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'As you look at the leaderboard, there are women missing'

Tamara Uselman, superintendent of the Bismarck School District. Photo by Bismarck School District

MOORHEAD, Minn. — On the wall of the boardroom for the Moorhead School District hangs portraits of former superintendents.

It's a line of all white men — middle-aged or older — until you get to the end.

There, Lynne Kovash's smiling face is framed.

"I think there has been a long-held notion that it is a male position," Kovash said.

A complex dynamic has created a system where most teachers are women, yet most of the top leadership jobs go to men, Kovash said.

Some of it is the glass ceiling: a bias, conscious or unconscious, against women as leaders. Some of it is the limited opportunity to move from an elementary classroom to a central office post. Some is a need for mentorship, Kovash said.

In Bismarck, Tamara Uselman is also the first woman to lead that city's public schools.

Previously, she had been a superintendent in Perham, Minn.

"When I go to our national administrators conference, I never have to wait in line for a bathroom," Uselman joked, "because there are so few women."

Then she becomes more serious.

Education groups must "celebrate women in this business who have been successful (and send out) a message that you can do this and you can be successful and be honored," Uselman said.

"In our own shops, we need to do a reach-out," she said.

About 72 percent of all K-12 educators are women, according to Department of Education figures cited by the American Association of School Administrators.

But a 2015 AASA study found women make up just 27 percent of those holding a superintendency, up only 2 percent from 2010.

In North Dakota, 32 of 178 school districts had women superintendents in 2016-17, or 18 percent of the total, according to the Department of Public Instruction.

The Minnesota Association of School Superintendents, which counts nearly all of the state's superintendents as members, reported that of 323 superintendents, just 51 women — less than 16 percent — held the top job in the 2016-17 school year.

"Women in leadership roles ... is not a whole lot different from leadership roles in any industry, even outside of education," says Diane Cordes, superintendent of the Breckenridge (Minn.) School District. "As you look at the leaderboard, there are women missing."

Pressure daunting

Kovash, Uselman and Cordes cited the all-consuming nature of the job as being off-putting for women who are fine leaders in the classroom.

The time demands aren't family-friendly, even for people with understanding families.

"You really are on call day and night. You have to be ready to respond," Kovash said.

For example, Kovash made scores of visits to community groups to help get a $78.3 million school bond passed in November 2015.

She also has continued working on and off since May, when she started treatment for pancreatic cancer.

Uselman said the decision-making pressure on superintendents can be daunting for some.

"By and large, you own it. No matter what you decide. You know a good amount of the community will be mad at you," Uselman said.

Many women focus on teaching and learning, while fiscal management is a skill often valued more by school boards, Kovash said.

Among central office administrators best-positioned to jump into a superintendency, "I would bet the majority in finance are male and the majority of women are in curriculum and instruction," Kovash said.

Woman have "a more nurturing nature" in the classroom, but the skills sought for leadership are different, Cordes said.

"Crunch numbers. Be on top of the budget. Manage people," Cordes said.

Other areas the AASA says hinder women aiming for the top of the administrative ranks:

• They don't take positions that can lead to the superintendency.

• They fail to get the credentials to become a superintendent.

• Some school boards are reluctant to hire women as superintendents. Nearly 82 percent of women superintendents in a 2010 AASA study indicated school board members do not see them as strong managers and 76 percent felt school boards did not view them as capable of handling district finances. Sixty-one percent felt that a glass ceiling existed in school management.

"The system is set up to perceive that men should be leaders," Uselman said.

Mentors needed

Mentoring is vital to making leadership more reflective of the rank and file among teachers, Kovash, Cordes and Uselman said.

"I am a school administrator because I was asked to become one," Uselman said. "We've got to ask, as women or men in leadership, we have to reach out and ask people and tell them it's a good thing."

Kovash spends time teaching and guiding the next generation. And she encourages young people to seek out mentors.

Kovash said it was the "tappers," people who asked her to consider being a principal or a district administrator, who helped her move her career forward.

Value of soft skills

Cordes said society is starting to embrace the importance of the "soft skills" — collaboration and compassion — as important for leaders, which should help more women become superintendents.

"What was once frowned upon as being weak is now seen as vitally important," Cordes said.

"We don't have to have all the answers, but we can work together and build a team," Cordes said.

It's a paradigm shift that could help women visualize themselves as leaders, Cordes said.

"There can be very successful female leadership in education. Talking about it. That's where it starts," Cordes said.

Uselman said as tough as the job can be, it is profoundly rewarding.

"More days than not, I feel lucky," Uselman said. "I walk down that hill [in Bismarck] on the way to work and I think that I am lucky to have this job. I'm lucky to be able to do this type of work, improving lives through the generations. It's a lucky place to be. Not easy to be there. But lucky."

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.

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