“She’s delightful.”

“She knows academics, but can she handle a budget?”

“She’s just her old boss in a skirt.”

“I wonder about her personal commitment if she won’t move her own kids here mid-school year.”

These are just a sampling of the things said to or about women pursuing leadership positions in education.

Gender bias manifests in both obvious and subtle ways for women in education leadership—for women in leadership generally. Whether it’s damning with faint praise, oblique criticism dressed up as a backhanded compliment, or differential assignments on the leadership ladder between men and women, we see these biases articulated verbally and non-verbally across the experience of women in leadership: from leadership pipelines to hiring committees and beyond.

In education, these dynamics are nakedly discriminatory in their effect.

Despite women constituting a significant majority of the education workforce, including nearly 8 in 10 teachers, they lead only 30% of the nation’s top 500 largest school districts, according to the most recent release from the Superintendent Research Project, a project led by my organization. While that dramatically outpaces the nearly 11% of Fortune 500 firms led by women, it’s a data point that has largely remained stagnant and is out of balance to the supermajority that women hold in the public education workforce generally.

In the last seven years, I’ve mentored over 50 leaders who have ascended to district or state superintendent roles. I’ve witnessed this bias firsthand, from undue attention to appearances to doubts about commitment. However, overwhelming evidence exists today showcasing women as exceptional leaders. Yet the systems that determine who rises to the top job and when they rise remain imbued with the misogyny of those who created the original design decades ago.

Our research found that women who do reach the top job are disproportionately in the position on an interim basis—a public declaration of the limited trust placed in them by their boards or other hiring authorities. This hampers women leaders’ ability to maneuver, reduces their autonomy and too often narrows the collective ambitions of the organizations they lead.

This scenario isn’t confined to the public sector. In the private sector, particularly within the venture capital sphere, a similar pattern emerges where big bets, the lion’s share of the venture funding and high-risk/high-reward initiatives predominately flow to men.

And when the stakes do get raised, women in education leadership often experience the glass cliff phenomenon: They are asked to come into jobs that are set up for failure. Divided school boards, ineffective governance systems, inadequate systemic support and microaggressions too often greet women superintendents on their first day in the office.

From broken leadership pipelines that funnel women away from critical leadership positions that would better support a faster rise to the top, to countless years of uncompensated additional and invisible job duties piled on, to biased professional guidance that causes women to stay at every rung on the leadership ladder longer than their male peers, the challenges women leaders face are as manifold as they are broadly experienced.

Fortunately, we have the tools and strategies to rewrite the playbook:

1. Prioritize gender disparities and address existing system biases head on.

Get serious about taking on the disparities in your state or in your district and make a game plan to address it. Setting a public goal increases accountability and transparency in the search and selection process.

From a brass-tacks standpoint, this starts with the language on the job application and an inclusive candidate pool. States play a critical role, as do boards and superintendents. Committing to reviewing data at all systems levels and then putting into action a plan addressing disparities is a critical first step.

2. Once a superintendent has been hired, share the data from the search.

How many candidates were interviewed? What were their accomplishments, their demographic characteristics? This data can then drive critical reflection and improvement. Indeed, what gets measured is what gets done, and measuring these data are essential to changing these outcomes.

3. When a leader is selected, address gender-based pay inequities from the jump.

While there may be complex historical causes of these disparities, the solution is remarkably simple—equal pay for equal work. Beyond salary, packages need to account for families and well-being. These employee benefits strengthen and sustain all leaders, not just women, and student outcomes won’t change if the leaders at the helm are not equipped to persist long-term.

4. Build out a supportive pipeline of leaders for the future.

Our research also shows that women are more likely to be named superintendents in districts where they already work. Districts can identify and nurture female candidates through intentional support programs, including employee resource groups and sponsorship.

Sponsorship specifically plays a vital role in cultivating women leaders. In contrast to mentors, who typically provide guidance and advice, sponsors are superiors who take a hands-on role in supporting career moves and advocating for advancement. Women with sponsors are more likely to ask for challenging assignments and pay raises.

5. Curated networking opportunities can also be incredibly supportive.

As the CEO of a national network for women in educational leadership, I’ve seen what’s possible with these opportunities. Networks can play a pivotal role in advancing the public dialogue about gender bias in leadership and advocate for strategies to address it.

Who our education leaders are and how they came to the seats are vital signaling phenomena for not just other professionals in the system, but the very children the system is intended to serve. You cannot be what you cannot see, to be sure. But the flipside of that coin is just as true—each leader has the ability to inspire scores of others aspiring to leadership.

For each woman who successfully ascends the leadership ladder in education, the path forward for those who follow gets a bit more fair, more inclusive and more possible.

Education is about opportunity. It’s time we showed our students that the adults are serious about doing something to rewrite the playbook around leadership opportunities.