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Senior Woman Administrators’ (SWA) Perceptions Of Barriers To Career Mobility

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

The Senior Woman Administrator (SWA) designation was established in 1989 to provide women an opportunity to be involved in the management of National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) institutions’ athletic departments. However, the SWA designation has created a situation where there is often only one woman in a senior-level administration position at NCAA member institutions. As recently as 2015-16, 25% of DI and more than 70% of DII and DIII institutions reported having zero or one female administrator. 


A plethora of research exists examining career mobility issues for women in collegiate athletic administration. Specific to the SWA, research has found the involvement of SWAs in the actual decision-making process (i.e., financial decisions or revenue sport oversight) varies across institutions. The NCAA Inclusion Report (2018) found that among Division I, II, and III SWAs, 75% reported being actively engaged in the hiring process for senior-level positions, but only 46% were involved in major financial decisions. Additionally, 66% of SWAs have sport oversight responsibilities, but only 13% oversee revenue-generating sports. SWAs are often tracked into overseeing women’s programs and funneled into the soft areas of athletic departments such as marketing, academics, and student-life. Despite this funneling, many SWAs desire to achieve leadership positions beyond the SWA designation, but have been stereotyped as lacking the leadership skills needed in sport organizations in comparison to their male peers. 


The focus of this project was to examine Division I SWAs’ experiences and challenges related to career mobility. Women face many challenges as they pursue careers in collegiate athletics administration (i.e., stereotypes, lack of mentorship, hostile environments, homophobia, work-family conflict, burnout). Thus, understanding the challenges and experiences of women holding the SWA designation is important, as these findings can provide guidance and insight to those that aspire to senior-level administration positions. The study consisted of semi-structured interviews with 14 women who held the SWA designation at the time of data collection. 


The conceptual framework used was a multi-level approach which posits three levels influence one another: macro (structural and institutionalized elements such as norms, practices, and political climates), meso (how the organization operates and makes decisions), and micro (how the individual interacts with the organizational structure). Findings revealed participants experienced restricted career mobility at all three levels. Specifically, participants described macro level gender norms, meso level strain with familial and partner obligations, and micro level issues with the requirements of the athletic director (AD) position.


Participants expressed institutional practices of limited power (macro-level barrier) as they moved through their careers in collegiate athletics. Specifically, the designation of SWA is accompanied by an expectation of sole responsibility for gender equity and Title IX issues and a lack contribution in these areas from their male peers or superiors. Although this seems like a meso-level or organizational problem, the perception that SWAs are solely responsible for Title IX and gender equity issues is an example of institutionalized and accepted practices of limited authority or barriers for women. These gendering of responsibilities affords men power and leadership opportunities and marginalizes women. Participants detailed these assumptions of Title IX and equity tasks created strain on their workload, limiting time for tasks needed to enhance career mobility.


The participants also discussed how gender equity seems to be an issue the SWA must address, but in reality it should be part of the decision-making process of everyone not just the SWA. One participant stated, “That is one thing that I have been frustrated by here, is that sense ‘oh gender equity that’s my issue.’ No it’s not. It really is everyone that should think about it when we are looking at making decisions, it’s not just me.” Male leadership has been institutionalized and accepted leaving these women without the day-to day decision making opportunities needed to create upward mobility. This lack of power could be one of the factors that leads to the cyclical perpetuation of the lack of women in leadership roles.


All of the women acknowledged work-life conflict as a barrier to career mobility for women in collegiate athletics at the organizational or meso-level. Specifically, participants discussed the organizational cultures where they worked were incompatible with having a family and moving into the athletic director role. One participant expressed the work-family strain she experienced as a SWA and lack of organizational support in comparison to her male peers was already burdensome.


She stated, “I feel like men don’t think about the hours we have to work, the events you have to go to, they just go and do it. It’s like it’s not a big deal. I don’t think that is right. We should try to structure things and give women more time off.” Other participants detailed the challenges of juggling both family and professional responsibilities and the need to have a supportive partner. These women highlighted the difficulty in managing work and family responsibilities in their current positions and that their high visibility and night and weekend obligations made the idea of ascending to the athletic director position out of reach.


All individuals working in leadership positions within collegiate athletic departments, especially high ranking positions have many competing responsibilities. However similar to the women in this study, research has found these demands and lack of organizational support particularly affect women and can cause premature exits from the profession or concessions for upward career mobility. 


The majority of the participants noted a lack of desire to move into the athletic director position and imposed self-restricted career mobility due to an institutional commitment, the potential loss of interaction with student-athletes, and lack of desire for additional responsibilities. For the participants that did desire to become an athletic director, they also noted the aforementioned macro and meso-level barriers as deterring them from their pursuit.


Six of the women felt they had opportunities to leave their institutions and the SWA position, but stayed due to a commitment to their athletic director, athletic department, and university as a whole; or the desire to have interaction with student-athletes. The participants expressed they enjoyed what they were doing and believed in the vision of their AD as well as believing they were making a difference in the lives of student-athletes.


As one participant explained, “When I first came here, I mean, that was ultimately my goal, was to lead a program. It’s not to say that that couldn’t still happen at some point in my life. I don’t know. But when some of the opportunities came up, it just either wasn’t the right time, or fit, or the right geographical location. Plus, when you feel like you’re making a difference and you’re enjoying what you’re doing … I’ve always been one that does my job versus looking for my next one.” This unconscious manifestation of self-limiting behaviors here are not an uncommon finding in the sport management literature. Research has shown gender plays a role in career path decisions for women and many times choices are made based on perceived ideologies through a gendered lens (such as the lack of visibility of women at the top of collegiate athletics).


Other women who expressed a lack of desire to leave their current position also discussed how working directly with student-athletes kept them from the pursuit of athletic director positions; describing a personal choice, not systematic funneling. For example, one participant expressed concern for managing athletic director responsibilities and being able to continue to interact with student-athletes. Thus, for her, staying in her current position allowed her to continue to work on projects surrounding the student-athlete experience, “I think my goal is to continue to find ways where I can help bring value and contribute to the overall experience of student-athletes.”


Another participant similarly discussed that the athletic director role might not afford time to pursue student-athlete development, “For me in my role as the senior woman administrator, it’s dealing with the student-athletes. It’s those relationships, because I do get to work with student-athletes one-on-one. I do get to help them from a career mentoring standpoint. I do get to help them from a mental health standpoint. Sometimes individually and sometimes just from a programming standpoint. Developing the events that make the impact. That’s my favorite part.”


Finally, four of the participants detailed their lack of desire to become an athletic director was due to the role and responsibilities of the position. Particularly, these women pointed to public speaking, fundraising or donor interactions as deterrents to the athletic director position. One participant explained this simply saying, “I don’t think I ever want to be an AD. I don’t like to get up and talk in front of people. That’s not in my wheelhouse. That pushes me outside of my comfort zone.” This was reiterated by another participant in the lack of desire to be the external voice of the athletic department. She said, “I honestly have no desire to be an AD. That would not be an option for me. I think that position would need a very well-rounded person. An external person. I think that I do a very good job from an internal standpoint. Again, it might go back to standing up there in the conference room. I don’t necessarily know if I would fare very well in the external side.”


Research on the topic suggests women, at all levels within collegiate athletics, may struggle to build skill sets in fundraising, budgeting, and oversight of male sports, which are all skills associated with success as an athletic director. Furthermore, they lack mentorship and access to human (e.g., job and education training) and social capital (networking relationships) in comparison to their male peers leaving them unprepared for the athletic director job itself.  


The experiences and challenges of career mobility for women in collegiate athletics are not new or unique findings, however, exploring these challenges from all three levels does highlight new issues and opportunities for improvement from the NCAA and athletic departments. Women in this study indicated the current format and assumptions of the SWA designation are not allowing them professional development, tasks, and relationships needed to enhance career mobility. 


Practically speaking, continuous perpetuation of the gender norm of sole responsibility of Title IX and equity issues diminishes women’s leadership development to ascend to more senior level roles. The NCAA, conferences, and athletic departments could increase the decision-making power of those holding the SWA designation by being more intentional in regards to the responsibilities of SWAs. Many of the women detailed that they were part of an SWA group that weighed in on issues, but athletic directors had the ultimate decision-making authority, reinforcing masculine power dynamics.


Additionally, a holistic approach to Title IX and equity issues can be taken where male administrators are involved. This provides SWAs with more time to devote to learning and conducting decision-making tasks necessary to move into the athletic director role. Women in this study confirmed work-family conflict as an organizational barrier contributing to the lack of women in athletic director positions. Sport organizations need to provide support to help manage work and family obligations through managerial practices and procedures such as allowing travel for children, spouses, and partners, attendance and participation at home athletic events, flexible work hours, and working from home.


Lastly, in an effort for women to gain more individual capital, encouragement of involvement and organizational support (e.g., time off, coverage of travel and memberships) from superiors should occur in organizations that specialize in education and networking such as Women Sport Leaders, N4A, and Alliance of Women Coaches.


This article is based on “NCAA Division I Senior Woman Administrators’ Perceptions of Barriers to Career Mobility” published in Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics, September 2019. These researchers wrote about the experiences of female conference commissioners for ADU in March 2019.