For women superintendents, the path to leadership often included trudging through self-doubt, “imposter syndrome” and occasional bouts of anger at a biased system. Many say it doesn’t have to be that way. Some of them shared their experiences as part of a recent panel at Education Week’s Leadership Symposium.

The question: Why aren’t more women running our school districts?

The query is particularly relevant in light of the fact that, since March 2020, school districts have seen a “potentially historic” turnover of superintendents, according to a report by Education Week. In a review of the country’s 500 largest school districts, ILO Group, a woman-funded education and policy research group, found that 186 experienced a leadership transition since March 2020.

Seven out of 10 of those jobs went to men.

The research group also found that women superintendents make, on average, 12% less money than their male counterparts and are more likely to be hired if they served as a deputy or interim superintendent in the past.

And in a field where women represent the majority of workers overall, additional research found that in the 2019-20 school year, one in four superintendents were women.

As one woman on the panel put it, men are hired and promoted based on their potential to do the job, while women are hired and promoted only when they generate results. Panelists also noted that men will apply for superintendent positions even if they don’t have experience with every responsibility area, while women feel they have to know every part of the job before applying.

How can we change that? Panelists pointed to mentorship, which they say should include preparing for the political complexities of the superintendent’s role, learning about imposter syndrome and how to combat it, and learning to advocate for yourself.

Specifically, panelists said that if districts want to see more women in leadership, they’ll need to focus on mentorship, bias training and overall awareness of systemic barriers. And women in district leader roles should be mentoring other women who are steps away from the superintendent job, like principals and assistant principals.

The panelists also emphasized the importance of building networks for women who are interested in district leadership. ILO Group has partnered with school districts and state leaders to expand its networking group called Women in Leadership.

But even with great mentors and networking tools, women are going to face barriers that men don’t. Often women find themselves having to be more amenable and answer to societal pressures, including issues involving family demands, during interviews for the superintendent position.

One solution: more training at the school board level, so board members can more often hire without biases getting in the way.