Superintendents oversee virtually every aspect of a school district, from ensuring that its curriculum meets approved standards to meeting with parents regarding their child’s education. As leaders, superintendents can enact positive, lasting change that benefits the lives of students, teachers, and administrators. They must be able to set an example, inspire others, encourage teamwork, and celebrate successes and failures. Success as a superintendent depends on these qualities, qualities that are clearly not limited to any one race, gender, or professional background. And yet, one demographic remains underrepresented in superintendency in the State of Texas and the nation at large.  

Despite the fact that the majority of K-12 educators are women, only 24% of superintendents are women. Why is the percentage of female superintendents so low, and how does gender impact leadership style? As we answer these questions, consider that informed, passionate educators and administrators are increasingly making inroads toward closing this gap, and every day brings us closer to parity in superintendency. We still have a long way to go, but the path to becoming a superintendent has never been clearer.  

The Gender Gap in School Superintendents  

The underrepresentation of women in superintendency can’t be attributed to any single barrier. Barriers between women and leadership roles lie in societal norms and beliefs—conscious and unconscious—regarding leadership. School board members and headhunters alike can question whether a woman can handle the demands of being a superintendent. These gatekeepers sometimes perceive women as wives, mothers, and caregivers before they are seen as leaders. Women are also more likely than men to set self-imposed barriers on their professional prospects, such as opting not to relocate because of their family or spouse, or assuming that they are underqualified for a role and therefore not applying. 

The path to becoming a superintendent is another barrier separating women from leadership roles. While there are exceptions, prospective superintendents in Texas must hold a Principal certificate or equivalent issued by the Texas Education Agency. This certification requirement is common across the nation, as over 80% of superintendents were previously middle and high school principals. The problem? The majority of high school and middle school principals are male, whereas women make up the majority of elementary school principals.  

It’s clear that women possess the training and experience necessary to succeed as superintendents, but they’re rarely given the opportunity to prove themselves, and the education field is the worse for it.  

Women as Superintendents  

When a woman does land the role of superintendent, she can still encounter challenges navigating a male-dominated workplace. Work harder, be stronger, look happier—female superintendents can sometimes feel that they are judged by a different standard than their male counterparts, and for good reason. Everything from their professional dress to their perceived family obligations is under scrutiny.  

Female superintendents can be perceived as “emotional,” presumably leading with their hearts instead of their heads. This notion is reflected in a comparative study on gender bias within the superintendency. When asked about their experience as superintendents, female participants described having to be strategic in order to get their point across to men. According to one participant, female superintendents don’t have the luxury of waking up in a bad mood: “Especially for women, you have to self-talk, all the time; it never goes away. You have to put yourself in check all the time.”  

All participants, however, shared a passion for their work and a commitment to improving school environments and fostering student learning. Male and female superintendents alike noted the importance of gaining self-knowledge, having a shared vision, and improving the lives of children. Female superintendents may face increased scrutiny where none is warranted, but their commitment to the field of education remains resolute.  

Leadership Qualities  

Women face an uphill battle becoming and being superintendents, which is a shame considering the unique leadership qualities they possess. A study conducted by Dr. Jessica Garrett, a recently retired associate professor at The University of Texas Permian Basin’s College of Education, looked at the leadership practices of female superintendents in Texas. Participants were asked to rate how frequently they exhibit the five practices of exemplary leadership: 

  • Model the Way 
  • Inspire a Shared Vision 
  • Challenging the Process 
  • Enabling Others to Act 
  • Encourage the Heart 

While all superintendents value these practices, everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. Researchers found that female superintendents rated themselves higher in areas that have been shown to have the greatest positive impact on institutions: encourage the heart and inspire and share a vision. Superintendents who inspire a shared vision create a goal-oriented system where others are inspired to contribute to an envisioned future. Superintendents who encourage the heart recognize the gifts of others and celebrate their contributions.  

Helping others feel not only valued for their unique qualities but also included in the pursuit of a common goal are some of the most important traits a leader can have. While women continue to be underrepresented in superintendency, entire school districts are missing out on individuals with qualities that can inspire students, teachers, and administrators to reach new heights. Moreover, administrators are most often mentored by male superintendents, meaning that the leadership practices that female superintendents excel at might not be passed down to new superintendents. As the number of female superintendents continues to rise, albeit gradually, the leadership qualities they possess can be passed down to new superintendents of either gender.  

Becoming a Superintendent 

The path to becoming a superintendent is fraught with challenges, but it remains a rewarding career like no other. As a superintendent, you can shape the future of your school district and ease the path towards superintendency for other female educators and administrators. At UT Permian Basin, we want to make your transition into the role of superintendent as smooth as possible. Our superintendent certification program is 100% online and designed to develop effective school leaders who are able to envision, articulate, and implement a vision of student success. Apply to our online Superintendent Certification program and become a leader in the Texas public school system.