Women athletic directors? Not in most elite NCAA conferences, where men still hold outsize advantage

·4 min read

In the last four months, 17 NCAA Division l college athletic directors have been hired and only two have been women. Among the Power 5 Conferences, the five wealthiest and most powerful conferences in NCAA Division I sports, that number is zero.

Currently, only five out of the 65 athletic director positions at schools in the Power 5 are held by women. From Sandy Barbour in the Big Ten, to Jennifer Cohen in the Pac-12, to Heather Lyke and Carla Williams in the ACC, and Candice Storey Lee in the SEC, these exceptional women are, well, the exception.

Today, there are several open leadership positions in Division l, three of these in the Power 5. With dozens of qualified women waiting in the wings, we must act now to even the playing field and provide these women the equality and proper treatment that they deserve.

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As is true in sports, the numbers tell the story. Research published in 2020 shows:

  • Nearly half of all college athletes are women, but just 24 percent of all NCAA athletic director roles are held by women.

  • Women hold athletic director roles in only 15 percent of NCAA Division I institutions, 21 percent of Division ll institutions, and 32 percent of Division III institutions.

  • From 2018 to 2019, NCAA Division I saw a miniscule 0.4 percent increase in female representation in athletic director positions.

Behind the football power divide

Cultural and societal bias drives much of the inequity in college athletics. For far too many, the notion of women in sports has come to mean women athletes, not executives or organizational and departmental leaders.

Patti Phillips, CEO, Women Leaders in College Sports
Patti Phillips, CEO, Women Leaders in College Sports

There are numerous examples shared by women athletic directors that speak to this bias, including stories of conference handbooks recommending coats and ties for public appearances; and recollections of being told to leave the football field because “wives are not allowed on the sideline.”

Gender inequality in the world of sports has existed for decades, and a major contributor can explained in one word: football.

Football is the economic engine on college campuses in the Power 5, helping to finance not only every other sport, but often the growth and development of the universities themselves. In this traditionally male-dominated culture, institutions are often reticent to change for fear of alienating sponsors and donor bases, and as a result, impacting women’s advancement.

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Aside from the unfair stereotyping of football as a “man’s sport,” anyone who understands sports administration can agree that comprehending the intricacies of the spread offense or cover-two defense is not a requirement for success. After all, coaches do not want their athletic directors (be they male or female) meddling in their game.

While colleges work with search firms committed to bridging the gender divide, the masculine culture of football and sports continues to affect decisions. Time and again, conscious and unconscious biases in the search process limit qualified women’s attempts to advance in searches and win the job.

Prioritize gender diversity in athletics

In a time when diversity and equity have never had greater urgency, colleges and universities must move from conversation to action by prioritizing gender diversity across their organizations – beginning in their athletic departments. It is imperative that we begin to change the conversations and behind-the-door dialogues that are blocking women from leadership positions.

So, what can we do?

  • First, create an NCAA equivalent of a Rooney Rule, or the Russell Rule as adopted by the West Coast Conference. These are policies and diversity hiring commitments that require schools to interview traditionally underrepresented candidates for leadership, administrative and coaching positions.

  • Second, encourage all leaders to be a part of the solution. These leaders, particularly presidents and chancellors, have the ultimate power to make these hires and are on the front lines for changing the landscape of leadership.

  • Third, engage men in conversations to address systemic gender inequity in sports leadership. Men and women must unite for change to be made.

We need more bold leaders who see a new future of college athletic leadership. A future that is a win-win for the entire campus community and one that represents the diversity of the population it serves.

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It has been nearly 50 years since the passage of Title IX. The time for equality is long overdue – and change needs to start at the top. Together, let’s bridge the power divide and deliver the benefits of diverse, inclusive leadership to college sports.

Patti Phillips, CEO of Women Leaders in College Sports, is a veteran executive and an industry leader in sports with over 30 years of experience leading organizations and coaching women on career advancement and leadership.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NCAA lacks women in athletic director posts, especially at top schools

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