Women in education: USU research reveals few women become superintendents

Two years ago, Taryn Kay was appointed superintendent of the Grand County School District, which meant that she took office in the midst of a global pandemic.

He spent his first year as superintendent navigating mask requirements and leading efforts to help students who had experienced learning loss get back on their feet after attending school online during the final months of 2020.

Each day brought new challenges, but Kay drew on her nearly 30 years of experience as a classroom teacher, director of special education, and principal in Grand County Schools to guide her through the superintendency.

She clearly wanted the job, having applied for the superintendent position on two previous occasions.

“They employed men in both cases, both not from Moab. When I became superintendent, they actually appointed me,” he said.

A 2019 study conducted by the Association of School Superintendents found that while 72% of K-12 educators were women, only 13% of school superintendents were women.

“I think it’s kind of interesting. I’ve always wondered about that when a large percentage of teachers are women and a large percentage of administrators are men,” Kay said.

In Utah, 14% of the state’s 41 public school districts are run by women. Kay is one of six of those superintendents, now entering her third year on the job.


Memorabilia hang in Grand County School District Superintendent Taryn Kay’s office in Moab, Friday, July 22, 2022.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Utah State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson was appointed by the state school board in 2016 and is only the second woman to hold the top job in 55 years.

The number of female directors has increased in recent years, but Utah also trails national rates. There is a much higher percentage of female principals in elementary schools than in middle and high schools.

Some of the highest percentages of female leaders in K-12 education in Utah are found in charter schools, where just over 60% have female principals, and among Utah elementary school assistant superintendents, of whom 71.4% are women, according to the report. .

A new report from the Women and Leadership Project at Utah State University shows some upward trends, particularly in the number of women leading public charter schools.

Susan Madsen, founding director of the leadership project and one of the study’s authors, said she hopes more women will play leadership roles in K-12 education in the future.

“Having equal representation of male and female leaders in our schools is critical, as both have diverse backgrounds and skills that can complement each other,” Madsen said in a statement.

The report’s other authors, Hannah Payne and Kim Buesser, who are research associates with the Utah Women and Leadership Project, note that “women in leadership offer more diverse pathways to better decision-making, and women in general are more committed to inclusion and cooperation”. in the workplace.”

The presence of women in leadership positions provides female role models for staff and students, which research suggests may have a positive impact on women’s leadership behaviors, the researchers wrote.

Kay said that at different points in her career she was encouraged to pursue leadership opportunities, something she also encourages women educators to do.

“I just let people know they can do it and not to get discouraged if they don’t get something in the first round,” he said. Kay said that in her experience, interview committees tended to be more receptive to male candidates, which is also interesting considering that local school board elected members in Utah are almost evenly split between men and women. .

As the USU report, “The State of Utah’s Women Leaders in Public Education (K-12): A 2022 Update” concludes, research shows that “most people don’t realize the value of have women in key leadership positions in educational institutions.

The report notes extraordinary challenges that “continue to plague public institutions in Utah and the United States,” including the long-term consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, rising social unrest, gun violence, burnout among teachers and school staff and recent surges. in depression and other mental health conditions among young people.

“Strong leaders with outstanding capabilities are needed more than ever,” the report states.

“To effectively combat these challenges, Utah must make timely progress with women’s leadership, especially in K–12 education,” according to the report.

Lexi Cunningham, executive director of the Utah Association of School Superintendents, said the career path for women educators typically takes them from classroom teacher to assistant principal or principal and then perhaps to a position in district administration.

“Unless you have a really good mentor, that’s not something you think about,” Cunningham said of women in a superintendent position. She herself has been a superintendent in Arizona and most recently in the Salt Lake City School District.

“You just don’t have a lot of role models that look like you and I think representation matters.”

The six women leading Utah school districts, with Gina Butters of the Weber School District being the most recent hire, are “phenomenal leaders,” Cunningham said. “They are respected within their districts. They are respected by their peers. They are doing amazing things, as are all of our superintendents.”

The state superintendents association is a relatively small organization, but superintendents are collegial and help each other succeed, he said.

“They are the only 41 people in the state who know how difficult their job is,” Cunningham said.

“When you’re new and a superintendent shows up, introduces himself and says ‘Call me anytime,’ he means it. You can call them at any time. And they will, they will do everything they can to help.”

Kay said she “felt really welcomed” by her male counterparts. “If I have a question, they are quick to help me, answer me or guide me in a direction, and vice versa, right? If they call me, the same thing happens,” she said.


Grand County School District Superintendent Taryn Kay poses for a photo at the district offices in Moab on Friday, July 22, 2022.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Kay said she hopes the upcoming school year will be more focused on education and less on dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks.

“For next year, I’m very hopeful that we can get back to the business of educating kids instead of becoming healthcare professionals, cops wearing masks, and, you know, all that crazy stuff that came with COVID. I hope they can take a backseat to what we really should be doing, and that is focusing on kids.”

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