Dr. Julia Rafal-Baer: Growing and Supporting Women Superintendents

Dr. Julia Rafal-Baer discusses her work in addressing the gender gap in education leadership and the importance of supporting rising educational leaders.

By SchoolCEO Last Updated: February 12, 2024

Episode Summary

In this episode of SchoolCEO conversations,you’ll recognize a familiar voice from Season 1 of the podcast—Brittany Edwardes Keil, writer and researcher for SchoolCEO magazine. Her guest is Dr. Julia Rafal-Baer, the co-founder and CEO of ILO Group, a women-owned, leadership-focused education policy and strategy firm.

Episode Notes

In this episode, Dr. Rafal-Baer discusses her work in addressing the gender gap in education leadership and various initiatives such as the Forum for Educational Leadership and Women Leading ED,  a national network of women education leaders she founded. She also highlights the importance of supporting current and aspiring education leaders, providing comprehensive project management and implementation support, and creating a powerful network to promote gender equality at the top of education systems.

You can learn more about the ILO Group and Dr. Rafal-Baer’s work at https://www.ilogroup.com/. You can learn more about Women Leading Ed at https://www.womenleadinged.org/. You can learn more about the Forum for Educational Leadership at  https://www.tffel.com/

You can also follow Dr. Rafal-Baer on X/Twitter at @juliarafalbaer.

Follow SchoolCEO on LinkedIn or X/Twitter @school_ceo

Subscribe to SchoolCEO at SchoolCEO.com for research, stories, and strategies for leading your schools. And if you have a story you’d like to share, email us at editor@schoolceo.com.

Episode Transcript

Tyler Vawser (Host): In this episode of SchoolCEO conversations,you’ll recognize a familiar voice from season 1 of the podcast Brittany Keil who is a writer and researcher for SchoolCEO magazine. Her guest is Dr. Julia Rafal-Baer, the co-founder and CEO of ILO Group, a women-owned, leadership-focused education policy and strategy firm. 

Julia discusses her work in addressing the gender gap in education leadership and various initiatives such as the Forum for Educational Leadership and Women Leading ED,  a national network of women education leaders she founded. She also highlights the importance of supporting current and aspiring education leaders, providing comprehensive project management and implementation support, and creating a powerful network to promote gender equality at the top of education systems.

Let’s join the conversation…

[Intro Music]

Brittany Keil (Host): So my first question is, while your work centers broadly on addressing the gender gap in the superintendency, you approach this from a variety of fronts, including your work with the ILO group and forum cohorts. So first, as an introduction of yourself to our listeners, could you explain on a high level the various domains of your work?

Julia Rafal-Baer (Guest): Absolutely. So, ILO Group is a proudly women owned education strategy and policy firm. The ILO part of it, it stands for in the life of our team, are all incredibly dedicated as strategic partners and specialists who work directly with school districts, state agencies, governor's offices and adjacent organizations that are trying to support those in government on executing on big bets and highest priority efforts. 

The reason that we come at this, in this idea of being in the life of is when you're hiring us, we're coming in as real members and partners on your team. We operate side by side with the leaders and the experts and the government partners we're working for, and we really try to make sure that the projects we take on are as impactful and ambitious as possible. We're working across some of the most important bets that our clients are taking on. We provide comprehensive project management and implementation support, and we are really proud of the work that we've been able to do to really help all of our clients, to really hit enduring change that can help with all of the recovery efforts in our country. But in addition to that work that we do with districts and states and governors, we also have two key areas that are difference making partnerships of our own, the first being the forum for educational leadership. The forum is a collaborative effort supporting highly passionate educators who want to be on a trajectory to get into those top district and state jobs.

 So we're not only working with leaders who are in C-Suite roles within districts and states today to help them to become better at their current jobs. But for those that want to go into the superintendency, it is a highly intensive opportunity to really focus in on what's required to do that job. Our work there focuses on the academic, political, legal and logistical rigors of the role and really helps to ensure that the leaders coming through are as strong and powerfully connected in a network. We've seen now over 200 leaders come through that programming in just this first year. A third of our first two cohorts now sit in superintendencies in districts and states across the country. The other aspect of the work that we power is women leading ed. Women leading ED is our signature offering. It's a national network that is dedicated to growing and strengthening the pipeline of future female education leaders and those that are currently in the role to help ensure that they can sustain long term. That network has supported over 200 women to navigate the politics of leadership. We support them through research, through advocacy, coaching, and engagement at every stage of their journey. All of that work with women leading Ed is all about making sure that we hit our big goal, which is gender equality at the top of our systems in education.

Brittany Keil (Host): And what motivated you to move into this work?

Julia Rafal-Baer (Guest): I started my career over two decades ago, and as a classroom teacher, it was incredibly clear to me that the way in which the system was set up with its sanctioned solutions for teachers was so problematic. And the kind of day to day experience of a teacher was so far away from the kinds of policies that were being enacted that were impacting them. I had a set of experiences happen early on in my career teaching, where I was physically assaulted by a student, and my principal let me know that her hands were tied and that the option was for me to file a police report against the student, in this case a third grader. I decided not to do that. It seemed like that was going to be incredibly problematic. Instead, I wrote a very passionate letter to Joel Klein, who at the time was the chancellor of New York City public Schools. And I just let him know how I couldn't believe that he had developed this system that was so problematic in the kinds of solutions that my principal had for me. He answered my email in ten minutes. He thanked me for my service. He put all of these people to work, and by the next day, not only did my student never need a police report, my student got the services that he needed, as did all of the students in my school who were awaiting them. And for me, it transformed this idea that I knew I wanted to better understand policy. I wanted to better understand leaders like Joel Klein. 

How do you find more great leaders, more leaders that are so absolutely focused on students and what's best for students, that they answer an email from a random first year teacher and put lots of people to work to make it better for kids? I've been very fortunate that my career has had a number of different milestones in it that have afforded me the opportunity to work for other great leaders. I spent five years working for John King right before he became secretary of education. I was his assistant commissioner in New York. But I wasn't immune to the kinds of things that hold so many women back. Albany was a very challenging place to work. Sexual harassment was very common, and often, unfortunately, the kinds of things that happen to women wasn't just the men. It's the things that other women do to one another that make it really difficult in these systems to thrive. After working for John, I realized that I really wanted to do more to better support both leaders of color, like John, as well as women, to make sure that both leaders of color and women could have a fair shot of not only getting in those roles, but sustaining in those roles and starting to really name much more clearly what was happening. That holds so many back. 

And I've been very fortunate that I've gotten to build a career over the last almost seven years really focused at the center of better understanding leadership development efforts in our country, but also how we build a new pipeline of very student focused educators who can really transform these systems that were fundamentally designed by and for men back in 1837, when the original superintendency was created.

Brittany Keil: That's really incredible. One of my highlights of my first year teaching was actually getting to hear John King speak and how teachers can access research. And now here I am, so many years later, a researcher know, really, I don't know. An interesting, you know, the gender gap in education. Leadership isn't new, but your team has done some recent research that's pretty illuminating. Can you describe what you've learned?

Julia Rafal-Baer: Yeah. I'm so excited about the research that we've been know. A number of years ago, Stephen Sawchuk from Edweek, he wrote a piece where he asked, why do we not have a public database about what is happening in the state of the superintendent? Everyone was relying on anecdotal data, or there's researchers who will put out data, but they won't share the data files. And we decided we weren't going to do that. We decided three years ago that we were going to start researching the top 500 largest districts in the nation and try to better understand trends. And put in perspective, the top 500 starts at 16,000 students. You're talking about 44% of our students in our nation are in the top 500. And we also look at what's happening at the state level. 

We first started looking at Covid trends, and what we learned was that since the start of COVID nearly half of the nation's 500 largest school districts had turned over, and in fact, 10% had turned over three or more times. And in what I refer to as this carousel of leadership moment, we could have seen more women stepping into these roles, but unfortunately, it was quite the opposite. What we found was that nearly seven out of ten times men were replacing men, and nearly seven out of ten times, men were replacing women for these roles. And so we were seeing an incredible crisis that was only worsening as the pandemic had gone on. As we started to put out our most recent update, we decided to start looking at some different patterns. We wanted to better understand what happens when you have more female dominated boards. Do they choose women more? Do they choose men more? We also wanted to keep exploring the pathway into the top. 

What we've learned is that women are more likely to land in the superintendent in the top 500 when they are coming in as the internal candidate. So, meaning they already work in the district, and even more so almost half the time they get the top job when they've served as the interim first. Men are much more likely to get the top job when they're coming in externally. So to us, what that says is it's bias, right? Men are being hired based on the idea that they can do the job, the belief that they can come in and that they have some special skill set, whereas women have to show they can do the job, they have to knock it out of the park, and then they are more likely to get that job from the board. We also saw some really interesting regional trends that we're starting to really dig into more very different patterns. The northeast, 51% of the top 500 districts in the northeast are led by women, versus in the southwest, we're talking about 23%. So we're going to be doing a lot more work to understand the regional differences. In two weeks, we're actually bringing together our first regional group of women in the southeast in order to better understand their experiences. The last thing I'd say that was really illuminating was about the board seats. So what we did find is that in districts where women occupy 75% or more of those board seats, women were more likely to be appointed into that top position compared to districts with a similar male majority. And so over the past year, it led to 48% of those top superintendents being filled by women. When you had a board that was 75% or more women, compared to only 33% when it was a male dominated board. 

So we think there's a lot still to be learning, and we're excited to be driving this research agenda.

Brittany Keil: This is really fascinating. Somewhat recently, your team came up with a playbook called the time is now, in which you outline five steps that districts can take to increase women's representation in school leadership. What are these five steps and what, in your opinion, is kind of the lowest hanging fruit that districts should absolutely do as soon as possible?

Julia Rafal-Baer: We're really excited about the time is now. It came from last year's women leading Ed Summit last April. The women that were in the room helped to craft this collective advocacy agenda with the core areas they thought that were most important. We helped to build a playbook that brings together research and policies and practices. 

Number one, is about creating and promoting intentional support systems to better prepare women for these leadership roles. We think having a national network like Women Leading Ed is incredibly critical, but we need to see this in regions and in states so that we have more support for women, both as they're coming up and as they're staying and sustaining long term. 

Second, we think we need to rebalance the hiring process and we need to have both requirements around what best practices look like. There absolutely needs to be off limit questions. Too often we see women being asked very different questions than men, particularly when it comes to things like whether they'll move with their children, whether they have elder care, responsibility, if they're married or not. Really very gendered questions that are not being asked of men. And we think we need to really get a handle on that. 

Number three, we need to do more to provide family and well being supports, and we believe that is important for everybody. Our elder population is increasing in its size and we need to recognize and get ahead of that, given how around the clock the nature of these roles are. The fourth, we need to set public goals for female leadership and we need to increase transparency. We're doing our part by putting out the top 500. We think the US education department can update its civil rights data collection and other data collection methods in order to include superintendent, race and gender, so that it's just something that is collected and people can take a look at and decide local solutions around. 

We worked with some groups in Texas to develop a Texas version of a report where we mapped the 1200 plus districts in Texas. We came to understand who was running the searches, what was the outcome based on who was doing the searches, what did patterns look like across the regional centers? And all of that is really important information for a state like Texas. And then they can design local solutions that make sense for where they go next. We think that needs to happen everywhere, but with real commitments by both districts as well as school boards and those at state levels to getting to gender equality. 

And then the fifth one is very straightforward. Ensure financial fairness. Women need to be paid the same as men for doing the same job. And unfortunately that is not happening. It's not happening at the superintendency level and it's absolutely not happening at the state level. We did an analysis where we looked at state education agency salaries for women and for men, and it is an incredible difference. There is a 40% pay gap between the lowest paid elected and the highest paid non elected state superintendent. And within the electeds themselves, of which seven of the eleven electeds are women, there is a 26% pay gap difference between men and women. And so there's just so much that needs to get done to just get to a basic place of just the salaries being fair, let alone how we help women to better negotiate second stage contracts and provisions. And that's a lot of the work that we do at women. 

Leading Ed is helping to support around contract negotiations and getting to a clearer picture on all of this.

 Brittany Keil: The gender gap in the superintendency has always seemed particularly egregious to me because the vast majority of teachers are women, and then the vast majority of school leaders, especially superintendents, are men. And it can pretty much take anybody to look at that and say, like, wow, hang on, what's happening here? But the gender gap is not unique to schools. And so my next question for you is, how is the gender gap similar to or different from the private sector gender gap? And what can educators and education leaders learn from this?

Julia Rafal-Baer: The gender gap in our sector is so egregious because we are a sector that is about opportunity, right? We tell our students every single day that they can be anything they want if they're just working hard, and it's absolutely not true. When it comes to education, I refer to it as the wallpaper problem. We all know it exists, right? It is like that bad wallpaper in your house that you just stare at all the time, and yet you do nothing to solve for. We are a sector dominated by women at every single rung, except for the very top. And that mismatch is exactly what we see in the private sector. 

We see it in the health sector, we see it in politics. In all of these sectors, you have women who are dominated in the lowest rungs. But when you get to the very top, you're in these sectors that are about a quarter or less in the percent of women, health being one that's the most analogous from that sort of wallpaper problem, health is also dominated by women at the bottom, and it's the very top. And especially as you look at the Fortune 500 healthcare companies, you got one woman CEO. When we look at Fortune 500 on the private sector side, it's a really interesting trend where when we look at our top 500 on the education side, we're actually mirroring the exact same uptick. Right now, we've seen a 2.4% uptick in the percent of female superintendents over the past two years. And that is exactly the same as the two year increase observed in the female CEOs of the Fortune 500. In the count of women, the top 500, we advance by twelve during two years. Fortune 500 advanced by eleven during that timepan time span. And it's interesting, recently, the Rockefeller foundation, they did this public poll, and they asked Americans whether they thought it was more likely that humans would colonize Mars or that we would get to half of the Fortune 500 women CEOs being women. One in four Americans believes we will sooner colonize Mars than get to half of the Fortune 500 CEOs being women. Just wild, right?

Brittany Keil: So I know that your work goes into recruiting women to be superintendents, but also supporting them once they're there. So a couple of minutes ago, you were talking about the experience that women have in the superintendency is not necessarily the same as their male counterparts. And so what are the differences? Do women who are superintendents have similar career paths? Do they have shorter, longer tenures? What kind of interesting facts has your research discovered?

Julia Rafal-Baer: I think there's a few things that we've been learning that are really important. The first is it used to be that, sort of anecdotally, I could see that what was happening in these searches when I was working alongside women and men, I was noticing that more of our women seemed like they were getting their roles when they were the internal candidate and certainly had been the interim. And at one point, a male superintendent had reached out to me because he really wanted to have his number two succeed him, a woman. And he asked what I thought the strongest path was to her getting the job. And at the time, I just didn't know for sure. My instinct: I told him that I thought he should name her interim. And the only reason that I had thought that was because at the time, Susanna Cordova had gotten the job in Denver, and she had served as the interim for a year prior to getting the job. And so it was my only fact at the point that was sort of guiding it. And so we decided to do research into it, and we decided we wanted to actually better understand so that the next time someone called me to do a succession, that I would have a clear answer. 

The answer is clear that when women serve as the internal and then as the interim, 51% of the time they get the job. That is a really important data point. And it means that we can really think about for women, yes, on one hand, it's the fact that they have to prove that they can succeed before they're permanently hired. But it also means that they have a real opportunity to work with a board that really understands them and where they understand where that board is going and may be a way to really ensure that you're sustaining long term a vision and not having those kinds of starts and stops. That happens when you bring in an external candidate so much more often. When an external comes in, right off the bat, there's going to be some big changes and a lot of times that's what they're being hired to do, and they're going to come in with community meetings and new strategic plans. And that may be right, but it also may be that the community actually is already on a trajectory that we need to keep going and deepening within.

And so I think that's something that's really important. I think the other piece that we're really seeing up close on a lot of this is that there is a very real confidence gap that exists in these leadership roles. There has been significant research within the private sector that shows that men and women take very different amounts of time at each career rung, with men moving faster in their careers into top leadership roles as compared to women. And that when you talk to women about it, they will always give a lot of excuses about how they feel, like they had just like a little bit more impact that they needed to make, or that they needed to do a little bit more before that they would be ready. And that is really a challenge, particularly as we think about all of these jobs that are open and the ability for women to feel comfortable stepping into it. Men will think if they know even 30% of a job, that they're going to feel comfortable that they've done enough to go into that top leadership role. Women more often will feel like they need another part of the system under their belt, particularly when it comes to more of the financial and operational components, before they will even feel qualified to apply for a job. And those are just real big differences in confidence levels.

Brittany Keil: So some of our work at SchoolCEO is around personal branding. Do you do any personal branding training in your cohorts or with other superintendents you support?

Julia Rafal-Baer: We do. We do a lot of personal branding training but what I always tell everyone is you cannot have a brand if you're not getting outcomes. You cannot just go out there and think that your work is going to be about creating a brand and a sense of identity. If it is not, then grounded in the outcomes that you've had. Moving the needle for kids, in the absence of moving the needle for kids and showing strong work that is moving, you're just another voice out there. And there's plenty of those. Just another voice. What people want are authentic, genuine leaders, and authentic, genuine leaders come with a strong sense of the kind of outcomes that they've gotten and they're able to really deliver based off that track record of getting things done for kids.

Brittany Keil: So, shifting a little bit in the news recently, we've heard a lot about the increasing number of superintendent vacancies, and in some places, it's actually becoming hard for districts to find new superintendents. And there is, of course, a very persistent and decades long imbalance in the number of women in education and the percent of women in education leadership. Do you think that these issues, if it's possible that these issues are related or will converge in the near future?

Julia Rafal-Baer: There has been a significant amount of turnover. Our research has shown that, too, as I shared before, the fact that nearly half of our top 500 largest districts had turned over at least once and 10% multiple times. And then even within the last year, we saw turnover that was around. It was almost 21.5%. And putting in perspective, the usual turnover rate that gets cited is usually 14% to 16%. So we are absolutely still in a time where there is a significant level of turnover. We also know that that turnover is happening at every rung underneath, which means people are rising much sooner than they typically would in these roles. And I don't think that this is going to slow down anytime soon. 

I think what it means is it is even that much more important for networks to be able to best support, particularly women that are in these roles, to make sure that those that are going through challenges that they may not have as much muscle memory about yet, that they have the right network that they can come into, who can then help to support them and bring them, others who are going through similar challenges and have that kind of problem of practice time together to be able to make sure that they're not alone in this work. I think there's also just some really interesting differences in regional trends. We certainly saw that as we looked at the northeast, where in the northeast we're seeing this high percentage of female superintendents and we're also seeing that within this, many of the newly appointed superintendents are women. 

So in the northeast, they had seven newly appointed superintendents, five of which are women. And in many of their districts, you're seeing a very large percentage of female board members. So we think there's a lot that can be learned about what to do within this level of turnover, how to think about the role of school boards, not only as partners in that kind of recruitment effort. Boards are the first to attract a superintendent if they're clear about what they want done in their community, when they're clear about the kind of leader that will be successful, when they set up the kinds of conditions and expectations on the front end about how to communicate and how to work together. All of those things are incredibly attractive for a superintendent candidate and also allows them to know whether or not they're ultimately the right person for that work ahead.

Brittany Keil: So I hope this is obvious to our listeners at this point, but it is critical that men are a part of this. This cannot be a holy women led and women initiated and women fulfilled change. And earlier you were talking about the five action items that you hope districts have as they seek to recruit more women in leadership and support more women in leadership. And so my thought is, what should men do? And many of our listeners are men to men who are superintendents who are already in power, what role can they play in bringing in more diverse leaders?

Julia Rafal-Baer: I cannot underscore enough how important men are in all of this, having men not only as allies and as people who hold such important positions of power and who understand the power and importance of sponsorship. Coaching trees we talk a lot about coaching trees. Who are the people that are coming up under you? How do you make sure that you're giving the kinds of supports to women in particular, so that you are getting them ready for that top job as sponsors, making sure that you are really actively giving stretch assignments and really making sure that you're spending time with the women on your team, speaking about them when they're not in rooms, and really helping to push their careers. I've been so fortunate that John King has been such an incredible and lifelong sponsor for me. I will often just get a random text message from someone who's know, left a meeting and he's told them that I'm the best at something. And it's incredibly thoughtful and kind, but it's also having at this point a couple of decades of relationship where John plays that role for me all the time for men.

I think there's really four big areas where they can play important roles. 

Number one, making sure that any recruitment and selection process that they are running is really clear from the front end about having multiple women candidates in the finalist pool. There's really important research from Harvard Business Review that says when you have multiple women in a finalist pool, you're 79 times more likely to select a woman. We certainly see that play out over and over again in searches, and it's something we're now researching with our research team to see how this is playing out in finalist pools that are made public so we can see how it looks in our sector. 

Number two, we think it is really important that men are helping to set these clear and public goals for gender equality, particularly for those who are running districts or states. They have an ability to demand that any search firm that they are using for any of their searches commits to having strong goals and transparency about the process, and to be really clear about reporting out the number of qualified applicants and doing so by gender and having that just be a core part of what they're reporting.

Number three, really thinking about who is running that search committee, who is on it, making sure that the search committee themselves is not overwhelmingly white and male, and really thinking about how to have strong gender representation because we know there's a status quo bias. When you have a committee that is largely white and male, they are more likely to hold discussions that are going to have some elements that could lead to real bias in their decision making. And so having a commitment up front around who's on that committee, having training to mitigate bias, all of that is incredibly important. 

And then the last one is, I share at the top. I think sponsorship, sponsorship, sponsorship. We got to move beyond mentoring. Mentoring is nice in early stage careers, but what we're really talking about to make a real dent here is active sponsorship and really using one's position of power to really advance the women that are in your closest orbit.

Brittany Keil: So speaking about using your position of power, is there anything that a male superintendent can do in the role itself to make it more equitable? Something I'm thinking about is a couple of years ago, I interviewed a superintendent named Andy Crozier, and his dissertation was about being the first millennial superintendent in the state of Iowa, I believe. And he mentioned that one of his most challenging conversations when he was hired was with his board, in which he explained to them that while previous superintendents had been men whose wives took care of their children, he and his wife both worked full time and dinner was his domain. So whenever they wanted to do board meetings, anything like that, he had to be home by six. And I imagine from your earlier research, or, sorry, the research you mentioned earlier, that's something that a female superintendent might not be able to do as easily sort of establishing that boundary. Have you all had any research about that or just informal anecdotal evidence?

Julia Rafal-Baer: We think boundary setting is really important, and we always encourage the leaders that we're working with, men and women, to negotiate all of this upfront in their contracts. We strongly recommend that the leaders that we work with, men and women, use a lawyer when they're negotiating their contracts and let the lawyer negotiate off limit time. We've seen this and actually started with a man who got this into his contract that we now replicate where because he had young kids and he wanted to be able to walk his kids to school, it was off limit time. Boards couldn't reach out to him morning during that time period. And then similarly making it very clear Saturdays are off limits, cannot reach out to the superintendent on Saturdays. Those kinds of contract provisions are good for men and women, and the more that men go first with getting family friendly contract provisions in place and making sure that that is known and clear is helpful for everyone else who's coming next.

Brittany Keil: So I want to talk a little bit about school boards because I think that this is a sticky, for lack of a better word, area. This is a challenging area. A lot of superintendents are having a lot of challenges with their school boards in almost kind of every domain. So in thinking about them and anyone else, really, what approaches do you use with audiences who may be new or uncomfortable with considering themselves allies and working towards gender parity?

Julia Rafal-Baer: Yeah, the school boards have an incredibly important role. They are largely the ones who are hiring their superintendents. They're also, in many cases, getting very involved in the sign off of senior hires in a number of places. And when you think about the role of the school board in its need for public reporting, it's an enormous opportunity to be able to show what they're doing, to really push for more equitable hiring practices. I think what we are really encouraging is that upfront when a search process is done by a board, that there are commitments to not only the training around bias, but that you get to a set of standardized questions with off limit questions that just can't be asked, questions that should not be considered because they have nothing to do with whether or not the person will be effective in their role as the CEO of that school district and then that the boards commit to staying away from those off limit questions. 

We think commitments around having multiple women in a finalist pool are absolutely critical for boards to take on. And then we think it's really important that districts and boards look inward. There are great women within your districts now who are ready to lead. And knowing what the research shows about the internal candidates and those that are serving as an interim, it is such a great opportunity for boards to really get to know more of the candidates. And what we find is that oftentimes great women who are on teams, they just don't have as much board exposure. They're not the ones that are running board meetings. They're only up there usually for their agenda items. And so what we've seen in a number of places that's been incredibly helpful is when a superintendent knows it's their last year, they start to rotate who runs the board meeting. And you give different up at bats, let different people come run the board meeting, let the board really get to know different candidates. We think that this can have an incredible effect of letting boards really start to get to know some of the great women who are in their district that they may not actually have had those kinds of experiences with. 

When I look around the country at the women who are holding these leadership roles, I have never been more energized or optimistic. There is so much more work to be done to change the odds for women who are trying to pursue the superintendency in both districts and states. But I absolutely think that school boards are playing a critical role and will continue to do so to help really move in a productive and strong way to get to gender equality.

Brittany Keil: Very cool. Let's talk about your mentorship and sponsorship work. So what could potential leaders expect out of joining one of your cohorts?

Julia Rafal-Baer: Well, the Forum for Educational Leadership is a cohort model where you will come together with other district and state leaders. Some of the leaders are just trying to be even stronger in the roles that they're in, and then they're leaders that are very clear that they are ready and going for a superintendency in this cycle, both at the district and the state level. As part of being in the cohort, you not only walk away with an incredibly broad national network and one that is bipartisan, which I think is incredibly rare and super important in our space, you're also learning top skills and best practices that will help you to be as successful as possible. You are given 24/7 supports everyone who is in the cohort, has lifelong job search and placement support from those of us that run the forum. 

Our first cohort graduated back a year ago, and the fact that a third of those first two cohorts are now in superintendents in districts and states around the country is an incredible track record and one we're really proud of. When you are in the cohort, if you are a woman, you are automatically put into Women Leading Ed. And in Women Leading Ed, we do virtual monthly programming that's very targeted and focused on issues that are impacting women. You also then have access to our annual summit in April, which is open now, and we are registering women for that summit, and we are incredibly excited about the progress from that network. We are really aiming for the women leading ed network not only to be the place that drives the collective advocacy agenda for what needs to continue to change to get to gender equality, but to continue to put out the research, the trends, to be able to have these regional meetups where women in different regions can work to set their own agendas. 

And ultimately, our goal is to see gender equality in the top 500 largest districts, as well as to see women sustained at the same rate, if not longer than men in these superintendent roles for the long term, to have the maximum impact on student outcomes.

I have personally helped 51 leaders to become district and state superintendents across the country, and every time one of them gets a job, the whole network feels like they're rising together. Everyone celebrates. Everyone is excited. It is such an amazing sense that we are moving the needle in an important way. And at the same time, we know that there's so much more work to be done. We are every single day rolling up our sleeves, doing whatever it takes to help these leaders, not only to get into these roles, but to support them, to really then land their biggest bets. Because it's not just about whether or not we can get more people into the job. It's can we get more incredible leaders who care so deeply about students making big bets that will continue to respond to student needs that have been exacerbated by this pandemic and help these kids to thrive? So that as we look ahead and we think about what is going to be happening next in our country, that we know that we have the very best leaders in these positions to do what it takes to change outcomes.

Brittany Keil: Alright, so I have two more questions after this, but that gives us a good moment. So how does having more diversity in the superintendency improve student outcomes?

Julia Rafal-Baer: Well, we know that we've been going for some time here with outcomes that are not working for us. We don't need any more data at this point to tell us that we've gone backwards. I sit on the National Assessment Governing Board. We've seen round after round of NAEP data, long term trend data. We know that, coupled with data that we've seen from NWA and from Iredi and others, that things are real tough, chronic absenteeism. It's real tough right now. And in all of this, one thing that has not changed the women at the top. So I would posit that this is a real opportunity, a real opportunity to change the face of educational leadership, to give women a fair shot to be in those top roles, to have women who can really be at the forefront of what's going to be a massive amount of change over the next few years. We're all starting to see what an AI enabled future may start to look like. We have a very clear picture about the importance of the science of reading. We know what it's going to take to implement high quality instructional materials that really move the needle. And we have a great sense about the importance of grow your own strategies if we're really going to get right how we best prepare students in all of this. The world of work is rapidly changing and there's such a blurring of these post secondary pathways. Who's better to help navigate that than our superintendents? 

For me, I am an impatient optimist. I'm very about these expansive challenges we face as a nation, but also on delivering on our promise. We promised our kids every single day they can be anything they want to be and we have to be able to deliver on that promise. And right now we are not doing it when we are talking to them about what opportunities exist for the types of careers they can have in our country. And for me, I am absolutely focused on trying to change that. Odd for this generation.

Brittany Keil: Very nice. So much of our work at SchoolCEO focuses on branding, communication and organizational culture. These are important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is teacher recruitment, sustaining strong student enrollment, and getting the attention and engagement of families. So do you observe any differences in how the leaders you work with are thinking about communication and culture? This could be part of your training. I'm not sure.

Julia Rafal-Baer: I think there's more of a focus right now around an understanding that communication drives so much of communities understanding. I think during the pandemic in particular, schools became such a centering and even more important way as people were navigating the communications from their schools about safety issues, about food issues, about safety issues. And I think that that has continued. I think what we start to see even more so, and I think this is particularly true as I think about the women that we are supporting, is really having to make sure that women are very clear about describing their past successes in ways that can resonate with audiences. Many times women are having to spend more time on quantifying what they have done, being very clear about their financial chops, about their operational experiences, and doing so in a way that really convinces people that they have the kind of business acumen that unfortunately is just a sort of given most of the time with men. We also know how deeply critical it is for all of our leaders to be out invisible in the community and to be able to use different channels to make sure people know that that's happening. Both the awareness about where they're going to be and the invitations to attend, and also making sure that you're using things like social media to be able to show people that you are, in fact, out there. 

One of the leaders that we worked with years ago was very clear that they were going to be going around in their state and visiting every single district within the first three months. And they did so. And they did so in a really public way with a bus and making sure people knew where that tour was going. And we think things like that can be really important to show people where your focus is. And in that tour, it was a big tour, focused around the science of reading. It was sort of a constant ability to drive those kinds of messaging. And all of that, we think is incredibly important as well.

Brittany Keil: Well, thank you so much. It's been an absolute joy to have you. My final question is just about what's ahead. And I know that we're really excited to see the work that you all do in the next couple of months and in the next couple of years. But, yeah, what is next for your work and what challenges do you anticipate as the superintendent continues to shift and how do you plan to meet them?

Julia Rafal-Baer: For us, we're really clear. We got three big areas that we're really trying to move on. Number one, with the Forum for Educational Leadership, we will continue to expand that. A year from now, we expect to have seen another 200 leaders come through, and we want to keep hidden out of the park with helping these leaders who want to become superintendents to be able to deliver on that with Women Leading Ed, we are going to make sure that that network is the most influential network there is for women in our country. 

We invite all women who are in educational leadership pathways to come and join us. If you go to the womenleadinged.com website, the summit is open for our April registration. We are so excited to have that opportunity to bring our women together, to really set the stage for the next part of our advocacy agenda, to really build out on the network side. And then for ILO group, we were built on a simple shared mission to roll up our sleeves and do whatever it takes to support system leaders biggest bets from continuing to respond to students needs exacerbated by the pandemic, to supporting all kids to thrive. 

As we look ahead, ILO Group will continue to take on leaders' biggest challenges, and we will continue to make sure that we never let any of our leaders down. When you hire us, you're hiring with that trust that whatever it is that is your most important and largest bet, that it will become ours and will help you to achieve your result.