AEFP 45th Annual Conference

Toward a Meaningful Impact through Research, Policy & Practice

March 19-21, 2020

Pathways to the Superintendency: Examining Educators' Career Paths

Jennifer D. Timmer, Vanderbilt University,

Women’s participation in the labor force has increased dramatically over the past several decades, but women are still significantly underrepresented in leadership positions in many fields. In education, a field dominated by women, these disparities in representation in leadership positions might be less expected. However, while women comprise about 77% of the teacher workforce in the US, only 54% of principals are women, and just 23% of superintendents are women. There were major gains in the share of superintendent positions held by women in the 1980s and 1990s, though those trends have flattened out since 2005, with little growth the number of women in this leadership position. Given the demographics of the teaching profession and educators more broadly, there is a severe lack of representation of women in the superintendency.
Previous research has suggested several possible reasons few women become superintendents. There may be differences in men’s and women’s career aspirations, with fewer women aspiring to the superintendency (Munoz, Mills, Pankake, & Whaley, 2014). Women may also make different lifestyle choices, avoiding family relocation or long commutes (Sperandio & Devdas, 2015). Additionally, hiring practices, administrative norms, and dominant ideological and sociocultural values may limit opportunities for women (Tallerico, 2000). Still, little is known about career pathways of educators as they ascend to the superintendency and where gender differences may exist along the pipeline.
In this study, we examine common pathways to the superintendency and how they differ between men and women. We analyze the career paths of educators using rich statewide administrative data from Missouri spanning 1991 to 2016. We ask three research questions. First, what are the common pathways educators take in ascending to the superintendency, and do they differ between men and women? Second, upon attaining common pre-superintendency leadership positions, are men and women equally likely to move into the superintendency? Third, are men and women equally likely to be promoted to other positions within district hierarchies?
We first perform a descriptive analysis of common educator pathways and how they differ between men and women. Next, for each of the most common positions that leads into the superintendency (i.e., assistant superintendent, principal, central office), we use ordinary least squares regression to estimate the binary probability of becoming a superintendent in the next year compared to being in any other position. Then, we examine the probability of advancing to positions of increased responsibility conditional on having obtained a particular position. In these models, the outcome may be (1) superintendent, (2) a different leadership position, including assistant principal, principal, central office employee, or assistant superintendent, or (3) a non-leadership position.
We find that men and women have similar levels of education and years of total experience when hired into the superintendency, with most (84%) having principal experience. Men were more likely to have been an assistant superintendent, though women were more likely to have held other central office positions.
Most superintendents come from either a principalship or the central office (either assistant superintendent or another administrative position), so we examine the likelihood of moving from one of those positions to the superintendency, finding that men are more likely than women to be promoted from each of these three positions even when controlling for educator, school, and district characteristics. Men are about 2.5 times as likely as women to be promoted from a principal position, 1.7 times as likely from an assistant superintendent position, and 3.2 times as likely from another central office role.
Further, men are more likely to be promoted than women throughout the district hierarchy. Male teachers are almost four times as likely as women to be promoted to principal or assistant principal. Men and women assistant principals have a similar chance of moving to a principalship, though men are more likely to attain high school principalships, positions that are particularly valued as preparation for district-level leadership. Male principals are more likely to move directly to the superintendency or to an assistant superintendent position, though the men and women are similarly likely to move into a different central office role. Finally, amongst central office personnel, male assistant superintendents are almost twice as likely to be promoted to superintendent, and men in other central office roles are more than three times as likely as women.
The results of our study suggest that men are more likely than women to be promoted throughout school and district leadership hierarchies. Systemic inequities in the promotion of men and women educators at all levels may be affecting women educators’ career ambitions and trajectories.



This is fascinating work! I'm really intrigued by the takeaway about what grad schools can do to help reduce the gender gap. That would be a great topic to explore in more detail.

The flattening out of progress in 2008 is triking, particularly since that coincides with the Great Recession. Do suspect that the financial status of the districts matters? One method for getting some suggestive evidence on that is to see if different types of central office employees are promoted after the Great Recession. And, if Missouri generates financial status indicators for districts, it might be interesting to interact that with female.

I think this is such an important issue to focus on, along with differences in leadership position by teachers/leaders of color. Your findings, while not surprising, are really interesting. I see that you did comparisons by geography, have you done comparisons by district size? Also, have you looked at experience level at entry into leadership positions. My hunch is that men enter leadership roles earlier, allowing them to move more quickly into roles such as superintendent (the whole problem of women being less likely to apply for a position they don't think they're truly qualified for, whereas men will go for it). Just a thought- wish there was an opportunity for dialogue- maybe in the future. FYI- the NYS Council of School Superintendents is actively working to address some of these issues through mentoring & prof learning opportunities @nyschoolsupts

This is an interesting study on an important topic. It's great to see deep descriptive dives into where the pipeline for female leaders begins to leak. The bar that sticks out for me is the red bars on the bar graphs showing promotion rates into superintendency positions, etc. What types of positions fall into the "other" bucket there (for instance, looking at the graph that shows greater rates of promotion of male principals into superintendent and associate superintendent positions). Does this include only leadership positions that we would consider more "senior" to principals, or does this include transition into all other educational roles (including back into the teaching workforce)?

Thanks for you comment, Cassie! Apologies for being unclear about the "other" category. It encompasses all school/district positions other than those specifically included as possible outcomes. So, it does include movement back into a teaching position, for example. As another example, for current principals, it also includes movement into an AP position.

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