The COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to a potentially historic turnover in school superintendency in the nation’s largest school systems, according to ILO Group, an education strategy and policy firm.

Of the 500 biggest school districts, 37% have undergone or are currently undergoing leadership changes since March 2020.The share of female leadership also declined from March 2020. Of the 154 districts that completed leadership transitions, 70% of newly appointed superintendents were men, according to the report. Of the 51 female superintendents who left during the pandemic, 39 were replaced by men.

To shift the gender balance in district leadership, the report recommends setting clear, public goals for gender equity at the superintendent level and creating family-friendly structures and policies.

Turnover and gender gaps in education leadership were prevalent prior to the pandemic, but the stress of leading an education system during the public health crisis is compounding efforts at sustaining stability in K-12 school leadership, the study found.

Sources beyond the study attribute the turnover to pandemic-induced stress and political polarization. Plus, a recent report from the National Women’s Law Center said 27 times more men than women joined the labor force overall in January 2022, which likely reflects uneven caregiving responsibilities between men and women.

Prior to the pandemic’s full impact on education, a decennial study from the School Superintendents Association (AASA), found the percentage of female superintendents increased slightly over 10 years, from 2010 when it was 24.1%, to 26.7% in 2020 The AASA report points out the share of women in the top leadership position in education exceeds the 5.4% of S&P 500 companies led by a woman.

The ILO report attributes the superintendency gender gap to social factors, such as existing professional networks that favor men. It also blamed skewed career pipelines that favor male leaders and biases in the hiring process.

The solution? Addressing gender pay gaps between male and female superintendents, addressing recruitment and retention, and focusing on the health and well-being of staff, including leaders.