Where are all the women in education leadership?

I had this idea to create Buzzfeed-like quizzes for Education Dive mapping out leadership styles to different fictional administrators in both the K-12 and higher ed spaces. Seemed fun and simple, and I was optimistic it would provide a traffic boost.

I spent hours trying to find fictional representations of administrators in TV/film. Part of this is because I don’t actually watch much television or see many movies, except football/baseball/crime drama. But the other part is because I’m obsessed with diverse representation, and I couldn’t find enough portrayals of women leaders in education to make my lists even. When I did find female characters, they were often characterized by immense ineptitude, a lack of moral competence (sleeping with male students or colleagues, often) and generally unpleasant attitudes.

I started doing research, and found that my anecdotal observations weren’t off-base. In the book “American Education in Popular Media: From the Blackboard to the Silver Screen,” authors found “The few women principals in popular media” tend to “be unconcerned with moral or legal guidelines, and sometimes mentally unstable,” which seemed to suggest “the very existence of female authority is the result of illegal, immoral and insane practices.”

When we put this in the context of the #metoo movement which took off on social media this week to show the number of women who have been impacted by sexual assault or sexual harassment, and we consider how few women are actually leaders (versus teachers) in the education space, these things all seem connected. On the K-12 side, the number of women principals has seemed to skyrocket in recent years, with women making up 52% of the nation’s principals, and 13.2% of district superintendents across the country, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics and the School Superintendents Association, respectively. In higher ed, only 30% of presidents are women. In both cases, predictably, white males dominate.

In the conversation about de-colonizing curricula, it is equally important that we recognize that the way to get there is through “de-colonizing” the leadership spaces where decisions are made. This week’s quiz observation was around women in leadership, but when we talk about people of color, the numbers are even more grim. With increasingly diverse student populations, which will become workforce populations, it is important to recognize systemic patterns of “othering” individuals who are not white and male, and to begin to dismantle the stigmas and glass ceilings our education system has created.


Autumn A. Arnett is an advocate for education equity, an HBCU alumna, Founder of A Black Child Can (aBlackChildCan.org). Connect with her via www.a2arnett.com.

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Autumn A. Arnett

Autumn A. Arnett is an advocate for education equity, an HBCU alumna, Founder of A Black Child Can (aBlackChildCan.org). Connect with her via www.a2arnett.com.