Feb 10 2022

TCEA 2022: 5 Things Women Should Know About Advancing in K–12 IT Leadership Roles

A diverse panel of women in K–12 IT share their unusual paths to technology leadership and strategies for expanding their small club.

In the overwhelmingly female-centric field of K–12 education, there is one path that has a vanishingly small number of women: IT and IT leadership. In its 2021 survey of K–12 IT leaders, the Consortium for School Networking found that only 28 percent of its members were women.

With this as a backdrop, teachers, instructional education specialists and IT team members — both women and men — participated in a TCEA 2022 panel discussion on how to expand the pool of women in line for leadership positions.

Panelist and former K–12 CTO Frankie Jackson noted that the low number of women in K–12 IT leadership roles accurately reflects the wider IT industry, where men outnumber women in corporate jobs 3 to 1. She encouraged attendees to work to change the mindsets that may prevent more women from going into the field.

Panelist Shawnteè Cowan, CTO of Mansfield Independent School District in Texas, found herself in the unusual position of leading a department where half her network team members are women, with a female lead technician. She said that while this gives her a larger pool of women to pull from and promote to leadership positions, the field still needs more women.

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The panelists shared some insights on how women could increase their chances for growth in the profession.

1. The Path to IT Leadership Is Not a Straight Line

The 90-minute session’s three panelists shared nontechnical strategies for building capacity and competing for leadership roles. They also revealed their nontraditional paths to IT leadership. Leaders repeatedly stressed that having an IT background is not a prerequisite for leadership. None had taken any IT coursework before gaining interest in the field.

Jackson, who spent 25 years in IT and now works with Texas Education Technology Leaders, started out as an engineer at NASA. She moved into education and eventually became CTO of one of the largest school districts in Texas — Cypress Fairbanks ISD, where she supported 118,000 students.

Cowan, has been in education for 22 years has spent the past 8 years in IT leadership. Her path was also unique. She started off as a music teacher, then took on the role of technology applications teacher and coordinator, then technology director and CTO at Duncanville ISD before moving to Mansfield.

Beatriz Arnillas started out as an artist, then became an art professor, transitioned into digital graphics and made her way to Halliburton, where she was an instructional designer. She then moved to Houston ISD, where she served as IT director. Today, she is the director of digital curriculum innovation at IMS Global Learning Consortium.

“Don’t ever think that because you didn’t start in IT that you can’t ever become a CTO,” Arnillas said. “I know four women CTOs who did not have a background in IT.”

RELATED: See how K–12 professionals stepped up to lead IT departments in their districts.

2. Women Should Prepare for the IT Roles They Want

While the panelists shared tips on mentorship, conflict management, creating allies and more, Jackson repeatedly returned to the point that women should prepare for the IT roles they want.

She said that when she transitioned into education, she joined professional associations, volunteered, and got needed certifications and advanced degrees to better qualify for the jobs she wanted.

“If you want to be a tech leader or CTO, you have to prepare yourself to move into the positions you want,” Jackson said. “Look around and see what certifications you need to have and add them to your resume. The point is that you can’t argue with certification. You can’t argue with the skills that you acquire to increase your worth and your value. Getting those certifications was probably one of the best things I’ve ever done.”

Frankie Jackson
If you want to be a tech leader or CTO, you have to prepare yourself to move into the positions you want.”

Frankie Jackson Director of Strategic Initiatives, Texas Education Technology Leaders

3. Successful K–12 IT Leaders Take Risks, Fail and Recover

According to the panelists, women looking to move up in IT leadership should have the courage to take risks, fail and recover.

“Failure can be a good teacher,” Cowan said. She said she shied away from from public speaking for much of her career, and it wasn’t a strong suit.

It wasn’t until after one particularly bad presentation in front of 90 executives that she made the decision to actively work on improving her public speaking skills. “I remember driving home that day and feeling like I wanted to quit,” she recalled. “But I’m not a quitter, so I knew at this point, if I’m going to move up in my career, I will have to beat this.”

She threw herself into professional development, took opportunities to be uncomfortable and asked for feedback from people she loved and trusted.

READ MORE: Digital transformation in K–12 schools depends on sustained professional development.

4. Successful Women in IT Leadership Never Give Up

Arnillas, who came from Peru with her young children years ago to escape political unrest in the country, knows a thing or two about persistence and says it is a key trait for IT leaders.

“Don’t believe when people tell you can’t do something,” she said. “You are the only one who decides what you can and can’t do well.”

She recommended that attendees interested in career advancement take personal inventory of their best skills. She noted getting feedback from others can be helpful but can lead to second-guessing your skills, knowledge and talents.

“Women are good listeners, but sometimes we listen to too much criticism,” she said. “Instead, never forget that you are in charge of your life and never give up.”

Frankie Jackson, Shawnteè Cowan and Beatriz Arnillas presented at TCEA 2022.

Frankie Jackson, Shawnteè Cowan and Beatriz Arnillas presented at TCEA 2022.

5. Use Social Media to Support Women

Throughout the session, the panelists reiterated the need for women to mentor and support one another. They wrapped up the session by reminding attendees that social media can be a powerful tool to support women and cheer them on in the field. Arnillas recommended using the hashtag #ITWomen on Twitter and retweeting female leaders, especially when women lead presentations.

Join EdTech as we provide written coverage of TCEA 2022. Bookmark this page and follow us on Twitter @EdTech_K12.

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