Oregon is losing female school superintendents, new study highlights why

Christy Perry, superintendent of the Salem-Keizer School District, is seen in the reflection of a mirror in her office. Despite overseeing a teacher workforce that is overwhelmingly made up of women, just 25% of Oregon superintendents are women. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

In Oregon, school districts filled 29 openings for school superintendents this year.

Just eight were women. Of those, only three got contracts for more than a year. 

Such figures illustrate the gender gap playing out in hiring and retention among the state’s school district leaders, where men make up 75% of school superintendents, according to a new state report.

The study – “Just Not Ready For A Female: An Examination of the Inequities in Oregon’s Superintendency” – was produced by the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators, the Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Commission for Women.

Krista Parent is a director at the school administrators group and a member of the Oregon Commission for Women. She said the outdated comments and scrutiny women superintendents face were among the most jarring findings from the surveys conducted as part of the study.

“Really? We’re in 2021 and we have this kind of thinking still going on?” she said. “That school board members would talk to superintendents about the amount of makeup they wear? How they dress? That they smile too much?”

The study takes its name from a response the researchers got from one survey respondent, who detailed what she was told when she did not get a superintendent job.

“I was told, ‘The board isn’t going to hire you. [District] is just not ready for a female,’” the survey respondent is quoted as saying.

The study is the first of its kind in the state, and started with a group that the Education Department formed of women superintendents. 

The study was started in 2019, and included surveys and interviews of more than half of the 54 women superintendents who worked in Oregon during 2019. The study is just now being published, delayed by the pandemic.

Since 2019, the number of female superintendents has fallen to 49.

Recruitment problems

The survey results identified biases in hiring and a lack of women seeing themselves as leaders who should apply for districts’ top jobs.

Among the women surveyed, 38% had not applied to be a superintendent, but had served as interim superintendent after the former superintendent left, and then were given the job.

Heidi Sipe has been a superintendent in Oregon for 15 years. Today she’s superintendent of the Umatilla School District, west of Hermiston. She said she had not set out to be a school superintendent when she began her teaching career.

“I hadn’t seen a female superintendent growing up, or in any district I had served in teaching, or student teaching,” she said.

Sue Rieke-Smith, superintendent of the Tigard-Tualatin School District, said she was an “accidental superintendent.”

She was a travel nurse and public health professional, working in intensive care units before she began teaching English as a second language to 5th graders in the Salem-Keizer School District. After four years teaching, she was recruited into administrative positions at the district level before being recruited to be assistant superintendent in the Springfield School District. When the superintendent there left, she took on the role. 

While she was superintendent, she was also earning her doctorate in education, and defending her dissertation while she managed the district.

“You have to prove yourself every step of the way that you have worth,” she said. 

This played a large part in her decision to continue pursuing higher degrees while working. 

“It is one more piece that, in essence, codifies that we are capable of the work,” she said. “Female superintendents tend to have longer and broader academic resumes. Many of us have doctoral degrees.”

The study captures that, reporting more than half the women responding had a master’s degree and nearly 40% had a doctoral degree. 

Hiring bias

About six out of 10 women superintendents who responded to the surveys said they’d experienced bias in the hiring process when they moved from teaching to administration. Most reported the bias came from local school board members. 

Superintendents get hired by local school boards, made up of volunteers with varying degrees of experience in schools and education, elected to four-year terms.

In the study, many of the women surveyed suggested some of the bias in hiring was because of the lack of ethnic, socio-economic, gender and age diversity on school boards themselves. 

One superintendent quoted in the study was told she was a “wrong hire” and said she was told that “maybe someday I might be a nice small elementary school principal but I really had no place in the secondary world.”

The study found few women of color working as superintendents. One noted she continued to see people with less education and experience advance into leadership roles she had applied for. 

“I don’t know if it was because I was a woman, or [a woman of an historically underrepresented group], I just know people that have less experience than I have that get the jobs, and less education,” she’s quoted as saying. 

Sipe said she’s heard about such experiences frequently among the group of women superintendents she meets with once a month. 

“Some people are tapped and given opportunities and are well supported. Some have had to apply and prove themselves over and over again,” she said.

Retention problems

Half of the women superintendents in Oregon left in 2021, according to the study. Superintendent turnover is fairly high in Oregon, and nationally about 15% leave each year, according to the School Superintendents Association. Much of this is driven by self-promotion. A superintendent at a smaller district will continue to move into roles at larger and larger districts. 

But among the 17 women who left in 2021, nine retired, and seven left to take a non-superintendent, administrative role or were facing termination by school boards and resigned preemptively. One was fired. Four of the 17 were superintendents of color, two of whom left for jobs in other states.

The study said retaining women as superintendents is challenged by pay, microaggressions and work life balance.

Nearly half of the respondents reported that they made less than men in similar roles. 

The women also reported microaggressions – daily slights intended or not – such as being ignored, getting comments on their clothing, people assuming they were not the superintendent and getting questions from board members about their capabilities and work-life balance as a mother and superintendent. 

Some said they were left out of networking events and activities planned among men who were superintendents or school leaders. Others said they were asked to take on secretarial roles like note taking and filing paperwork. 

Some women said they had delayed motherhood or delayed becoming superintendent because doing both at once felt untenable. They called this the “maternal wall,” and because of it, the bulk of women superintendents in Oregon don’t begin their first superintendency until they are 41 or older. A third don’t start until they are at least 51.

The study recommends school districts and boards provide more mentors and arrange strong support from male leaders within the district.

Mentorship was key for Rieke-Smith, who said a woman who was a former superintendent at Salem-Keizer singled her out and worked with her.

She and Sipe also said the group they are part of through superintendents’ association, where women superintendents can talk monthly and mentor other women in school leadership, has been helpful. 

“We have that advocacy group, we network closely, we help each other navigate through sticky wickets,” Sipe said. 

The study said school boards should prioritize gender and ethnic equity in hiring, making institutional changes to increase access and inclusion for the job, supporting networking among superintendents and school leaders, offering better, more accessible training and fixing pay disparities. 

The study also suggested cultural competency training for school board members. 

Rieke-Smith also teaches at the University of Oregon College of Education. She said she tells her students that it’s important to consider the school board and district administrators they’ll be working with.

“I tell them, ‘You will not go in there and change hearts and minds. If you are getting a vibe, it will not change after you sign on the dotted line,’” she said. 

Rieke-Smith said that like other superintendents she was questioned by parents about her handling of distance learning and covid protocols. She received a fair number that called out her gender as a problem.

“I received many emails from male parents in the district that questioned my ability to be superintendent because I was female,” she said of her inbox this year. 

Parent said there are already 20 school district vacancies that will be open for the 2022-23 school year. 

“The pipeline to the superintendency is super shallow right now,” she said. “When we limit the pool to begin with because people don’t think women or people of color can lead, you create even more problems.”

Parent said the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators will present their findings at a national conference of school administrators and continue to discuss the study with the Oregon School Boards Association and the Education Department. 

Sipe, the Umatilla superintendent, worries that between the pandemic and the growing hostility against superintendents from some school boards and communities in the state, recruiting and retention challenges will grow.

“It’s fabulous work, I want people to take it on,” Sipe said. “I’m concerned for the future of superintendents – for men and women – cause it’s such a trying time and I worry people don’t want to take it on.”

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