Overcoming ‘the broken rung’ on the ladder to the superintendency

Women superintendents discuss representation, barriers and equity at annual DSAG breakfast

By Wendy Shattuck

Dean Gallagher discusses the challenges women face in reaching the superintendency at the annual DSAG breakfast for women superintendents. (Brian Morri/211 Photography)

Over a dozen top district leaders, all members of the Dean’s Superintendents Advisory Group (DSAG), gathered on Jan. 31 in Palm Springs, Calif. after the annual DSAG awards dinner, to share perspectives about occupying the highest seat in public K-12 education. From the disparities in career pathways they face compared to male counterparts to unsolicited wardrobe advice, they related common experiences about the role and expectations.

Dean Gallagher established the brunch in 2015 to give a voice within DSAG to these professionals and provide a forum for workplace insights about the role and expectations.

One participant shared a realization she came to early on. She followed a man into the supe’s chair, and her district is particularly sports-dominated. The “guy” factor is important, she said. She had to work at that part of leading her district—paying attention to sports because of how much they meant to so many. A colleague across the table agreed that navigating and honoring those important “symbolic frames” like athletics can be critical to a leader’s success.

The group agreed that the concern about women’s representation within their ranks remains high. Women comprise just 21.7 percent of all superintendents in the U.S., according to AASA, The School Superintendents Association. For women of color, it is especially difficult to overcome the “broken rung” on the ladder to a superintendent’s seat. Today, just six percent of supes in the nation are of color, regardless of gender.

“All of us around the table mentor women in our organizations,” said one attendee. “What do superintendents need to do to accelerate these young professionals’ journey to the top?”

This story appeared in the USC Rossier Magazine Spring/Summer 2020 issue as “Women Superintendents Share Insights.”

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