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.’”
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
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?”