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Career Insights From Eight Women Who Lead NCAA Division I Conferences

By Dr. Elizabeth A. Taylor, Temple University; Dr. Jessica L. Siegele, UNC-Pembroke; Dr. Allison B. Smith, University of New Mexico; Dr. Robin Hardin, University of Tennessee

Adapted from “Applying Career Construction Theory to Female National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I Conference Commissioners” in The Journal of Sport Management in July  2018


We have seen steady growth in the participation rates for women within sport since the passage of Title IX. Both the number of female student-athletes and sports sponsored by athletic departments have increased dramatically over the past 40 years. However, during that same time we have seen a decline in the percentage of women serving as head coaches and athletic administrators at the intercollegiate athletics level.


Immediately following Title IX we saw drastic decreases in the percent and numbers have become stagnant with women holding less than 40% of Division I head coaching jobs over women sports and 10% of Division I FBS athletic director positions. Further, 11% of athletic departments do not have a woman in an administrative position in any capacity and the presence of women coaching within men’s sports is extremely limited – less than 5%.


Given this information, there has been a plethora of research examining career mobility issues for women in sport and in intercollegiate athletics. The impetus for our project, published in the July 2018 issue of Journal of Sport Management, stemmed from previous research into the subject including in-depth interviews with female graduate-assistants, early career professionals, and athletic directors all working in NCAA Division I athletic departments.


Results of these projects illustrated how women face many challenges as they pursue careers in intercollegiate athletics. They have been stereotyped as not being as capable as leaders as men, as sport is one of the most accepted domains for male leadership and decision-making. Women who do work in traditionally male-dominated professions often attract increased attention, are evaluated more critically, and experience less support, especially when they are new to an organization.


Women often experience barriers to entrance when trying to break into the intercollegiate athletics along with trying to secure more senior, decision-making positions. These barriers include, unequal assumption of competence, hiring from a principle of similarity, homophobia, lack of female mentors, and experiencing difficulty working in a hostile, male-dominated environment.


In addition, women in intercollegiate coaching and administration positions have been found to leave the profession prematurely due to lack of time and support, family responsibilities, and burnout. Work-family conflict has been an issue that has arisen throughout this line of inquiry examining women working in intercollegiate athletics. Women in these leadership positions may choose to leave the profession because of the time demands of being an intercollegiate athletic administrator, and the potential sacrifices to personal relationships because of this lifestyle.


One place where women have seen more success securing senior level positions is conference commissioners. Eleven of the 32 NCAA Division I conference commissioners (34.4%) were women at the time of this study, a much higher percentage than observed in other intercollegiate leadership positions.


The purpose of the project was to examine the experiences of women who are NCAA Division I conference commissioners and how they were able to ascend to these positions of leadership using career construction theory (CCT) as a theoretical framework. The study consisted of semi-structured interviews with 8 of the 11 women who held the position at the time of study.


Career construction theory was utilized for its ability to examine how and why specific events or experiences as well as education and training influence an individual’s career choices. Findings revealed participants constantly negotiate time spent on personal and professional obligations, gender normalcy – or the idea that gendered harassment was normalized in the field, – and relationships created in the workplace turned into organic mentorship relationships.


Participants expressed challenges attempting to achieve balance between their work and personal life, and went as far as saying, “I hate the word balance; I think it’s more about work/life integration.” This idea was echoed among participants as another conference commissioner felt as though, “balance implies scale or appropriate balance (of both at the same level) and I think that’s unrealistic all the time.” These women discussed how some days they may achieve balance between work and personal life, whereas other days the family or work may be all consuming. Individuals working in leadership positions within intercollegiate athletic departments – especially high ranking positions such as Division I conference commissioner – have many competing interests and priorities, and part of the responsibility of being in such a position of authority is learning how to prioritize professional and personal responsibilities.


Interestingly, although all 8 participants noted their struggles with attaining work-life balance, they also acknowledged they knew and willingly engaged in an imbalance – tipped toward work – during much of their early career. This suggests there may be structural components in place within intercollegiate athletics that may limit the career mobility of anyone who is not able to dedicate all their time to work. This subsection of employees is likely to include women who have personal responsibilities (e.g., childcare, elderly care).


Even if a woman has limited personal responsibilities or has a support system that allows for total dedication to work, social norms may dictate a low level of acceptance for women who make these life “sacrifices.”


Although many of the participants noted that they had not experienced any kind of gendered discrimination, and throughout their career, they had felt welcomed by their (male) coworkers, some of the experiences they shared suggested otherwise. For example, one participant noted how she had been mistaken for an intern or the daughter of a co-worker but said, “I should just write those off. They don’t bother me and it might bother some people, but I just don’t take them very seriously.”


Further, another participant suggested she was unable to think of an experience where gender was the topic of discussion in a negative way, but described the following interaction with a (male) football coach from her conference. It was early in her career as a conference commissioner, and she was making “the rounds” visiting all the university campuses and athletic departments within her conference. She said, “We sat down at breakfast and he looked me right in the eye and he said we need to figure out how we can get some of these scholarships away from the women, so that we can fully fund the football team.”


She went on to say, “I was like, coach, coach, no, we’re not going to do that,” then joked that “He must have been really happy he finally got a female commissioner overseeing football.” The joking nature of these comments suggests that a belief in this type of behavior as acceptable. Although this interaction seems to suggest the existence of blatant sexism, these overt sexists comments are not the only way this discriminatory behavior becomes ingrained in a culture.


Although many of the women shared experiences that suggest sexism exists, even at conference offices, several of the participants discussed believing they experienced greater acceptance from their peers and organizations due to limited interaction with football programs and donors. Previous research on women in the athletic director position suggested struggles to gain acceptance was due in large part to the influences of prominent football programs and wealthy donors.


One participant stated she believes that there are more politics at play being hired as an athletic director than as a commissioner, “local politics that conferences don’t have.” She said that when hiring a commissioner, the presidents may be more empowered to make a decision on hiring who they think is best for the job absent of what it may mean for donors. Another commissioner stated she feels as though hiring committees for the athletic director position may be focused on revenue generation, male sports, or football and that there is a, “predisposition to think that hiring someone who has played football, coached football, or been in that environment could be the optimal candidate which obviously cuts out 50% of the population, which are women. Without these pressures at the conference office, women may be better able to enter the organization and see success.


Finally, participants discussed their experience with, and the importance of, mentorship. Previous research on the topic suggests women, at all levels within intercollegiate athletics, may struggle to find female mentors and same gender mentorship can be critical for success in male-dominated organizations. The women in this study echoed the importance of mentorship, but they believed that mentor–mentee relationships created through organic relationships were more beneficial than those created through formal programs.


These women discussed how they would extend work trips in order to spend more time together, and would often reach out to one another for advice or encouragement. One participant expressed how the relationship between all the female conference commissioners was, “Outstanding. It’s unbelievable.” She went on to say, “There is something special about having other women colleagues that are the bosses; and you are working with schools, presidents, coaches, and others and managing all that; we can kind of let our guard down with each other and be a little bit more vulnerable to say I don’t know how to deal with this, can you help me?”


The commissioners are taking their professional relationships outside of the office, comparable to when all the men in the office would get beers after work. However, it is possible that the commissioners in this study are purposefully inclusive because they are currently working in an industry that is often exclusive of women.


The experiences and challenges of negotiating the space between work and family are not specific to intercollegiate athletics, but may be more prevalent in an industry with high time demands, a nontraditional work schedule, and pressure to perform at a high level. Women from the study indicated they engaged in very personal, professional relationships with other female conference commissioners around the country. They would often extend work trips to create opportunities for female-to-female bonding. These types of experiences are common practice for male employees.


Participants felt that there were limited amounts of sexism in the workplace, but all discussed experiencing instances of sexism, indicating a culture of gender normalcy. Many of the participants discussed these experiences while appearing to “laugh them off,” however sexism was still prevalent. These women may have learned the sexism and discrimination is part of the job and to be successful they must learn to accept it. Women may experience increased success in leadership positions at conference offices, compared with on-campus athletic departments, due to limited direct interaction with football and donors.


Practically speaking, more senior level employees can model better work-life balance to show entry-level employees it is acceptable to take time for family or outside interests. It is important this behavior is modeled otherwise entry-level and newly-hired employees will believe they must be in the office for extended periods of time and weekends in order to be successful.


Additionally, athletic departments can utilize this information to help women build strong networks within the field of intercollegiate athletics. Encouraging women to engage networking that is both personal and professional may be beneficial for women in the industry. Finally, creating a culture that is not tolerant of sexist behavior is critical to increase the presence of women within the intercollegiate athletics industry. Although more senior level female employees may “put up” with sexist behavior because they have become accustomed to it that does not mean it is accepted behavior that should be tolerated.