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Family Roles, Lack of Mentorship Among Reasons Behind Female Superintendent Imbalance

White woman in a blue suite standing in front of a group of people

In a recent article, TASB HR Services published a report identifying trends among male and female superintendents. The study outlined some illuminating figures that revealed a highly imbalanced distribution of superintendent jobs between males (81 percent) and females (19 percent).

It also listed a variety of possibilities for the reasoning behind the inequity, such as gender bias, unconscious preferences, self-removal of the pursuit for a superintendency, and family considerations.

But there was still more to learn as to why the gap exists, so TASB HR Services talked with some female superintendents for their perspective in hopes of gaining some detailed insight on the matter.

The Best Person for the Job

Dr. Karen Rue has served as superintendent of Northwest ISD for 11 years with great success. She was named Region XI Superintendent of the Year and served as president of the Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA). Before she accomplished these career goals, she encountered some unique challenges. During an interview for a superintendent vacancy, Rue fielded a rather inapt question.

“I remember interviewing in a small district when I was first vying for a superintendency and really, experience was my biggest hurdle,” Rue said. “However, in one district, I got a question from one of the board members, who asked, ‘We’ve never hired a female superintendent, what will we tell people if we hire a female superintendent?”

A couple of people in the room gasped.

“I just looked at him and said, ‘Well, you tell them you hired the best person for the job.’”

This was the only overt occasion, Rue said, where she bumped into any discriminatory comments. While she does believe there may be others who have been subject to negative bias based on their gender, Rue had some additional thoughts on why women are scarcely found in the position.

“I think that some women don’t see the potential that they have,” she said. “They limit themselves, for a variety of reasons. They think about their role in a traditional family, they put off a career. They make decisions and choices that are right for them and their families. So for a lot of women, they move more slowly into administrative roles, or into a superintendency, if that’s what they’re seeking. Or they just don’t go there at all, and stop at a principalship or move into a central office role.”

Traditional Family Roles

The family element is a major factor in determining career paths and geographic location of where one lives and works. Superintendents have immense time commitments to their jobs and those constraints can have a tremendous impact on individuals who want to spend just as much time raising a family as they do enjoying their career.

Dee Carter, the superintendent at Navarro ISD, said the job forces women to do one of three things regarding family circumstances.

“It’s an extraordinarily time-demanding job,” Carter said. “As a woman, you probably do one of three things: You either don’t have a family, or you neglect your family, or you are richly blessed in figuring out ways to balance career and family.”

In Carter’s case, she was able to find a healthy balance between her work and her loved ones. Her husband is a commercial real estate appraiser who works from home, so he has been available to take their kids to school activities and look after them if they fall ill. 

Carter said the day-to-day work of supporting a family can be enough to prevent other women from pursuing a job that is exceedingly time-consuming.

“If you have a family, and you’re trying to balance all of those responsibilities with a 60–70 to sometimes 80-hour-a-week job, it’s tough,” she said. “I think most women recognize that pretty early on, and I think you probably find a much higher percentage of women principals and women in curriculum fields than you do in the superintendency. I think it’s at least partly because many women see the time requirement and just choose not to pursue that avenue.” 

Lack of Mentorship

In addition to the time constraints and family factors, there is a notion that young female educators and administrators are lacking encouragement and guidance from leaders in the field. It can be difficult to try and accomplish something that few others do without the support of a mentor providing reassurance and advice along the way.

This was exactly the case for Lufkin ISD Superintendent Dr. LaTonya Goffney, who was not aware of the uneven ratio of males and females in the job until her first Region VI superintendents meeting.

“I walked in, and it was all men,” Goffney said. “And that’s when I realized it was not the norm.”

Goffney said becoming a superintendent was not a goal of hers until she received encouragement from her mentor during her postgrad work.

“I think mentors, sponsors, and people in the field are very important,” she said. “It was my superintendent mentor who had taught me at Sam Houston who came to me and told me I was ready. And at the same time, there were community members who pushed me out there.”

Perhaps there is a deficit of mentors pushing young women to create ambitious goals for their careers. A study from Columbia University points to some reasons as to why that’s a real possibility. The report revealed that younger women tend not to choose female mentors. Additionally, women at the senior level tend not to take on female mentees because there is a feeling of competition, knowing that there are only so many positions of leadership available for women.

Men aren’t doing much better in identifying young women to mentor and raise to positions of leadership. The study found that a majority’s reaction to a small entry by a minority into its territory (such as an-all male school board hiring a female superintendent) might be neutral or even positive. However, once a minority reaches a certain threshold, the majority often feels threatened. Studies suggest this threshold is about 20 percent, which would almost match the percentage of female superintendents in the state (19 percent).

In short, the study found that in some cases, women see other women as competition and therefore are less likely to counsel them, and men are comfortable mentoring women so long as men remain the vast majority in positions of power.

As a result, many young female educators may be without an appropriate support system. But the need for mentorship still remains large. For Goffney, she said she wouldn’t be a superintendent without that assistance.

“I think there are more male role models who are mentoring other males but I think there are not as many who are mentoring females,” she said. “I was blessed in that regard, to have good male mentors who pushed me to try, put my name out there, and encouraged me.”

One of the primary common denominators in talking with female superintendents was the importance they placed on simply encouraging young women to try. If the superintendency is the goal, women should not be discouraged from applying for positions despite the imbalanced ratio they face.

The Responsibility Falls on the Board

Butch Felkner, the director of TASB Executive Search Services, assists districts in their search for a new superintendent. His role is to consult with the school board throughout the process from the planning meeting to the vote-to-hire meeting. In his experience, he said, he has noticed an increase in women applying for superintendent vacancies.

“I have observed over the last several years that there are more females applying for the position so I have to assume there is a growing interest on their part,” he said. “Saying that, there are many very successful female superintendents in the state.”

The important thing in selecting the right person for a superintendency, Felkner said, is emphasizing the importance of candidates’ work experience. Bringing in a diverse applicant pool is a responsibility that falls on the district.

“We leave the diversity issue strictly up to the school board,” he said. “We have many diverse applicants who demonstrate interest in all our searches, but our purpose is to focus the board on the job requirements and how the candidates' work experience best matches their expectations as they see the role of the superintendent for their district.”

As applications from women continue to rise, the ratio of male to female superintendents should slowly start to balance out. Until then, board members should recognize their responsibility to consider applicants from all backgrounds.

Women have to do their part, too, and not self-select their way out of a job. Rue said women can bring a variety of talents and ideas to the position and should be encouraged to strive for more in their careers.

“I believe that the collaborative touch, the nuanced understanding of working with people that I believe women bring to the role is valuable,” Rue said, “and that women do tend to sell themselves short and not recognize the very real talent they can bring to what is a very delicate balance in a community.”

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