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Why Aren't More Women Reaching The Top Of College Sports?

By JASON BELZER, Amy Huchthausen, Lynn Hickey, Heather Lyke
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College athletics is still very much a boys club. Of the 345 universities that sponsor sports on the NCAA Division I level, you’ll find only 26 females – a mere 7.5% – sitting at the athletic director’s desk. Unfortunately, these numbers mirror those of Corporate America, where just 24 of Fortune 500 companies employ female CEOs. Despite the fact that college athletics has long positioned itself as an advocate for equal opportunity when it comes to gender, more than 40 years after the implementation of Title IX, the opportunities available for female administrators at top leadership positions are profoundly lacking.  Even with nearly all intercollegiate athletic programs employing a Senior Women’s Administrator (SWA), as well as various other senior administrator positions, the progression to the athletic director’s desk is few and far between.


While issues concerning the absence of female executive leaders have been apparent for a long time, getting meaningful action to move the numbers in a positive direction has proven all but impossible. There is a clear moral and commercial imperative – females represent an underutilized talent pool in a business environment that has become progressively more talent constrained. Moreover, there is ample evidence that decision-making effectiveness in organizations is enhanced by a diverse prospective.


For decades, managers have been taught to be progressive and treat men and women exactly the same. Yet the denial of differences between men and women by corporations and athletic departments is hurting women and consequentially excluding them from leadership opportunities. When differences go unrecognized, women are often judged as non-adaptable and labeled outcasts of the (male) dominated organizational culture and system. While pushing for equality and equal treatment has its merits, in today’s business environment there are more options and opportunities for organizations to adapt to let women flourish instead of fade into career purgatory.


So what is preventing women from reaching the top of college athletics? Do they lack equal opportunity? Is there a glass ceiling in intercollegiate athletics? Most significantly, do women and men see the problems, as well as the solutions, in the same way?


The answers to these questions are complex, subtle and difficult to tease apart. In order to glean some insight into the topic, we decided to ask some of the top female leaders in college athletics to share some stories about the challenges they have faced navigating their way through the industry, and advice they would offer women who are trying to follow in their footsteps.


Our interview subjects include: Lynn Hickey – Associate Vice President/Director of Athletics at the University of Texas San Antonio; Heather Lyke – Vice President/Director of Athletics at Eastern Michigan University; and Amy Huchthausen – Commissioner of the America East Conference.


1. What are some patterns you’ve noticed over the years about women at work, and things they could be doing better to advance their careers in college athletics?


Heather Lyke: It is surprising that there aren’t more female athletic directors. There are a whole bunch of potential factors as to why, but the most obvious is that women need more confidence when going after opportunities. When you a look around and see that there aren’t many female ADs to begin with, it dissuades women from putting themselves out there as candidates for open positions and thus it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Women need to step up and take initiative in their current job to differentiate themselves to the point that they stand out from the crowd and create opportunities for themselves. The industry is only becoming more competitive and so you have to show initiative, a tremendous work ethic and a willingness to take advantages of opportunities to lead.  Look for both strong male and female mentors to push you outside your comfort zone


Lynn Hickey: I attended a NACWAA retreat at Penn State recently and we discussed this topic quite a bit.  Unfortunately there is just not a lot of opportunity at the FBS level.  I think the lack of football experience may be hurting female candidates.  You are seeing a lot more opportunity at the non-football and FCS levels.  At the FBS level football is driving the ship and it appears that not a lot of opportunities are being given at the associate or deputy AD level.  Therefore, it is hard for a female to take that next step when those 2nd tier leadership positions are hard to come by.  However, current leaders can reverse that trend by opening up more of those roles to qualified females.


2. How do you answer the question of whether women lead differently than men?


Amy Huchthausen: Women are generally more empathetic and compassionate to people, (although not necessarily caretakers) and so they may look deeper into things when making decisions than men do. The richer experience and perspective you have, the better leader you become. Women have to navigate a different environment and that will impact their personal constitution, and that gives them a different perspective.


Lynn Hickey: I wouldn’t say they lead differently, but I do think women can think differently.  Women are multi-taskers and think out of the box a little bit more than their male counterparts.  I think at times my brain can be like chicken wire in that it is interconnected to all of the things that are going on.  In my opinion, women aren’t as one track in their thinking.  Also, women’s level of empathy can be greater than men’s, although  it doesn’t necessarily make us more emotional or gentler in decision making and dealings. It just seems to make them better at serving as a mediator/collaborator when it comes to highly contested issues.


Heather Lyke:I don’t think of myself as a female leader, just as a leader in collegiate athletics. When you are hiring people, you are always looking for specific traits and skill sets, regardless of whether they are a man or women. Leadership is not defined by your gender but rather your leadership styles which have to vary given different situations and circumstances.  In general terms, women are often more perceptive of what is going on in the lives of those around them. They are in-tune with people outside the workplace, and that helps them be more humanistic and understanding at times.


3. Any moments in your career that surprised you in terms of how you were treated by men in the workplace?


Amy Huchthausen When I’m with a male, either singly or a group, and meet other people, almost always does the person(s) we’re meeting act or treat one of the men like they’re the lead or person in charge.  Obviously, this only happens if they don’t know the commissioner of the America East is a female (even if they’ve never met me before), but in many situations that is the case so this occurs fairly regularly.  For example, if I’m with any of our male conference staff members and we’re traveling and people ask what we do or when we meet potential partners/vendors, etc.  Another example where it occurs is if I’m with a male AD or president meeting donors, fans, university staff members, etc.  While I’m more of an introvert and don’t usually lead with introductions, I believe this reaction is largely attributed to the general expectation/norm that men are in charge. At this point, it’s more humorous to me than anything, but it’s certainly something I encounter on a regular basis.


Lynn HickeyI don’t really have any horror stories so to speak.  I was fortunate that I had great (male) bosses when I was making my way through the business that understood the role of women in sports.  The only challenge early on in my career was that being included in things (meetings, high level discussion, etc.) could sometimes be a second thought. That’s why I take great satisfaction in being in the room and fulfilling expectations. My Men’s Basketball Committee work was a great experience and I worked really, really hard to be prepared and I think I earned respect in that setting.  My preparation has put me in a position to be successful and not allow for surprising treatment. Those are exactly the types of opportunities my female peers need.


4. Any surprising issues you’ve come across during your career that stemmed from the fact that you’re a woman?


Amy Huchthausen: When I was at the NCAA, almost all the senior female leadership in our department, and the national office generally, were single whereas the men were almost all married and with children. I was concerned with the message that it was sending to our younger staff, that it would imply if you were female you couldn’t be in a relationship and if you were a male you should be. It fed into the perception that women had to work harder to get to the same level as a man. We looked and saw that the majority of the men’s wives were stay-at-home… which obviously alleviated a lot of their non-work responsibilities. It’s just one example of the myriad of social and cultural issues that are still holding back women’s ability to work their way up the corporate ladder.


5. Any patterns you’ve seen in the workplaces that suggest differences between how men and women handle certain situations?


Heather Lyke:In regards to how women handle their career preparation, I would say that women tend to work really hard at their jobs, but they don’t work hard at managing their careers. I was at Ohio State for 15 years and I worked really hard… but I also knew there was no president out there that was going to recognize me unless I put myself out there. At Ohio State and Cincinnati, I was fortunate to work for athletic directors who challenged me to get better every day and allowed me to grow and expand my responsibilities.  They believed in me and helped me be a better colleague in their departments.  You need to find both strong male and female leaders who are willing to be your advocate.  You have to have guts to do that.


Amy Huchthausen: Women tend to avoid competition more than men. If they hear that a male or a friend is going after an opportunity, they may tend to back off.  It’s a combination of this and many other things, that forces women to have to go through A-Z when pursuing an opportunity and before they know it they are behind the curve. Women also look at their careers through the lens of their life. In some situations, it is helpful to make more informed A-Z decisions, but I don’t see men struggle with this in the same way or as consistently, especially when it comes to applying for jobs.


6. How did you overcome any gender-related roadblocks in your career?


Lynn Hickey: I always try to be over prepared.  I always try to do more than anybody else in the room. I have found that work ethic and preparation can help you to overcome any roadblocks.  Looking back, I probably could have done a better job on the networking side of things, especially utilizing DeLoss Dodds and his network.  My time at Texas A&M as both a coach and an administrator was a tough situation.  It is tough to wear two hats at that level and succeed like you want to at both roles.  I made the decision to focus on one arena after that and it has worked out well.


Amy Huchthausen:Women need to be more cognizant of the political dynamics of a job. Women generally and naively think early on that if you work hard, get straight A’s and knock out all the elements of your job description than you’ll advance and get the best jobs. But we know that’s not true. It’s not how the world works… sometimes you have to play politics, you have to build relationships, understand the organization and what (and who) influences decisions. In a campus position you have to navigate all the boosters, alumni and other constituents. Unfortunately, the general sentiment is that you are a female and you don’t know anything about football or basketball… so you have to figure out a way to overcome that.


7. What are the biggest challenges in intercollegiate athletics for you and other women in your position?


Heather Lyke: The perception that it’s more traditional to hire a male athletic director; no one likes to go against the status quo. That being said, I’m a firsthand example of the fact that there are some awesome presidents out there that want the best leader and best fit for their University regardless of sex or skin color. The one thing that may be holding women back is that the role or designation of the Senior Women’s Administrator.  The role was a great thing when it started, but I’m not sure it’s serving women well in the long run. When it was created, it forced people to have a female on their executive team… now days it’s turned into a just another title. I speak to a lot of young female administrators that say “I’m working hard to become an SWA”, to which I respond, “Why do you put your ceiling there?”


Lynn Hickey: Gaining access and getting a foot in the door at the highest levels can be a challenge.  I think women can find it challenging to develop a road map on how you can continue to grow.  We are seeing a trend in administration that is going away from the ex-coach.  In my opinion, the ex-coach brings a good level of expertise and empathy of what your programs, coaches, and kids are going through.  After all, as an AD the number one reason you are there is to serve your Student-Athletes and coaches.  Women have to find ways that give them confidence in their abilities and confidence to stand up in front of a group and command presence and respect their role.  Another issue that seems to permeate is that it is tough for women leaders to have the courage to move/relocate and have families that are willing to follow along.  It can be tough to find the courage to take risks as an employee, leader, wife, and mom.


8. As a female, what types of leadership skills are necessary when dealing with traditionally male dominant groups of non-employee stakeholders (i.e. donors, season ticket holders, campus partners, academic faculty, student-athletes, etc.)?


Amy Huchthausen: The key to success as a college athletics administrator, and really in any industry and any gender is having strong relationships and connecting with people. It’s not just about confidence, because when you’re in a role, you were already picked, they chose you. The responsibility is already in your lap, now you have to deliver. You shouldn’t be nervous about not having buy-in; you should be focused on performing at the level that people expect of you.


Lynn Hickey: Strong personal values and honesty go a long way.  You have to be a good communicator when both speaking and listening.  You have to be able to develop a vision and communicate that story regardless of the audience.  The world has progressed enough that men aren’t going to dismiss you just because you’re female.  If you have a high level of talent and presence when you walk into a room people are going to take notice and they are going to buy in to your passion and your plan.


9. How do you help to foster leadership skills amongst your female employees and your team in general?


Lynn Hickey: One of the fallacies on leadership is if you’re the boss everybody waits on you…I don’t believe that and I want to develop a culture of being a servant.  I need to be able to do more for my staff than they do for me.  I have to walk the walk.  I have to be inclusive and give people opportunities to be a part of decision making and a part of projects.  I have found that you have to let people go and make decisions right/wrong and be there to support them either way.  One of the worst things you can do to a real talented person is to not give them responsibility and not allow them to do things themselves.  You have to be a good delegator and build confidence in people.  You need to give affirmation and balance that with critiquing in a respectful way in which they can learn.  I also try to provide readings, speakers, and development opportunities with my team.  By doing all of these things, hopefully I’m setting them up to be good leaders.


As you can see, the experiences and opinions at the top can vary.  However, like American society, as intercollegiate athletics continues to embrace diversity among leadership, change and continued improvement are certainly possible.  As the next generation of female leaders garners more opportunity to prove their merit, one can only hope to see more women at the athletic director’s desk.  After all, according to Hickey, “What’s great about the next generation is that there have now been enough women in positions of leadership for the next generation to visualize what can be possible.