Slowly Climbing the Leadership Ladder

How to advance your career faster than a snail in mud.

Topics: Equity and Diversity, Women in Leadership

In 2023, the National Center for Educational Statistics reported that 56 percent of all public school principals in the 2020–2021 school year were female. That appears to show equitable gender representation at first glance, but the same report says that 77 percent of all teachers that year were women.

How is it that—given that the pool of candidates for building-level leadership positions is made up primarily of females (teachers)—the representation of females in the principalship is 20 percent lower? Wouldn’t equity in this role show proportionate representation in leadership from teacher to principal? And what do the numbers look like for female principals who aspire to become superintendents?

The 2020 Decennial Report released by AASA, The School Superintendents Association, in 2023, indicated that in 10 years, the gender gap narrowed 2.6 percentage points in the superintendency. In 2010, 24.1 percent of all superintendents were female, which climbed—like a snail stuck in mud—to 26.7 percent in 10 years. Let that sink in: From a teaching force dominated by women, an inverse relationship exists in respect to the percentage of women who climb to top positions. How is this possible? More importantly, how can women be supported in their ascension into executive leadership roles at the school and district levels?

Three critical supports can make all the difference for women in educational leadership and can be implemented immediately: mentoring, networking, and self-care. These strategies support women in performing their current roles while they continue to push for the goal of a leadership position.

Build a Mentor/Mentee Relationship

Mentorship is a strategy that usually describes a relationship between a person holding a lower-level or new position (the mentee) and a person holding a higher-level position in the same field or the same position for a longer time (the mentor).

“If you want something, dream, dare, do it,” Shirley Liu said in her 2019 TEDx Talk, “Why the Power of Mentoring Can Change the World.” “If you want something extraordinary, dream, dare, do it with great mentors.”

This strategy is often a key recommendation in supporting female and aspiring leaders of color and those already in leadership roles. Mentorship can help female leaders develop confidence, leadership, and networking skills. But gender-based mentoring pairs are hard to come by for female superintendents, since there is a lack of mentors and role models.

Mentoring can occur in formal programs or through informal relationships. Programs, businesses, agencies, educational institutions, and industries offer formal mentorship programs targeting aspiring leaders who are women and people of color and those in leadership positions. Many programs are managed by a coordinator who develops and trains mentors, conducts an ongoing evaluation of the program, and matches a mentee to a mentor.

Different criteria may be taken into account when matching mentor and mentee: For instance, gender, ethnicity, age, current position, years in the role, and physical location all need to be considered as part of the connection. Formal programs are often not readily accessible; as recently as 2019, only 1 percent of people in the U.S. were participating in a formal mentorship program, Liu said.

Many women in leadership roles develop informal mentorships authentically through past supervisors or relationships. Informal mentor relationships that evolve from existing or new friendships are founded in common interests and bonds, and they have been found to foster confidence and build capacity.

This more natural pairing leads to a stronger sense of trust; with no set requirements or boundaries on the mentorship, there is no pressure on the mentor or mentee to develop an intimate relationship quickly. When mentor and mentee find connections through values, background, experiences, and outlook, it can lead to a deeper relationship.

Leaders in all professions highlight the impact a support system can have on their career development, especially one that offers coaching or mentorship, and support can change the historical trajectory of women in education. With that in mind, it is important for aspiring leaders to consider with whom they surround themselves and interact.

Form or Join Professional Networks

In 2012, Oprah Winfrey stated in a widely publicized speech to Spelman College’s graduating class, “Surround yourself with people who will lift you higher.” This advice holds true for female leaders, and one way to accomplish this goal is by building professional networks.

Networks encourage formation of peer groups and mentoring relationships, which can foster career satisfaction and belonging. Peer groups can be formal, such as a women in leadership group, or they can be informal, with work colleagues.

Women need support professionally and personally to make it in educational leadership. It is imperative to create spaces where women can think, speak, and listen about issues that are important to them and affect their daily lives in leadership.

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In highlights how friends who are at similar stages in their careers can provide useful counsel and might understand problems that their superiors don’t—especially if those superiors created the problems. Informal peer groups are critical to women’s success; we need opportunities to discuss critical issues in leadership such as leading from one’s strengths, networking, work-life balance, acting as smart as you are, and identifying new leaders. Informal peer groups tap different perspectives.

Sandberg and her team at created Lean In Circles as an outlet for women to network, build skills, and become better leaders. Lean In Circles meet virtually and in person worldwide, offering resources free of charge. Other formal networking groups are affiliated with professional organizations and focus on affinity groups.

Find a Self-Care Outlet

Educational leadership and its high-level responsibilities can produce intense levels of stress. Often, female leaders in particular might feel additional stress as a result of working in a male-dominated, gender-​organized system. Women can care for themselves by being intentional and strategic and by participating in specific practices regularly. Engaging in a systematic approach that considers wellness and self-care can improve the health and productivity of female leaders.

Women have been shown to use different coping mechanisms than men to handle stress. While male leaders might engage in “action-​oriented” coping responses such as sports and exercise, women more frequently engage in “emotion-focused” strategies (e.g., venting, avoidance). This is changing, however, and women are seeing more benefits from action-based approaches to wellness and self-care.

Mindfulness practices can be a key resource not only in reducing stress, but also to balance and prioritize the many responsibilities of female leaders. New research says that the benefit of mindfulness practices goes beyond the individual to add to the organization’s overall health.

Incorporating mindfulness into the workday can include taking daily mindfulness breaks or using a meditation app. Informal yoga stretching and breathing exercises can help, too; investigate several practices and select and develop a routine for one that resonates.

Having a mindfulness partner can help maintain a routine by supporting accountability. Choose someone in the organization who might already be engaging in regular mindfulness practices, or find an individual who might be willing to explore a mindfulness program with you. A partner can serve as a source for reflection and discussion about the mindfulness journey.

Closing the Representation Gap

These three strategies can provide critical support to aspiring and current female leaders. By engaging in mentoring programs, women can learn from experienced colleagues how to navigate leadership roles. Adding formal and informal professional networks empowers women leaders through a web of supports. And finally, women can mitigate stress through strategies that speak to their emotionally focused needs. Together, the three strategies can help women go elbow-to-elbow with their male counterparts.

Sylvia Zircher is superintendent of South River Public Schools in Middlesex County, New Jersey.

Deborah Bleisnick is an education specialist with the New Jersey Department of Education.

Lindsay Jablonski is supervisor of language arts at West Windsor Plainsboro Regional School District in West Windsor, New Jersey.

Tracy Mulvaney is an associate professor at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey.