Gender Equity in Education

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The purpose of this qualitative study is to describe factors that women ESA Executive Directors identify as impacting their career advancement, including those perceived as affecting their career progression, advancement to current position as well as factors they perceived as barriers to their advancement.

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While the United States K-12 public education workforce is dominated at 76% by female teachers and other staff (NCES, 2012), women in superintendent leadership roles are significantly underrepresented. According to the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), women account for less than a quarter of all superintendents in the nearly 14,000 school districts in the United States (AASA, 2015). Studies over the past three decades have focused on a myriad of barriers women face to reaching the top district post. AASA’s 2000 study on the profession suggests the following seven reasons why female numbers still lag: women are not in positions that normally lead to the superintendency, women are not gaining superintendent’s credentials in preparation programs, women are not as experienced nor as interested in districtwide fiscal management as men, women are not interested in the superintendency for personal reasons, school boards are reluctant to hire women superintendents, and women enter too late (Glass, 2000).

There is a significant body of research on women in superintendent roles, concomitantly, there is a significant gap in research on women in executive director/superintendent roles in Education Service Agencies (ESAs), the focus of this proposed study. Women appear to be similarly underrepresented in the top posts in ESAs across the nation. There is no single repository of data that exists identifying demographic data for the 533 ESAs in the United States (AESA, 2019), however, a membership list obtained from the Association of Education Service Agencies (AESA) reveals that 486 or 91% of ESAs are current members, identified by the title of Executive Director, Superintendent or Chief Executive Officer. Of those individuals, 140 or 29% percent are female executive directors, trending slightly higher than national demographic data of less than 25% female school superintendents nationally. ESAs are a key part of the nation’s educational infrastructure, but their forms and roles can vary greatly between states, and sometimes even within a state (Stephens and Keane, 2005).

According to the Association of Education Service Agencies (AESA) website, there are 553 ESAs in 45 states, reaching over 80% of public and private school districts, over 80% of certified teachers, and more than 80% non-certified school employees. Annual budgets for ESAs total approximately $15 billion.

ESAs may provide several types of services to students, schools, and districts in the state. Common supports include professional development, school and district improvement planning, cooperative purchasing, and shared administrative services. More recently, ESAs have moved into new areas of support in response to changing needs. For example, some ESAs provide technology and infrastructure resources in connection with online coursework. Others have implemented alternative certification programs for teachers (Williams & Alsop, 2008).

Many of the duties of an ESA Executive Director are similar to those of a superintendent, including educational leadership, fiduciary, budget and staffing responsibilities, and facilities and resource management. However,there are key differences in the roles as well. ESA Executive Directors often oversee programs for a broader constituency, which can include programs ranging from pregnancy through adulthood, social service type programs, adult and post-secondary education and training programs. There also exists a growing trend in ESAs towards expansion of entrepreneurial activities for the purposes of both innovation and survival. Almost a decade and a half ago Stephens and Keane (2005) accurately predicted that ESAs would be forced to become more entrepreneurial in the future due to “an increasingly market-driven educational environment” (p. xx).

While some ESAs may receive state funding, many rely on the sale of marketplace services to their districts, and beyond their borders to keep their organizations financially healthy and relevant. These services can have a state or national reach; examples of services include training and curricular services, joint purchasing networks, health care consortium and development and sale of educational software. With a marketplace philosophy, specifically in financially challenging times, ESAs strive to be responsive to their service districts needs by identifying needs, trends and creating partnerships to address those needs.

Interest of the Researcher

My connection to the topic of women’s leadership in ESAs is deep and personal as I have spent my career in an ESA in many roles, culminating in my current position as assistant executive director/chief administrative officer. Like many others, I believe that my work as a leader in education was and continues to be a calling. For me, this notion comes from the belief that education is the cornerstone of democracy. I believe in the mission of ESAs, and particularly my organizations’ mission of encouraging lifelong learning and living our organizational motto- Enriching Learning, Enriching Lives. Throughout my career I have taken seriously the responsibility to mentor, support and develop others, especially women, to help them envision and achieve their own leadership potential. I have experienced great pride in the large or small role I have played in the success and advancement of female mentees, supervisees and colleagues. Conversely, I have been frustrated by individual and institutional barriers to both representation and advancement faced by myself and female colleagues. In her 2010 Ted Talk on the lack of female leadership across literally all sectors of society, Sheryl Sandberg articulated what I know to be true; after much progress, we still have a problem. Women are not making it to the top in any profession and we are going in the wrong direction (Sandberg, 2010). In my corner of the world, I have witnessed this with school board membership, superintendents and leadership positions within my organization, and our statewide ESAs. Currently, only 6 out of 29, or 21% of our Pennsylvania intermediate units have female executive directors (Pennsylvania Association of Intermediate Units, 2019).

In 2017, I was invited to join a national ESA women’s leadership group, that has been an outstanding professional development and mentoring experience. The group composition includes women in ESA leadership at Executive and Assistant Executive Director levels, as well as several Chief Financial Officers and Academic Officers. Their backgrounds and paths to leadership varied, however, the barriers to their ascent shared common themes. As I began to research this topic, I found a plethora of work on women in school leadership, and an absence of any research specific to ESAs. In fact, I found fewer than 10 dissertations on ESAs in general, and limited current peer review articles. Positioned by my depth of knowledge of the unique role ESAs have in our national education system- the reach and impact on student learning and well as the entrepreneurial nature of the work, I seek to better understand through this study how much of the literature, largely focused on female school superintendents is transferable to ESA executive directors, and if there are unique factors that influence the advancement of women in ESA leadership.

Relevance to the Field

There is an abundance of studies on factors contributing to the successful advancement, as well as perceived barriers to the same, of female education leaders. While some findings can be generalized to female ESA executive directors, this researcher portends that there is a gap in the research and thus, a need to examine if factors that are unique to this group of educational leaders exist. This study will contribute to a better understanding of successful strategies as well as barriers to advancement for ESA leadership with the hopes of informing those seeking to advance in ESAs.

Results of this study will provide insights relevant to:

Capitalizing on Curriculum and Instruction Expertise – With the United States K-12 education system comprised of 76% women, it is imperative that the experience and knowledge of women educators be retained and represented in key leadership roles. This is also true in the world of ESAs, that impact over 80% of teachers and learners across the country. It is well documented that women stay in the classroom longer (7-10 years) than men (5-6) before moving on to central office positions, giving them more experience with teaching and learning (Glass, 2000). This experience translates to strong educational leaders, an imperative in this time of increased accountability for learning outcomes.

Implications for Leadership Development Opportunities – This study will inform the understanding of pathways, perceived barriers and supports identified by female ESA leaders who have ascended to the top positions in their organization. The subjects of this study will have important insight into the skills and experiences they possessed, or did not, that were important to the Boards that hired them. This body of information may provide important guidance to aspiring female ESA leaders on how to navigate the systems and politics inherent in the process, and recommend practical strategies such as mentoring, access to networks and formal and informal training for increasing the proportion of both qualified and successful female candidates.

Implications for Higher Education – The results of this study could inform higher education training programs on ways to attract more women to complete ESA Executive Director certification programs, either in tandem with their doctoral degree or independently so they are better positioned to assume leadership roles.

Research Questions

The following research questions will guide this study:

  1. What do successful female ESA executive directors/superintendents believe are/were the factors affecting their career progression ?
  2. What are successful female ESA executive directors’ perceptions of the factors that impacted their advancement to their current position?
  3. What are successful female ESA directors’ perceptions of the barriers that impacted their advancement to leadership?

Literature Review

The following themes emerged from a review of the literature on women in educational leadership and ESAs:

  1. History of women in education leadership
  2. Barriers to female leadership advancement
  3. History and role of ESAs in US Education System
  4. Role of the ESA Executive Director – Dual role- Education, Entrepreneurial
  5. Role of networks, mentoring and professional development in advancement of female educational leaders
  6. Strategies to overcome barriers
  7. Feminist Standpoint Theory


American Association of School Administrators. The study of the American

superintendent:2015 mid-decade update. (2015, December 5). Retrieved April 27. 2019 from

Association of Education Service Agencies (AESA) supports ESAs nationwide. (2019, April

25). Retrieved April 25, 2019 from

Glass, T. E. (2000, June). Where Are All the Women Superintendents? School

Administrator, 57(6), 28. Retrieved April 29, 2019 from

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Schools and Staffing Survey. (2012).

Retrieved April 26 from

Sandberg, S. (2010). Why we have too few women leaders [Video File]. Retrieved April 28, 2019 from t-28716

Stephens, E.R. & Keene, W.G. (2005). The educational service agency: American education’s invisible partner. Lanham, MD: University Press of America. Retrieved May 1, 2019

From tGz0a17QC&oi=fnd&pg=PR9&dq=Stephens,+E.R.+%26+Keene,+W.G.+(2005).+The+educational+service+agency:+American+education’s+invisible+partner.+Lanham,+MD:+University+Press+of+America.&ots=aOZuC3PDAJ&sig=455wH3Hr3kn6kFZI-BDV0uV6TGU#v=onepage&q&f=false

Williams, J. M., & Alsop, R. J. (2008). The role of educational service agencies in supporting alternative teacher certification. Arlington, VA: Association of Educational Service Agencies. Retrieved April 30, 2019, from

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Gender Equity in Education. (2020, Mar 30). Retrieved December 8, 2022 , from

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