Capital Region

75 percent of teachers are female; the majority of their bosses are men

Gender gap has narrowed but persists in top education leadership spots
Right: Schalmont Central School District Superintendent Carol Pallas in her office.
Right: Schalmont Central School District Superintendent Carol Pallas in her office.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Labor Day Weekend signals the unofficial end to summer and the start of the school year for students in New York state. To mark the turn of the seasons, this weekend we’re taking an indepth look at local school districts. Today we explore the gender breakdown of administrators and the pay scales for different education jobs.

CAPITAL REGION — On her way to the top spot in the Schalmont Central School District, Carol Pallas took a grand tour through upstate school districts, with stops in Rome, Mexico and Greece.

Then she came to Rotterdam.

But before getting her first superintendent job in Schalmont, Pallas, now in her seventh year in charge of the district, worked a wide variety of jobs in other districts and repeatedly was a finalist for a superintendent gig, only to see it go to someone else. 

“I would get to the top three, top two, and not get it, every time,” Pallas said in an interview last month. 

Sometimes she lost out on the job to a man, sometimes to a woman. Pallas said the rejections continued for a couple of years; she estimated she had made it to the finalists for around 10 superintendent position.

“That’s where I really had to pick myself up, dust myself off and keep trying,” she said.

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Each time she made it to the final stage of interviews, she had to research the district, sometimes visit the community, and invest herself in a vision of leading that particular district. Ultimately, her efforts paid off, and she was appointed Schalmont superintendent effective Jan. 1, 2013. 

“When I came here it fit very well, it clicked,” she said. “Be grateful for the jobs you don’t get, because it’s probably not the right one.”

When she took the job, Pallas was one of about two dozen female superintendents in the region, compared with the three dozen male superintendents — a gender gap among superintendents that has long persisted despite the fact that the vast majority of educators are women.

Across the Capital Region, about 75 percent of teachers are women. But the top leadership positions in school districts — superintendents and school principals — remain mostly held by men.

Of the 69 people who served as superintendent in the Capital Region during the 2017-18 school year, 41 were men and 28 were women, according to state Education Department data.

But the presence of women in the top district positions has come a long way since the 2000-01 school year, when just five women served as superintendents in a Capital Region district, compared to 56 men.

Men are also more likely than women to control the top spot at individual school buildings: for the ’17-18 school year, 105 men served as school principal, compared with 54 women. At the assistant principal and other central office administrative level, women begin to hold more positions than men.

Across the Capital Region in the ’17-18 school year, over 6,000 classroom teachers were women and nearly 2,000 teachers were men. 

“I really don’t think it’s any different than the rest of society,” said Jacinda Conboy, general counsel at the New York State Council of School Superintendents. “People have a hard time seeing women as leaders of any organization.”

Conboy, who leads the council’s women’s initiative focused on mentoring and encouraging women to pursue leadership roles, said men will often apply for jobs they are only partly qualified, while women wait to apply for a job they are overqualified for.

“We see that in education as well… women may hold themselves back,” Conboy said. 

Conboy said school boards can write leadership job postings in ways that encourage a more diverse pool of candidates and emphasize the skills that women may bring to the table — like empathy and collaboration. 

The council is also working with male leaders to encourage them to think about advocating for women leadership in their districts, encouraging women to pursue leadership opportunities. She also wants to encourage women to take a chance and apply for leadership jobs that might be a reach for them.

“The other thing we see is that women tend to follow a more traditional career path: teacher, assistant principal, principal, central office, superintendent,” Conboy said. “Men won’t think twice about jumping a level.”

South Glens Fall Superintendent Kristine Orr, starting her second year in the job, served as the district’s assistant superintendent for six years before advancing to the top job. She said a long line of mentors have encouraged and helped her in moving up the school district ranks.

Orr, who raised her 9-year-old daughter during her years in administration, said she sometimes faces questions about how it’s possible to raise a child and do the work of an administrator.

“There are times we work under old stereotypes,” she said. “Unfortunately, we still deal with that: how are you a good mom and a good school leader. It takes all of us to understand we can be both.”

Her daughter is entering fourth grade in the district this year, so Orr sees how things work from the perspective of a mother too.

She also enjoys being a model for girls across the district.

“I’m proud my female students see me in a leadership capacity,” Orr said. “Our students need to know that every single person has the ability to be a leader in whatever field they decide.” 

Pallas, of Schalmont, started her career as an elementary school teacher in Rome, where she said she taught nearly every grade from kindergarten to sixth grade, moving from school to school. She said she was frequently handed a pink slip and laid off in June before she would find another opening somewhere in the district.

“At the time, you didn’t like that,” she said of the instability. “In retrospect, it was a great experience.”

Then the air force base in the Rome area closed in the mid-1990s, and the district lost thousands of families, “basically overnight,” Pallas said. She was again laid off, this time for good, she thought.

“My push happened more to me,” she said of her move to administration. “I did not necessarily want to leave teaching, but it kind of happened to me.”

A federal program that supported communities affected by base closures gave her a chance to return to school to earn a certificate in education leadership. 

She got a job as an elementary school principal in Mexico. From Mexico, she took a job as a principal at an early-grade school in Greece. She moved to a human resources job, eventually overseeing the large district’s 3,500 employees. She said she learned a lot about education and labor law in that role.

During her 13 years in Greece schools, Pallas worked for nine different superintendents, mostly men, she recalled. Some of the interim superintendents during her time in the district, though, were women. But the district’s changing leadership gave her a chance to play different roles and overtime emerge as a resource for district leaders lacking the institutional knowledge she eventually built up.

Then she felt ready to apply for a superintendent job herself.

“I felt like I had to go through all those experiences before I could even entertain the idea of being a superintendent,” Pallas said.

She said she never viewed her struggle for a superintendent’s position through a gender lens; she said some of the jobs she missed out on went to men and some went to women. 

“I just did it because I felt I could do it,” she said. “I never really thought of things in terms of gender; I thought you can do this, and you should do this.”

But Pallas said she didn’t face some of the traditional gender career barriers many women in the workplace face.

“I really put everything I have had into this career,” Pallas said, noting that she doesn’t have kids. “I can work the long hours that it takes, and I have.”

She said she sleeps with her phone beneath her pillow. She spends nearly every evening out at events around the district and community. She said she doesn’t think about leadership development in terms of gender; she sees leadership potential in both men and women in the district.  

She does make sure, though, that no one is confused about who is in charge. On her desk, she displays a gift she received: a name plaque that says “boss lady.”

“I make it very clear that I’m the superintendent,” Pallas said.

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