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Most teachers are women. But male educators take a ‘glass elevator’ to leadership positions

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Ever notice that school systems are typically led by male superintendents while the teaching staff predominantly consists of women?

A new report confirms that disparity, finding that women represent 76 percent of teachers in Massachusetts’ largest public schools but only 39 percent of the superintendents.

Thirty-one of the state’s largest public school districts, including liberal bastions Brookline and Newton, have never hired a woman superintendent. Even more dramatically, 143 systems have never had a superintendent of color, according to the report from the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy and the Women’s Power Gap Initiative of the Eos Foundation.


Only 12 of the largest districts are led by women of color, according to the report, which pointed to “power gaps” in leadership along racial and gender lines.

“White-dominant and patriarchal norms are deeply ingrained in ideas of leadership, even in education in Massachusetts,” Annelise Eaton, the Rennie Center’s research director and coauthor of the report, said in a statement. “Many female leaders we spoke with, especially women of color, expressed needing to work twice as hard and be twice as qualified to be considered for leadership positions.”

The report found that a glass ceiling for women persists in schools, despite the wealth of qualified candidates. Fifty-nine percent of those who have sought licensing and are qualified to be superintendents in Massachusetts are women, according to the report.

“There is significant data that women are more qualified for the role but aren’t getting it,” said Andrea Silbert, president of the Eos Foundation. She pointed to a need for training school committees and search committees to root out and eliminate unconscious bias.

For the study, researchers examined the 180 Massachusetts school districts with more than 1,500 students and conducted interviews with their superintendents. The report ranked the districts in terms of their advancement of women, without regard to race, by awarding points for having female superintendents over the past 10 years, or ever, and for the prevalence of women among principals, administrators, school committee members, and school committee chairs. Boston Public Schools, with its second female superintendent in 14 years, ranked 16th. The Western Massachusetts district of Greenfield, which has been overseen by two consecutive female superintendents, topped the list.


“It’s something we work on all the time. It’s one of the things we prioritize the most,” said School Committee Chair Amy Proietti. But she pointed to the continued need for racial diversity among faculty.

“We hardly have any staff at all of color and that we need to absolutely be working on,” she said. “Our goal is absolutely to be a reflection of our students so we give our students role models and support systems that reflect who they are as people. We don’t have that yet.”

The report found that people of color, meanwhile, are underrepresented in Massachusetts schools, not only in leadership positions but in the pipeline of educators who could be considered for administrative posts. Only 9 percent of teachers are people of color in Massachusetts classrooms, compared to 43 percent of students, the report found.

By tracing career paths and previous education positions, researchers were able to demonstrate that men are advancing more swiftly up the administrative ladder.

“That’s something we started to hear through interviews and was kind of shocking,” said Elle Jansen, senior associate at the Rennie Center. In the largest districts, women are on seemingly solid paths to becoming superintendents: 68 percent of elementary principals are women, as are 60 percent of assistant superintendents.


“But where are all the superintendents coming from?” Jansen said. It turned out many were vaulting from a position as principal or assistant superintendent to the superintendent’s office. Women were taking many more stops along the way and often failing to move past the assistant superintendent role.

Researchers called it a “glass elevator,” putting white men on a faster track to overseeing school systems than women or people of color.

“That is without a doubt what’s going on,” Silbert said.

Silbert pointed to a male former superintendent who told researchers that men are often hired for their personal characteristics, whereas women tend to be hired based on their credentials and qualifications.

“They often give men the benefit of the doubt in terms of their potential, and women have to check every box,” Silbert said.

One female superintendent quoted in the report said male teachers are more likely to be recognized for their leadership qualities. “It just didn’t happen for me,” she said. “It was a boys club. Male [physical education] teachers became assistant principals and principals. Not women.”

The report documented that men were identified for their leadership potential early and were commonly promoted to the superintendent’s office straight from the principal’s office, while women took more incremental steps and assistant positions on their rise in administration. Few women made the same leap, and elementary school principals, who are predominantly female, were very seldom tapped directly for superintendent’s positions. Of the half-dozen elementary principals who were promoted to be superintendent, five were men. The report concluded that gender bias is at play, preventing women educators from being viewed as leaders while men are readily viewed that way.


“I was surprised and also validated in seeing the data where men leapfrog to these positions,” Lawrence Public School Superintendent Cynthia Paris said during a panel discussion on the report, pointing to her own doubts about whether she could ascend as quickly.

“Because credentials felt like something that needed to be proven as a woman, that was something that I would not have dared to even attempt,” she said.

Women spend more time in the classroom than men before progressing to administrative positions, the study said, citing national data. Women might teach for seven to 10 years, compared to men’s five to six. And men are less likely than women to serve as assistant superintendents, or stay in the job as long if they do, before becoming the top administrator.

The Women’s Power Gap Initiative was created by the Eos Foundation in 2018 to increase the number of women from diverse backgrounds in leadership positions. The initiative has previously commissioned research on other sectors of the economy, including higher education and high-ranking executives.

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Follow her @StephanieEbbert.