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What Prevents Many Women from Reaching the Top Jobs in Education? A Pair of Veterans Tease Answers from Dozens of Others at Conference

Dozens of female principals and superintendents at the AASA’s National Conference on Education woke up early on Friday to discuss the hard issues they face in education leadership today.

Attendees to the Thought Leader session titled “When Women Lead” found their spots in one of the circles of chairs, a departure from the usual theater-style seating arrangement.

Lupita Hightower, superintendent of the Tolleson Elementary School District in Arizona and Christina Kishimoto, former state superintendent in Hawaii, led the hour-long discussion. Before inviting attendees to share within their groups, they invited them to think about the harsh reality of women’s historic underrepresentation in the superintendency. (AASA’s 2020 decennial study of the superintendency said a little more than one-fourth of the nation’s superintendents were women.)

“Are we really going to continue to move at this pace?” asked Kishimoto, who earlier served as a district superintendent in Arizona.

The two presenters cited AASA’s two-decade-old study titled “Where Are All the Women Superintendents?” written by Thomas Glass, which looked at the reasons why there are so few women in that role. They concluded not a lot has changed in the period since.

“Of our nation’s 13,728 superintendents, 1,984 today are women. Yet 72 percent of all K-12 educators in this country are women, according to the U.S. Department of Education,” the study said.

Hightower and Kishimoto asked the audience members if any of them had faced bias from members of their school boards? They also asked them to consider if the poor representation of women was due to many simply deciding not to pursue the top district role, and if not, why is that the case?

The consensus in one group was that it’s both, with one participant calling it a “double-edged sword” for men and women in the superintendency field.

One attendee talked about how, in job interviews with boards that are hiring, women often are asked about how they plan to balance work and taking care of their children, but men are rarely asked that same question.

Despite the challenges they face, many of the attendees said they were ready to get into some “good trouble” pushing for better gender representation.

“We are being disrupters and making change happen,” Kishimoto said.

The participants also were asked to generate ideas for how women in education can work to collectively create equity in their field. A superintendent from Montana said during the discussion that women have to fight for women mentors.

Hightower said the women in the room were working to be “equity warriors.”

The final question involved a networking activity. Attendees were encouraged to think about or write down the most disempowering challenge they face as a woman or woman of color in the education sector before each was asked to walk around the room and share their answers with their colleagues.

Despite trying to limit the amount of shared challenges to four, representatives from at least seven different groups came up to share their responses.

Some referenced how women of color can be misinterpreted when leading a group, how women feel they have to fight to get out of the “good-old boys club” and how women sometimes feel like they can’t speak up when they should.

Kishimoto and Hightower ended the program by inviting women superintendents to connect with each other and find concrete solutions to the problems plaguing K-12 education today.

(Sarah Maninger is a reporting intern with AASA’s Conference Daily Online and a senior journalism major and sports administration minor at Belmont University in Nashville.)

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