous job to escape local norms that barred them from promotion beyond a certain level — but not a single male education leader has ever said the same. And when he asks male leaders about the women with whom they work, he sometimes hears disparaging comments (such as the secondary school principal who said, referring to an award-winning vice principal he mentored, “She’s one of the few women who can handle secondary”).
In short, despite existing laws and mandates, many K-12 school systems still have a glass ceiling. To create more equitable opportunities will likely require a broad shift in beliefs and attitudes about gender and leadership. The first step to changing attitudes, however, is to recognize the issue, how it came to be, and why it matters.
Gender and school leadership
In 19th-century America, both teaching and school leadership were mainly feminine pursuits, in part because most people considered women better at nurturing children, but also because local school boards could get away with paying women less. Eventually, however, progressives sought to professionalize educational leadership with larger, bureaucratic schools led by credentialed principals and superintendents (Callahan, 1962; Lucas, 1999; Tyack, 1974). At a time when professional meant male, this bureaucratization and professionalization of schools meant replacing female principals and superintendents with men.
As Kate Rousmaniere (2013) details in her social history of the principalship, graduate programs providing educational leadership credentials served as an increasingly common career pathway for men, particularly veterans who returned from World War II and attended graduate school on the GI Bill. In addition, the emerging field of athletic coaching not only attracted many men to jobs in education but also gave them clear routes to principal and superintendent posts. Rousmaniere observes that:
The work of athletic coaching — communication, authority, disciplinary training of students, and public relations — aligned with the emerging professional identity of the new principal and, in a happy coincidence, provided the masculine image that appealed to both the public and to school reformers. (p. 101)
Thus, by the 1970s, researchers found that nearly 80 percent of school superintendents had coached athletic teams earlier in their careers (Rousmaniere, 2013).
As a result, explains Rousmaniere, the numbers of women in school and district leadership declined through most of the 20th century. For example, the percentage of elementary school principal posts held by women fell from 55% in 1928 to 20% in 1973. Since high school enrollments were rare in the early part of the century, and secondary leadership positions were already seen as relatively prestigious, the number of women in high school leadership was always low, even in the 1920s, but by mid-century it fell to just 1%. By the 1960s, Rousmaniere notes, “It seemed to be the natural order of things that women taught and men managed” (p. 102).
Today, the outlook for women in leadership is significantly better, but there’s still a serious imbalance. For example, using data on more than 7,500 public school principals from the U.S. Department of Education 2011-12 Schools and Staffing Survey and additional published sources, we recently found that while 90% of elementary teachers are women, only 66% of elementary principals are women. In secondary schools, meanwhile, women make up 63% of teachers but just 48% of principals.
Before becoming principals, men and women are about equally likely to have served as department heads, vice principals, and club advisers. In two key respects, however, their paths to the principalship differ. Women are twice as likely as men to have prior service as curricular specialists (31.3% of women and 16% of men), and men are three times as likely (52.8% of men and 16.5% of women) to have had prior experience as athletic coaches (Maranto, Teodoro, et al., 2017). Overall, men are proportionately more likely to gain promotion to principal, and to do so more quickly than women. In traditional public schools, male principals have taught a mean of only 10.7 years before becoming principal compared to 13.2 years for women.
The imbalance continues beyond the principalship, too. Nationwide, for example, just 24.1% of superintendents are women; further, and zeroing in on a single state, a survey of 2,100 principals in Texas revealed that male principals are 17% more likely than females to report that they plan to seek promotion to a superintendent post (Maranto, Teodoro, et al., 2017).
Work histories, school boards, and career outlooks
A closer look at the typical career paths of men and women in education shows that the pipeline to district-level leadership is narrower for roles that are dominated by women, particularly the elementary school principalship. One plausible explanation is that leaders of high schools (disproportionately men) tend to be perceived as better candidates for superintendent (Adams & Christenson, 2000; Sargent, 2001), given that high schools are typically larger institutions with bigger budgets, more staff and students, larger facilities, more differentiated structures and missions, and (partly due to athletics) far more community visibility. Further, the size of high schools requires principals to play stereotypically masculine roles leading and managing adults, rather than stereotypically feminine roles building relationships with individual young children.
The relatively large percentage of female principals with backgrounds in curriculum, compared to the large percentage of men with coaching backgrounds, may provide additional hints as to why so few women attain the superintendent post. As a participant and observer in school board meetings, Maranto has seen very few discussions about teaching or curricular matters but many about budget, athletics, construction, transportation, attendance zones, and school safety. Similarly, as school board sympathizer and former board member Gene Maeroff (2010) writes, classroom instruction (the schooling activity most heavily dominated by women) is “invisible” to most school board members (p. 18). While they rarely visit classrooms, they often attend athletic contests and frequently win election or appointment with the help of athletic booster clubs. Further, and as Maranto has witnessed, superintendents may discourage interaction between (mainly female) teachers and board members to preclude teachers from providing on-the-ground information that can be used to evaluate the superintendent’s performance. Indeed, Maranto notes that in some Arkansas districts, the materials used to train board members explicitly discourage unauthorized communications between teachers and board members, referring to them as “outside the chain of command.”
Maeroff’s (2010) summary of national survey data indicates that the three most important criteria school board members use to evaluate their superintendents are the board-superintendent relationship, employee morale, and student safety (p. 69). Management comes next, essentially tied with standardized test scores. Similarly, Robert Maranto, Julie Trivitt, Malachi Nichols, and Angela Watson (2017) found that superintendent contracts seldom mention academic duties or goals, focusing instead on general management duties or formal job requirements such as degrees and work hours. In short, student academic learning has little effect on school board evaluations of superintendents. Given the relatively large percentage of female principals with curriculum backgrounds, this relative disregard of instruction bodes ill for gender equity.
The culture of educators
In addition to the gender biases of school boards and other elites, there may also be ideological and cultural causes for the underrepresentation of women in educational leadership. For example, when Matthew Woessner and April Kelly-Woessner (2009) analyzed data from national surveys of thousands of college undergraduates by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI), they found that conservatives are more likely than liberals to prioritize having children, a choice that has a far greater impact on women’s professional advancement than on men’s.
Given men’s and women’s differing experiences as educators — men gravitating toward coaching, women toward curriculum and instruction — female principals and superintendents may tend to be in a better position to provide effective instructional leadership.
Using a later HERI survey, Matthew Woessner (personal communication, June 13, 2018) found that women comprise 94% of elementary education majors, a group that stands out as relatively conservative — among fourth-year college women majoring in elementary education, self-reported conservatives outnumber liberals 28% to 22%, while in other majors, liberals outnumber conservatives 41% to 20%. In fact, female elementary education majors are more conservative than are male undergraduates in general (29% of whom identify as liberal, 28% as conservative).
As a profession, teaching is relatively family-friendly, with work hours coinciding with school hours, relatively generous leave policies (in part to make up for low pay), and, in many school systems, cultural norms for women (but not men) to take off multiple years while providing child care. Given the traditional gender roles embraced by many conservatives, we suspect that disproportionate numbers of female elementary educators choose to remain in teaching roles, while their husbands are more likely to pursue more lucrative and prestigious leadership posts. Women choosing education careers, particularly in elementary education, may seek more traditional roles, conceptualizing themselves as part of a household unit rather than as sole actors (an identity not antithetical to certain feminist perspectives; Williams, 2000). Relatedly, in some school systems, it is standard practice for high-level male (but not female or LGBTQ+) administrators to obtain teaching or other staff jobs for their spouses, often as an informal condition of initial employment.
What is to be done?
So why does this imbalance matter, especially if so many women are choosing not to pursue leadership positions? For one thing, gendered educational leadership career paths violate 21st-century workplace norms of gender equity and likely conflict with merit-based personnel systems. Moreover, given men’s and women’s differing experiences as educators — men gravitating toward coaching, women toward curriculum and instruction — female principals and superintendents may tend to be in a better position to provide effective instructional leadership. In addition, empirical research has identified gendered patterns of managerial behavior among school superintendents, with female superintendents associated with somewhat better academic performance (Johansen, 2007; Meier, O’Toole, & Goerdel, 2006). In short, gendered educational leadership pipelines may offer one explanation for the limited success of the past several decades of elite-based school reform aimed at academic excellence and equity.
To promote greater equity in professional advancement, policy makers and intellectuals may be tempted to call for the passage of new laws and guidelines. However, while such mandates tend to make headlines, top-down directives from Washington, D.C., and state capitals often prove to be counterproductive means of combatting structural discrimination (e.g., Buck, 2010; Gillon, 2002). Echoing thinkers like Jonathan Haidt (2012) and Rick Hess (2017), we urge caution. In a diverse, multicultural polity where local districts provide most schooling, local norms regarding gendered career paths may represent how women and men in those communities manage legitimate trade-offs between “family values,” however defined, and workplace needs; hence, we suspect that it will be more effective to pursue reforms incrementally, with subsidiarity in mind, and through persuasion more than coercion.
So, with that in mind, what might reforms to the gendered career track look like?
First, as Joan Williams (2000) and, more recently, Matthew Woessner and April Kelly-Woessner (2009) argue, family-friendly workplace policies have disproportionately positive impacts on women, possibly making promotion less gendered. Yet the education workplace is already family-friendly at the classroom level, which means that more significant reform must come at the principal and superintendent levels, including changes that make public schools less hierarchical, with distributed leadership models that rely more on teacher leadership, thus reducing the power of policy makers. Maranto (2015) offers examples of certain charter schools in which teachers rather than administrators make key budget and personnel decisions. Unfortunately, school boards and other policy makers accustomed to working through more conventional hierarchical leadership structures will likely oppose such efforts to make high-level leadership roles less demanding and more family-friendly.
A second option is for influential organizations to push schools and districts to change the ways in which they conduct their everyday operations. For example, the National School Boards Association could urge members governing large districts to interview at least one woman when superintendent posts come open (taking after the National Football League’s “Rooney Rule,” named after late Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, which aims to increase the percentage of Black coaches).
Third, given the relative dearth of evidence that educational leadership programs are effective in preparing leaders (Hess, 2013), opening more such posts to those without doctorates might increase the pool of female applicants, since women are less likely to have the time and connections to attain doctoral degrees.
On the whole, though, we would argue that the first and most important step will be to raise awareness among school boards and other policy makers of the need to bring more women into leadership. If we value academic excellence and gender equity, public school leadership posts must not just go to the boys.
Adams, K.S. & Christenson, S.L. (2000). Trust and the family–school relationship examination of parent–teacher differences in elementary and secondary grades. Journal of School Psychology, 38 (5), 477-497.
Buck, J.S. (2010). Acting white. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Callahan, R.E. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Gillon, S.M. (2002). That’s not what we meant to do: Reform and its consequences in 20th century America. New York, NY: Norton.
Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York, NY: Pantheon.
Hess, F.M. (2013). Cagebusting leadership. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Hess, F.M. (2017). Letters to a young education reformer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Johansen, M.S. (2007). The effect of female strategic managers on organizational performance. Public Organization Review, 7 (3), 269-279.
Lucas, C.J. (1999). Teacher education in America. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
Maeroff, G.I. (2010). School boards in America: A flawed exercise in democracy. New York, NY: Palgrave/Macmillan.
Maranto, R. (2015). Did the teachers destroy the school? Public entrepreneurship as creation and adaptation. Journal of School Leadership, 25 (1), 69-101.
Maranto, R., Teodoro, M.P., Carroll, K., & Cheng, A. (2017). Gendered ambition: Career advancement in public management. ERN Public Policy Centers Research Paper Series, 9 (3).
Maranto, R., Trivitt, J., Nichols, M., & Watson, A. (2017). No contractual obligation to improve education: School boards and their superintendents. Politics and Policy, 45 (6).
Meier, K.J., O’Toole, L.J., & Goerdel, H.T. (2006). Management activity and program performance: Gender as management capital. Public Administration Review, 66 (1), 24-36.
Rousmaniere, K. (2013). The principal’s office: A social history of the American school principal. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Sargent, P. (2001). Real men or real teachers? Contradictions in the lives of men elementary school teachers. Harriman, TN: Men’s Studies Press.
Tyack, D.B. (1974). The one best system. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Williams, J.C. (2000). Unbending gender: why family and work conflict and what to do about it. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Woessner, M.C. & Kelly-Woessner, A. (2009). Left pipeline: Why conservatives don’t get doctorates. In R. Maranto, R.E. Redding, & F.M. Hess (Eds.), The politically correct university (pp. 38-59). Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute.
Citation: Maranto, R., Carroll, K., Cheng, A., & Teodoro, M.P. (2018). Boys will be superintendents: School leadership as a gendered profession. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (2), 12-15.