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Empowering Women in Education: Addressing Leadership Disparities and the Role of Mentorship

Designing Educator Learning Experiences in NTC’s Anchors for Equity

Sabrina Plassman
Chief Operating Officer

Designing Educator Learning Experiences in NTC’s Anchors for Equity

Cheryl Leong
VP of Finance and Business Operations

In education, women’s leadership isn’t just important—it’s crucial for building inclusive school environments and driving student success. Chief Operating Officer and former 6th-grade teacher Sabrina Plassman, and Vice President of Finance and Business Operations Cheryl Leong who previously worked in California schools overseeing finance, budget, and compliance, advocate for systemic changes to empower female education leaders. They share insights and perspectives highlighting the urgency of fostering strong female leadership to drive positive change in schools nationwide.

Why is it so crucial for women to be in leadership positions in education?

Sabrina: It’s essential for women to hold leadership positions across all industries and roles. Women comprise half the population, and our representation is crucial for students and children in all fields. It’s particularly striking to observe that while 77% of school teachers are women, the proportion drastically decreases at leadership levels. It’s an endemic issue across the board.

Cheryl: As women, we understand each other’s challenges, experiences, and needs. School serves as a secure environment for all students, where many can access resources like hot meals and find stability when their parents and caregivers are at work. They look up to their teachers, many of whom are women. Having someone like them in a leadership role can offer support to these women in the classroom who directly influence student outcomes.

Why are advocacy and sponsorship important for female educators?

Sabrina: When we talk about mentorship, sponsorship, and coaching from higher levels, it’s essential to have women in those upper positions to provide guidance and opportunities for other women climbing the ladder. This is core to New Teacher Center’s work — deepening teachers’ understanding of their own professional growth and creating a pipeline for teacher-leaders to take on leadership roles. We know that having a manager or mentor who shares similar characteristics, such as being a woman, particularly a woman of color, can significantly impact our ability to navigate work responsibilities effectively. This understanding becomes especially important for women who are also caregivers, as having a manager who comprehends the challenges of balancing these roles can foster a sense of security and enable us to bring our full selves to work. In contrast, lacking this diversity at higher levels, particularly of women or individuals with similar experiences, can result in feeling misunderstood and judged for having competing priorities.

How important is it for organizations like Chief, National Association of Elementary School Principals, Center for Women in Leadership, Women Leading Ed, and Education Leaders of Color, which spotlight women leaders of color in the national conversation, to rebalance the system of leadership in education?

Cheryl: Organizations like these are crucial. They not only foster a sense of connection on a personal level but also offer valuable insights into various regional issues and perspectives across the country. Additionally, it’s important to emphasize the significance of finding community at a local level. Apart from larger organizations, local groups provide opportunities for in-person interactions and the sharing of experiences, including tacit knowledge and operational norms that may not be as evident in national or larger organizations.

Sabrina: Establishing your support network is key, and these organizations provide access to more individuals within that network. For instance, during my year-long membership with Chief, observing its widespread influence across many spaces was interesting. Although NTC has a noticeable presence of women on the leadership team, this isn’t common or consistent across all industries. Nonetheless, despite their accomplishments, many brilliant women in high leadership positions still grapple with feelings of impostor syndrome. Recognizing this shared experience offers a sense of solidarity, acknowledging that these challenges are systemic rather than individual. However, while there’s comfort in this solidarity, it’s imperative to pair it with advocacy, mentorship, and sponsorship. Building relationships with other women can also open doors to new opportunities.

What do you think is the biggest challenge to women entering leadership positions, particularly in education?

Cheryl: Aside from salary differences, bias often permeates the interview process. These biases are significant obstacles. When a pregnant woman or a woman with children is interviewed compared to a man, there’s a tendency to assume that she will prioritize childcare responsibilities or take leave. In contrast, such assumptions aren’t typically made about men. There’s a presumption that a man will remain present and powerful, capable of leading a school consistently. This biased perception, though unfair, persists in interview processes.

Sabrina: I think there’s also this idea of representation matters. We talk about it for students, having teachers of their own background in their classrooms, but it matters for adults, too. When considering a job opportunity, if there’s a lack of female presence within a district or a specific position, it causes questions to arise about the underlying conditions that hinder women’s participation or fail to attract them. Conversely, seeing someone succeed in a role who shares similarities with you, whether in appearance, responsibilities, or background, reinforces the belief that similar career progression is achievable. For instance, observing someone transition from a teacher to an instructional coach, then to a principal, and finally to a superintendent can inspire confidence in others with similar backgrounds to pursue similar career advancements.

How does NTC enable districts to expand leadership opportunities for female educators?

Sabrina: Our mentoring programs are designed to support classroom teachers in growing, finding success, and increasing their effectiveness, enabling a powerful experience that supports retention within the profession. That carries over into who feels success and readiness for advancement to leadership positions. We see the development of teacher-leaders positioned for leadership positions within their communities. Mentoring supports momentum on pathways to instructional leadership positions and other influencing roles, sending strong signals to the female educators in their school ecosystem and those yet to come.

What is the cost for students and educators when there are fewer women, particularly women of color, in education leadership roles?

Sabrina: When we examine the roles predominantly held by men in school districts, such as CFOs and other roles overseeing facilities and budgets—often considered “hard skills”—compared to the roles predominantly held by women, such as managing social-emotional learning, serving as instructional coaches, or teaching English, we witness and experience a disparity in the opportunities showcased to students. Educator gender matters for students, particularly in areas long associated with being male-dominated. Providing diverse representation within the school environment affirms and unlocks a range of career possibilities available to students based on their skills and interests.

Cheryl: The impact ties back to student outcomes. When students see individuals who resemble them—such as women, women of color, and individuals from their communities—they feel acknowledged and understood. This recognition is crucial for fostering a sense of belonging and empowerment. Ultimately, this is how we enact meaningful change. Schools serve as environments where children can thrive, and by addressing disparities in leadership representation, we can pave the way for tangible improvements in society. However, achieving this goal requires addressing numerous interconnected challenges.