A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
Navigating by networking
Women should turn to their sisterhood for career support and guidance
By Carmella S. Franco and Maria G. Ott | September | October 2023
Why do women feel they are doing it alone? The sisterhood of women helping women advance is powerful, growing as a way to increase the representation of women in senior leadership roles. We have led many workshops for women and continue to be surprised that the concept of networking is not understood by many of the amazing young women we meet. It has been our goal to promote networking as an untapped asset that is a way to extend a helping hand from successful women to the next generation of leaders.
At a recent “She Thrives” conference for women sponsored by the San Diego Office of Education, we were inspired to hear the women in attendance embrace a new concept: a community of sisters supporting one another to realize their potential. This community is a powerful asset that helps build confidence and removes the artificial barriers that women perceive as brick walls to advancement. When women are together in community, the barriers are challenged, and the brick walls are changed into glass walls that can be broken.
What should women know about networking? Let’s examine the key concepts and share this with the women across California. Our motto of “sí se puede” (yes, you can) communicates a message of strength that started with Dolores Huerta and extols us to challenge the status quo and be agents of change. Women in California are demonstrating that they accept the invitation; 42 percent of superintendents are women. The number of women who have stepped into the principal role, approximately 52 percent, is even more impressive.
Master this skill
Networking is a skill that requires a woman to have the confidence to attend events where she will meet individuals she admires or who can serve as role models. We remember our own experiences building these connections early in our careers. To enter a room or join an event where admired individuals are present can be intimidating. However, learning to feel comfortable in one’s own skin as an aspiring leader is a big step in advancing one’s potential and making the connections that help you get and keep the job.
Networking is about making connections and building enduring and mutually beneficial relationships. So where does a woman begin? We suggest you look to your ACSA state and regional women’s network events. Every fall, there is a standing statewide conference for women, and it should be on your calendar. There are many other organizations that are focusing on helping women prepare for and move forward in their careers. These include the California Association of Latino Superintendents and Administrators; the California Association of African American Superintendents and Administrators; other affinity groups; and some local universities and county offices of education that sponsor conferences for women. Don’t miss these opportunities to grow your networking confidence and comfort in meeting women who can share important advice as you continue to advance your leadership.
Your involvement in Academies — such as those sponsored by ACSA — and even doctoral programs that offer opportunities for establishing networks of mentors, colleagues and future lifelong friends is critically important to your advancement and success. We both built connections in our doctoral programs, and those relationships are still a part of our personal and professional lives. In our early days in administration, we recall how — via the women’s group Women in Educational Leadership and also Southern Counties Women in Educational Leadership — it was not uncommon to attend every conference we could to network and meet those in the field who could assist and advise us. It must be something that you look forward to, as there needs to be fun involved in addition to learning from others.
Following are some steps we encourage you to take:
  • Develop a general networking plan.
  • Strategically identify events that you would like to attend.
  • Speak with mentors and colleagues about recommended organizations, e.g., ACSA Women’s Leadership Network, CALSA, CAAASA, and others.
  • Examine organizations that host conferences where there are female speakers and venues for women to get together.
  • Identify key individuals that you admire who may be speakers or presenters.
  • Consider a doctoral program where there is a wide offering of opportunities for networking.
Trust yourself
If you are hesitant to attend events alone, we encourage you to invite a colleague to be your guest. It helps to think of it as being similar to a get-together or a party. View this as an opportunity to find what you have in common with other colleagues. It also doesn’t hurt to prepare and practice for a networking event. We encourage you to develop an introduction of yourself that is clear, interesting and well-delivered. Enter the event together, show some of your personality, be approachable, have a fun evening and debrief all the way home. Review what worked and what you learned.
Consciously develop a networking plan for each event that you attend. Frame it in your mind as being a strategy to help you achieve the career goal you envision for your future. Remember — the women you admire for their success were once in your same position. They also learned how to connect and build confidence in meeting new people and forming relationships. It may seem that successful women were always successful. Truthfully, we all started with learning to trust ourselves in new situations and to foster the relationships that helped us advance. It is known that relationships are the catalyst for success. It is all about relationships. Build them and keep them strong. People interact with those they like and trust.
Consider the time that we both attended a networking event in the Inland Empire for ACSA. We were invited to speak about breaking barriers. The audience was mostly women with a few interested men. It was fun to share our experiences of navigating from the classroom to senior leadership levels. The women in attendance were invited to reach out to us for encouragement and advice, and several followed up. We were impressed with the excitement in the room, and we took away as much from the session as those in attendance. As women who have navigated the barriers, we appreciate hearing the questions and learning what is current and relevant for future leaders. One person in the room, Mary McNeil, went on to become the California Superintendent of the Year!
At conferences where we have led presentations on networking, we continue to be inspired by the women who attend. You are our sisters and the leaders of the next generation. If you continue to break down barriers, the future will show closure of the gap between men and women in our state. Our daughters will know that it is possible to make an impact in our profession as a leader who is unafraid to reach out to the sisterhood for support and guidance.
Failing to reach out and assuming that you can advance without a network can actually slow your advancement. Look at yourself in the mirror and name the goal that you have set for your future. If you are not yet ready to do that in a group, do it as part of your own reflective practice. Facing yourself in the mirror, say: “One day in the not-too -distant future, I will fulfill my passion as an educator by serving as _______.” Fill in the blank with your goal and get comfortable hearing your goal articulated. Next time you are in a meeting and someone asks the group to state their career goals, make your statement public. It will start to be part of your vocabulary and personal belief system and your confidence will grow.
Our final words of advice: Trust yourself! Find your inner strength and reach out to other women! Sí se puede!

Carmella S. Franco, Ed.D., is a retired superintendent, governance consultant and former ACSA Superintendents Academy Director. Maria G. Ott, Ph.D., is a retired superintendent and currently holds the Irving R. and Virginia A. Melbo Chair in Education Administration at the USC Rossier School of Education.