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Women’s History Month Illuminates the Power of Women in Leadership and the Barriers to Keeping Them

Carrie Douglass

Women’s History Month Illuminates the Power of Women in Leadership and the Barriers to Keeping Them

With March being Women’s History Month, I’ve spent time reflecting on the incredible and diverse women in elected leadership. Many School Board Partners members who identify as women carry similar characteristics: they’re motivated by action, they are willing to identify the elephant in the room even when it makes others uncomfortable, and they tirelessly bang the equity drum, all in service of making lasting policy decisions on behalf of their districts’ students.

So many of our past fellows have passed monumental policies and led the charge toward fundamental changes in their districts. Jasmin Ramirez was one of our first fellows and served in a district where 99% of the student population was Latino. She was her district’s very first Latina school board member and she led the hiring of the district’s first Latino superintendent. Antonia Watts spearheaded dramatic improvements to her district’s superintendent evaluation process and I literally can’t keep up with how many policies Danielle Gonzales has written and passed. Passing new policy is difficult for any elected official, but these amazing women of color - and so many others - continue to stand strong in spite of sexism and racism because they know how much representation matters on a school board.

Representation of women is critical

Teaching has long been a woman-dominated field—except when it comes to leadership, where only 24% of superintendents across the country are women. And while the female population in the United States continues to edge out the male population, that representation is still lost in our school boards with roughly 43% of women at the decision-making table. With over half the population identifying as female, why are women still underrepresented in elected positions?

One reason is that it takes more encouragement for women to consider running for elected office than men. Before running for my district’s school board, I was hesitant because I didn’t think I was qualified. It took a combination of my own frustration over decisions being made and a half dozen people encouraging me to run before I finally took the plunge. I saw my candidacy as a way to represent teachers—I was the only candidate with experience in the classroom—and was running in service of others rather than my own personal aspirations.

Women bring a breadth of experience to a school board and provide a different perspective within the community, and therefore should hold a critical role in school leadership: the teaching workforce has always traditionally skewed toward women, many are seen as the primary caregivers, and most PTAs are comprised of women. Additionally, research indicates a number of benefits to having women in leadership positions: we tend to be better collaborators, are more community-focused, display high levels of honesty and integrity, and tend to be more humble than our male counterparts. School boards require cooperation, negotiation, and collaboration in order to see better student outcomes through the policy-making process, and women leaders tend to excel in those competencies.

Retention is the key

The issue is less about recruitment and more about retention. In 2022, the SBP report, “Empty Seats at Powerful Tables: The State of School Boards in America,” found that only 38% of current elected school board members planned to run for reelection—compared to 70% of incumbents running for reelection in 2016.

The make-up and complexities of school boards have morphed over the years, and striving for ample representation—whether gender, race, or ability—means additional barriers to overcome. More caretakers are running, more people with jobs are running, younger candidates with children at home are running… yet our board structures haven’t adjusted with the times. And let’s be honest, it takes a lot of time and resources to do this job well, all while battling issues of politics, racism, sexism, and beyond. The cherry on top is that many boards are unpaid or underpaid, and members are often undertrained and undersupported. Why must serving on a school board require martyrdom or privilege to do it well? If school board members belonged to a corporation, the company would try a number of retention strategies.

Uplift Your Elected Women Leaders

There are two primary ways to incentivize retention: better pay and better support for our boards. School board members need to be paid, have access to better resources, and have staff in order to do their jobs well and set them up for success. If we can change the structure and experience, boards will see better, more frequent successes and be prompted to stay. And as more policy wins turn into experience and outcome gains for students, our boards will be able to hold themselves more accountable for the outcomes.

As you reflect on the women in elected school leadership positions in your life, consider advocating for them by encouraging them to run or run again and advocating for a school board structure that supports better payment and resources for their members.