Female Athletic Directors: A Scarce but Positive Influence

Although women continue to make progress toward better representation in college athletics, in the nearly 44 years since the passage of Title IX, the percentage of women in administrative roles in college athletic departments has remained relatively low.

Above: Princeton University Athletic Director Mollie Marcoux (far right) with the university’s winning men’s cross-country team at the Ivy League Championship last fall

“We’ve seen with athletics administration [that]women are getting some of the leadership opportunities and are making huge strides, and the number of women hired into leadership positions has increased drastically in the last three years. However, when you look at the overall numbers, the percentage points aren’t moving much,” says Patti Phillips, CEO of the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators (NACWAA).

Patti Phillips, CEO of NACWAA
Patti Phillips, CEO of NACWAA

Specifically, little progress has been made in the number of women serving as athletic directors. While this figure increased for all three National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) divisions, from 191 in 2006 to 214 in 2012, it reflected only 1.3 percent growth during that time, according to NACWAA data. Overall, women comprise just 20.3 percent of all administrative roles in college athletic departments.

However, prior to the 1972 passage and subsequent enforcement in 1978 of Title IX — which prohibits gender discrimination in any federally funded educational program or activity — women served as athletic directors over women’s programs in great numbers.

“Heavy changes took place in the ’70s with the merging of [men’s and women’s] departments. When a single athletic director then needed to be appointed, the job almost universally went to the person who had been the athletic director over the men’s program,” says Linda Jean Carpenter, PhD, co-author of Women in Intercollegiate Sport: A National, Longitudinal Study.

This 37-year study, which collected data from institutions that have women’s athletic programs, reveals the sudden decrease in the number of women serving in the role of athletic director after 1978, the year colleges and universities were supposed to be in compliance with Title IX. The report — co-authored by Ruth Vivian Acosta, PhD — showed that in 1972, women led more than 90 percent of women’s athletic departments, a number that decreased to 20 percent by 1980, after many departments had already merged.

Linda Jean Carpenter, co-author of Women in Intercollegiate Sport
Linda Jean Carpenter, co-author of Women in Intercollegiate Sport

A look at the individual NCAA divisions shows even starker differences. According to the study, in 2014, women comprised 30.3 percent and 23.2 percent of athletic director positions in Division III and Division II, respectively, while making up only 10.6 percent of athletic director positions in Division I.

For Carpenter, the reason for the dearth of female athletic directors in Division I can be summed up with one word: football.

“In Division I, you have big-time sports, and that includes big-time football,” she says. “… The structure of athletics is different [at these schools], the power that it wields on campus is different, and the closeness that it is tied to the male psyche is a little bit different in Division I than it is in Division III.

“I think the hiring authority in big-time Division I schools assumes that a woman cannot understand football and therefore would not make a good administrator, and yet there are some good examples [where] they are wrong.”

One such example is Mollie Marcoux.

Mollie Marcoux, athletic director at Princeton University

As the first female athletic director at Princeton University, Marcoux has been overseeing the Division I school’s 38 varsity teams and the university’s campus recreation program since August 2014. In addition to the need to be a “values-driven person,” she believes any athletic director, male or female, needs to be a good listener and collaborator.

And while she says that knowledge of the student-athlete experience is important — she herself excelled in ice hockey and soccer as an undergraduate at Princeton — she doesn’t think a deep understanding of all sports is necessary.

“You don’t have to know the Xs and Os for every sport,” Marcoux says. “To say that I am a football genius would be a far stretch, and obviously, you can only know intimately a few sports based on your own experience. But you have to understand college athletics, you have to understand what it takes to be a college athlete, you have to be passionate about sports, but I think, most importantly, you have to be a great leader and a great manager.”

According to Phillips at NACWAA, women bring these and other positive qualities to the role of athletic director. “Studies reveal women bring new knowledge, skills, and networks to the table; take fewer unnecessary risks; and are more inclined to contribute in ways that make their teams and organizations better,” she says.

Furthermore, women in athletic director positions may have a larger impact on the athletics department as a whole. According to Women in Intercollegiate Sport, in departments that were headed by women, the percentage of female coaches was higher than in those headed by men. Specifically, in Division I departments led by women, 46.8 percent of coaches were female, compared with 43 percent in departments led by men. In the other two divisions, an even greater disparity existed.

“That translates to an impact on the [student] participant, because men see male role models everywhere they look — whether that’s the college president, a professor, a politician — and women do not have that opportunity as often, to see female role models in positions of decision making and leadership,” Carpenter says. “I really think it’s important in an area as intense as athletics to be able to have those role models present.”

Aware of the critical need to increase female representation in college athletics, NACWAA is working to provide more opportunities for women in administrative roles.

In 2013, the organization launched the Advancement Road Map and Initiative, powered by Turnkey Search, a program aimed at increasing the number of women in leadership positions in college athletics. It provides resources and information on leadership education, development, and networking opportunities for women looking to advance in their careers.

Also part of the initiative is an effort to recommend qualified women for open positions within college athletic departments, for which NACWAA has an ongoing list of candidates.

“[These are] women who have either self-identified as wanting to advance or have been nominated. We reference this list when search firms call and want to find qualified women for searches,” Phillips says. “We are making conscious efforts to ensure qualified candidates are aware of and prepared for open positions that become available.”

NACWAA also partners with the NCAA to offer “institutes,” which provide opportunities for women to “increase their skills and enhance their opportunities for growth in the field.”

As colleges and universities and their athletic departments become more cognizant of the great work being done by women in these leadership roles, Carpenter believes we will see a movement toward college athletic departments hiring more women — a trend she thinks is already taking shape.

“The athletics world is realizing that women as athletic directors are doing a pretty good job and that they are very positive leaders who develop good programs,” she says. “… A woman’s voice in the department of athletics needs to be heard, or at least present.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.