CEHHS Researcher Examines Gender Gap in School District Leadership
It might not be surprising to learn that the majority of school superintendents across the United States are male. But did you know that 20 percent of superintendents are named Michael, John, David, James, Jeff, Robert, Chris, Brian, or Steven? That’s just one of the findings from a study by Rachel White, assistant professor in the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences (CEHHS).
White’s research interests focus on who’s voices are heard in policy making and implementation as well as how leader’s decisions impact the educational experiences of students and teachers. Because no national dataset on superintendents existed, White created one and, in doing so, has begun to uncover important nuances of superintendent gender gaps.
“Because we have never had a national, longitudinal dataset of superintendents, we have not been able to explore variation in superintendent gender gaps across time or space—including the types of districts where males and females are hired, where they stay, and where they leave, ” said White. “For the first time ever, this dataset is allowing us to explore the spaces where there appears to be more gender equality in the superintendency and the types of districts where unequal access may be more prevalent.”
A recent article in EdSurge highlighted White’s research on the gender gap in American school district leadership. White’s research shows that males make up three-fourths of all superintendents nationwide. However, gender gaps vary tremendously from state to state: some states have almost the same number of male and female superintendents, while other states have eight males for every one female superintendent. In order to close the superintendent gender gap, females have to be replacing males who are exiting their positions. However, White found that males replaced males 51 percent of the time between 2019 and 2023. Only 22 percent of the time did females replace males.
White also found that female superintendents tend to serve in districts with significantly larger populations of the following:
- Emergent bilingual students, and/or English learners
- Students receiving individualized education plans
- Students receiving free & reduced price lunches
- Students identifying as Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) and Hispanic
Not only do female superintendents tend to be hired to serve in these districts, but they are also significantly more likely to stay in districts with these characteristics. In contrast, districts with significantly larger populations of these student demographics that are led by males are more likely to experience turnover.
An infographic produced by White demonstrates the gulf between males and females in superintendent roles. No matter the location; rural or town, urban or suburban, males dominate superintendent roles. At the current rate of growth in female superintendents, White estimates that gender equality could occur by 2035.
“While it seems promising that the gender gap is slowly narrowing, if we are to reach gender equality by 2035, it will be on the backs of a few states with large populations of superintendents making a lot of progress while other states make little to no progress, or even create wider gender gaps. In short, large inequities in the extent to which females have access to and do obtain superintendent positions will likely persist across states,” said White.
White’s research in garnering national media attention, including a story in Education Week and a TikTok video that has received over 36,000 views. If you would like to take a deeper dive into White’s research, you can read the journal article in Educational Researcher.
Through its eight departments and 12 centers, the UT Knoxville College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences enhances the quality of life for all through research, outreach, and practice. Find out more at cehhs.utk.edu