Why Women School Principals Matter
June 21, 2022
Women in school leadership roles foster collaborative environments. They're also more likely to promote equity and social justice issues, all of which can improve student outcomes.
School principals play an essential role in the educational system. They oversee hiring, exercise critical leadership skills to keep schools functioning successfully, and impact student learning outcomes through decisions on curriculum, discipline, and establishing a hospitable learning environment. Principals evaluate teacher performance, manage budget allocations, supervise school personnel, and oversee curriculum standards—and that's just a portion of what's involved in this school leadership role. That's why it is essential to ensure the right people fill these leadership positions, and that they have the skills and competencies to take on this daunting task.
Although principals essentially serve as executive directors of a school, they also perform a wide range of duties that affect everyone within school walls. Their days serving solely as a school's chief executive are long past. Today's principals are more involved in student learning and achievement as well as building relationships with families and school communities. This relatively recent trend is called instructional leadership; it involves setting clear achievement goals, securing instructional resources, monitoring curriculum, and evaluating teachers.
So, how does gender fit into the picture? Educational research indicates that women principals consistently obtain more favorable ratings in the field of instructional leadership. These high ratings may be due to:
- Unique traits of women in leadership positions, such as leading with empathy
- Awareness of inequities to help develop an inclusive school culture
- Effectiveness in boosting teacher morale by enhancing the principal-teacher relationship
- Building from the bottom up rather than from the top down through transformational leadership
Furthermore, The Relationship of Principal Leadership and Teacher Morale (Rowland, Liberty University) indicates that some educators find female administrators more supportive, approachable, sensitive, understanding, nurturing, organized, creative, and receptive than male principals. A principal's impact on teacher morale indirectly but measurably affects student outcomes.
What percentage of public school principals are women?
Women constitute 76 percent of educators in elementary and secondary school classrooms. The proportion of women in leadership and administration is increasing, with a 10 percent growth rate between the 1999-2000 and 2017-18 school years (growing from 44 percent to 54 percent). The data skews toward elementary school, where women constitute nearly 60 percent of all principals. That figure drops off to 28.5 percent at the secondary-school level. Most senior administrators—such as superintendents—advance from the high-school level, helping explain why women make up only 24 percent of superintendents.
Why women school principals matter
Studies have shown that women tend to lead more democratically, employing transformational leadership skills that help boost morale and teacher retention. In contrast, male participants often rely more on their top position of authority and decision-making skills, seldom using feedback from teachers with more instructional experience.
Female principals typically have more years of teaching experience before they ascend into educational leadership roles. This enables them to tap into more extensive experience when providing input for instructional leadership training or classroom observations, which in turn helps build trust among teachers, students, families, and the community.
Women principals lead with empathy
Women tend to be more empathetic than men, a trend that holds true in their professional as well as their personal lives. Empathy promotes teamwork and collegiality, as one vice-principal told the authors of Understanding the Role of Female School Principals: An Exploratory Case Study of Four Female Principals in a Metropolitan City in China. She described her approach as "caring, intuitive, and open, enabling her to be more persuasive and successful at bringing students, teachers, and parents around to her standpoint while still making them feel understood, valued and supported."
Research has shown that leading with empathy positively affects:
- Teacher and student retention
- Work-life balance
Women principals strive to create equitable and inclusive school cultures
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed inequities in education, most noticeably with regard to the disparity in technology access among different racial and economic groups. Women principals led social justice efforts to rectify the situation; A Study of Black Female Principals Leading through Twin Pandemics details how Black female principals engaged in advocacy and community rebuilding, taking their role outside of the school walls to address the needs of their students. Measures included printing hard copies of assignments for students without internet access and establishing food distribution sites for needy students.
Another study revealed that women principals are more likely to serve in disadvantaged communities, placing them in roles "addressing the social justice issues inherent in ideals about equality of opportunity in order to challenge the reproduction of disadvantage." Women's empathy advantage (see above) works to make them more effective in this role.
Women principals rank higher in instructional and transformational leadership
The principal-teacher relationship is critical to promoting student achievement. It also creates a working environment with clearly established goals and constructive feedback from school leaders, while also leaving room for teacher input. Instructional and transformational leadership skills facilitate these productive conditions.
Research indicates that female leaders rank higher in instructional and transformational leadership than male leaders. One study found that male leaders engaged more in contingent reward behaviors such as extrinsic motivation, a component of transactional leadership (in contrast to transformational leadership). Transformational leadership empowers teachers and helps cultivate future leaders by building from the bottom up rather than the top down. Transformational leadership can also include mentoring or professional development opportunities that improve teacher satisfaction and career advancement.
Transformational leadership correlates with teacher empowerment and growth. Instructional leadership seeks to improve teaching and learning to impact positive student outcomes. Principals who embody this leadership style are deeply involved in curriculum and instruction. Female principals engage more actively in instructional leadership than male principals, according to one study.
Toward an improved future
The gender gap in school principalship is the widest at the high school and school district superintendent levels, where women fill less than one-third of leadership positions. The road to promotion for women takes longer than for men, averaging an additional year or more of teaching experience before being promoted to assistant principal and then an additional eight months, on average, to advance from a vice principal to principal. There's also a compensation gap: female principals earn about $1,000 less than male principals annually.
To remedy this gender disparity, many programs seek future leaders who can strengthen the pipeline of qualified women and minority candidates. Programs for aspiring principals or current principals seeking the next step in their career include:
- National Aspiring Principals Fellowship, including a one-year Principal Certification Track or 16-month Masters + Certification Track
- AASA National Superintendent Certification Program for early career superintendents
The National Aspiring Principals Fellowship is a new program built on the 20+ year framework of New Leaders, combined with the curriculum of two distinguished historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University. The program embraces many of the characteristics upheld by women, including leading with empathy, creating an inclusive school culture, reaching every child, and measuring learning outcomes.
Principals who commit to lifelong learning can improve leadership skills to take their careers to the next level. This way, educational leaders can stay up-to-date on the most relevant and timely resources to become effective principals, school administrators, school board members, district leaders, or superintendents. Programs like the National Aspiring Principals Fellowship develop leaders and role models for tomorrow's increasingly diverse school systems.
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