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Female superintendents are underrepresented, undercompensated and underrespected, report finds
When Krista Parent presents a study on Oregon female superintendents, she is often met with gasps and outrage. The superintendent gender equity research revealed a pattern of lower compensation, higher hurdles and overt sexism for women.
Female leaders have a different reaction.
“Women superintendents were pretty much like, ‘Oh, good I’m not the only one these things are happening to,’” said Parent, the director of executive leadership and licensure for the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators.
The report found “persistent gender inequity in both professional pathways and workplace cultures.” One of the study’s main goals is to create more awareness of the problem so school boards can address it, Parent said.
The research began in 2019, and the study is expected to be published soon. Parent, who has convened a women’s superintendent group, has been presenting the findings this school year to state leaders and education groups, including OSBA.
The OSBA Board was deeply interested and would like to have further conversations about its role, said Executive Director Jim Green. Although each school board makes its own decisions, Green said, OSBA strongly encourages school boards to consider a diverse pool of candidates.
“While Oregon has made some strides, we need to do a better job,” Green said.
In 2019, 54 of Oregon’s 197 school districts were led by women, and 31 of them were surveyed for the report. The report was a collaboration among COSA, the Oregon Department of Education, the Oregon Commission for Women and the governor’s office. It aims to identify barriers and supports for women and to create more pathways to the superintendent role.
Increasingly, educators have become aware that students do better when they see leaders who look like them and share their experiences.
Parent said Oregon is not doing its students justice by having so few leaders who are women or people of color.
This school year, 29 superintendent jobs opened up, nine of them held by women. Twenty of those jobs had been filled as of Friday, April 16, eight of them by women.
Parent said the problem will be magnified with the retirees including some longtime female superintendents.
“There’s this urgency that we’re going to lose a bunch of ground if we don’t put our pedal to the metal here and get after some of these issues,” she said.
OSBA provides superintendent search services. For seven completed searches this year, more than three-quarters of the applicants were men, but four jobs went to men and three jobs to women, according to OSBA Board Development Director Steve Kelley.
Because OSBA does not actively recruit candidates, there is little it can do about the pool, Kelley said, but OSBA does train board members to guard against discrimination and biases, conscious and subconscious, during the decision-making process.
Kelley said the report has prompted him to look deeper into gender disparities in the candidate pool. He said getting the right experience for more women will be key, and OSBA needs to work with other organizations to mentor or prepare women and people of color to get to the final step.
Unintentional gender biases sometimes sway school board members during the interview process, said Hank Harris, president of the search agency Human Capital Enterprises.
In a recent search, he said, a school board became aware that they were favoring a male candidate on intangible masculine-associated qualities such as charisma and confidence.
“They had a little bit of a wakeup conversation about whether they were holding the female candidate to a different standard,” he said. “They recognized that bias, and I think that was really enlightened of them.”
Gender roles and perceptions definitely play into the discrepancy, Parent said.
Married women tend to be less mobile, often following their husbands’ careers. They also usually take on more child care responsibilities, limiting their work availability. Another factor is that women often have backgrounds in curriculum and instruction while school boards are looking for more experience with budgets, transportation and athletics, Parent said.
“These are all stereotypes … but you can look at the data that bears this out,” Parent said.
Women in the survey reported they had to fight hard to get nearly the same pay as their male counterparts. Parent said the real differences came in other benefits, such as travel stipends or vacation time, that are more subject to self-advocacy. On average, women earned roughly $30,000 less in total compensation, she said.
COSA is working to provide school boards with fair comparisons of salaries and benefits to help guide contracts, she said.
Junction City Superintendent Kathleen Rodden-Nord is retiring this year after 18 years leading the district north of Eugene. She said school board members’ encouragement made the difference in getting her to apply for the superintendent job.
She said it helped that the district had created opportunities for administrators to get to know board members.
“They saw my commitment to the district,” she said.
Rodden-Nord’s daughters were 8 and 11 when she took the job. She said being an involved parent made her a better superintendent.
“It gives me a deeper level of insight into what the education experience is for our students,” she said.
Central Point Superintendent Samantha Steele is retiring after eight years leading the district north of Medford. Before becoming superintendent, she was the district’s director of education.
Steele said that if a district is happy with its trajectory, it should hire from within, which can help female candidates.
“Boards know leaders in their school districts,” she said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA