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A New Pitch for Parity

Confronting the biases that stand in the way of gender equity in educational leadership

July 12, 2016
Miho Kubagawa and Stephanie Downey Toledo

“You look like a superintendent.”


That was the written feedback that a male classmate received after a class presentation last fall. A female classmate received a different kind of “feedback.”

“Nice shoes.”

This was our lightbulb moment, begging the question: How do our implicit biases affect our views of who can be a leader? Despite the fact that three out of four public school teachers are women, nearly three out of four superintendents are men. Of the 25 largest school districts in the country, women lead fewer than a third. The numbers are even more sobering for women of color. Not surprisingly, a quick Google search of “state school superintendents” results in images of leaders who are overwhelmingly pale and male.

As students in the Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, we know that this is not about a talent gap. Women represent roughly 60 percent of our Ed.L.D. alumni network of 100 education leaders, many of whom are at the top levels of school districts and organizations across the country. And yet, at our country’s current rate, it will take more than 75 years for us to reach gender parity in the superintendent position.

This cannot be our reality.

While we work toward a more just system that gives all children equal access to an excellent education, we simultaneously seek a more just sector that enables all women who strive for positions at the top to reach their full potential. This is why we are launching SponsHER, a venture that pushes for gender equity at the most senior levels of the largest and leading school districts, charter management organizations, and nonprofits. 

Instead of urging women to “lean in” and “say yes,” we’re urging organizations to be the change by deliberately cultivating talented women at all levels. One way to do that is to formally identify individuals who are in positions of influence and power who can commit to sponsoring aspiring female leaders through growth opportunities and advocacy for promotions. Research shows that men are sponsored, formally and informally, more frequently, while women are overwhelmingly over-mentored and under-sponsored. By asking organizations to develop leadership plans for talented women and people of color, managers and leadership teams actually begin to walk the walk of diversity and inclusion, resulting in more creativity, greater innovation, and better results.

We know this is not groundbreaking. In fact, many organizations — from Wall Street to Silicon Valley — are leading the way in pursuing gender equity. Last month, we joined 5,000 activists from all 50 states and of all gender identities at the White House for a summit on the United State of Women, where we had the chance to engage in meaningful dialogue around a wide range of issues affecting women, including how to break barriers and shatter glass ceilings. We heard how Google, Dropbox, and NASA are working to support the development and retention of talented women. We also got to hear directly from President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and First Lady Michelle Obama, among many others, on their commitment to gender equity.

As educators, we have a lot to learn from organizations that put their commitment to equity at the top of the agenda. While the three-day summit was a celebration of how far we have come as a nation, the continuing challenge is clear: men and women hold unconscious biases that stand in the way of gender equity in leadership — and we all have a role to play in confronting these biases. Be attentive to workplace norms. In meetings, who gets air time and who gets interrupted? When it’s time to hire and promote, are candidates diverse in representation and backgrounds? When it comes to retention, are workplace policies family friendly? No parent should have to choose between work or family, especially if her career is just about to take off in the organization.

And above all, seek to make gender equity our collective challenge, one we'll tackle together — not just “her” issue to tackle alone. That way, the next time an aspiring female leader is seeking feedback after a presentation, we can talk to her about her career, not her shoes.

About the Author

Miho Kubagawa
Miho Kubagawa is a candidate for the Doctor of Education Leadership degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is working with her colleague, Stephanie Downey Toledo, to address the gender gap in education leadership by raising awareness, supporting aspiring female leaders, and partnering with interested school districts who look to recruit, cultivate, and retain talented women of diverse backgrounds.   
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Stephanie Downey Toledo
Stephanie Downey Toledo is a candidate for the Doctor of Education Leadership degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is working with her colleague, Miho Kubagawa, to address the gender gap in education leadership by raising awareness, supporting aspiring female leaders, and partnering with school districts looking to recruit, cultivate, and retain talented women of diverse backgrounds.
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Diversity and Inclusion Education Policy School Leadership