IN HER OWN WORDS: Women Leading Athletics: The AD Search Process

“The interaction between individual characteristics and structural barriers in the search process help explain the lack of women in the AD role.”

In the years after the passage of Title IX in 1972, schools created separate women’s and men’s athletic programs. By the early 1980s, they combined the programs and chose men as the athletic directors.

A striking contrast exists between the growth of women students participating in school-sanctioned sports and the decline of women leaders after Title IX. Women participating in competitive college sports grew from about 30,000 in 1972 to 162,000 today, according to the NCAA and the Women’s Sports Foundation.

Before the merger, women led about 90% of women’s programs. Today, women are less than 20% of athletic directors (ADs) of intercollegiate athletic programs. Most schools have only one woman among the senior leaders of the athletic department, who is designated as their Senior Woman Administrator (SWA). With 162,000 women student athletes and a designated SWA leadership role for women, understanding the contributions to this decline of women leaders in athletics is complex.

Research that addresses the individual leader—such as career profiles, balancing family responsibilities and the need for mentoring—have shed some light on the “glass sneaker” for women in athletics leadership. In addition, structural barriers favor men over women in AD roles. I questioned the interaction between individual characteristics and structural barriers that deter women’s ascent to AD and other highly visible campus leadership positions. One source of this interaction of individual characteristics and structural barriers is the AD search process.

The study

For my PhD dissertation at the University of Washington, I began examining the AD search process by framing the history of women’s leadership in college athletics and changes in athletic department organizational structures after Title IX. Next, I conducted interviews with six women who were senior associate ADs and were among their department’s senior leadership in Division I programs.

Interviews provided a perspective of the search process, representing a diversity of individual, institutional and con-ference experience. The six women had observed a total of 12 AD searches at their schools from 1981-present and shared their perspective on the process. In addition, they shared insight from direct experience as candidates for AD positions at other schools. Finally, I examined institutional documents related to the athletic department and the AD search at six schools.

According to public data at four schools from 1976 to the present, applicant pools ranged from 30-40 applicants per search. In the first cut, the list was narrowed to 6-12 candidates. The short list became 3-4 finalists, from which the university president selected the new AD.

Findings: The AD search

A closer look at this search process from the interviews and document analysis yielded four main elements that affect who is among the candidate and finalist pool and who becomes the AD.

First, the university president highly influences the search process for an AD. The president plays an integral role in how the search proceeds and evaluates the skills and experience necessary to be an AD at the school, often making the final decision after the search committee has screened and interviewed candidates.

Second, beliefs by the search committee about the role of the AD and their needed skills shape the composition of the candidate and finalist pool. Search committees can vary in size from very, very small to more than 40 members from administration, faculty, alumni, students and athletic department personnel. Their experience with higher education and perspective on intercollegiate athletics can vary greatly, specifically in their attitudes about women candidates in the athletic director role.

Search committees haven’t always believed that women can do the job. In some instances, there is disbelief that a woman can do the job. In other instances, women are among the candidates interviewed by the search committee, but they’re not considered serious contenders for the job.

Third, in recent years it has become common to use search firms in the process specifically for recruiting applicants. They help solicit applications and protect the confidentiality of applicants and candidates, an added incentive for potential candidates who may be ADs elsewhere.

Finally, ADs on Division I-A may lead departments of close to 200 staff and budgets in the range of $40-60 million dollars that require a broad base of skills. The time dedicated to fundraising and managing football programs at these schools is significant. Skills and experience directly related to football are regarded as transferable to leadership in other areas of program operations. Yet in the search process, leadership skills in managing non-football operations are not perceived as transferable to football programs or relevant to athletic department leadership overall.

Promoting women to AD

The AD search process sheds further light on the interaction of individual characteristics and structural barriers that prevent women from gaining access to the AD chair in today’s combined athletic department model. Based on findings about the AD search process, four recommendations can help to promote more women to AD positions.

  1. Create athletic department reporting structures and conference responsibilities that put women at the decision-making table with university presidents and oversight of football and men’s basketball.

Higher education and athletic departments are highly fluid in their organizational structures. Continuous attention must be paid to insuring that women have both a balance of athletic program responsibilities that include managing budgets, working with donors, and supervising coaches, in particular with respect to football and basketball. Women must serve in significant and substantial leadership roles with university presidents at the conference and NCAA levels and women must contribute to the management of football and men’s basketball at the institutional level.

The SWA role is a leveraging point for women to chair football and basketball coaching searches, represent the athletic department at campus meetings with the deans and VPs who are future presidents, and at institutional, conference and NCAA activities that involve university presidents. Women need specific leadership opportunities that ensure their having experience and visibility with football and men’s basketball.

More importantly, these specific opportunities give women leaders greater exposure in athletic leadership roles among university presidents. Both the skill set and the visibility among university presidents are integral to promoting women during the search process.

2. Reduce exclusive reliance on search firms to generate the pool of qualified candidates.

University presidents select ADs from among a group of finalists emerging from a search process. Search firms should not be relied on exclusively to generate the list of potential candidates or to contact applicants.

Alternative sources can provide the same confidentiality in the search process. Conference level SWAs can play an important role, working directly with candidates and search committee chairs during the confidential application and candidate interview periods.

So can independent groups such as the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators, the NCAA’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion, the Black Women’s Sports Foundation and the Minority Opportunities in Athletics Association.

Educating presidents and search committees about other sources of highly qualified women applicants and strengths of women candidates is integral to ensure that a broader representation of women, including women of color, are serious contenders as candidates and finalists.

3. Educate university presidents on the roles and demands of intercollegiate athletic leadership and the skills necessary to meet these demands.

University presidents choose the AD. However, women in this study felt that they are not universal in their understanding of the complexity of athletic leadership and the skills required to manage high profile coaches and raise money. University presidents must be educated about the role and relationship between athletics and higher education and the skills required for athletic directors at all levels.

Regardless of school type or the scope of the athletic program, the athletics department is highly complex, and the criteria to successfully manage budgets and coaches should not be limited to program operations in football and men’s basketball. Educating presidents about the demands of the job and the transferability of skill-sets in other aspects of athletic program management create a more specific description of the “most qualified” applicant.

4. Continue offering leadership programs specific to women that foster skill development, but include specific programming for early career women at these seminars to interact with senior level women athletic leaders.

Women-led, women-specific leadership institutes are still important for the development of women leaders. Regard-less of the school type, leading athletic organizations in higher education is too involved to simply expect that skills and professional development for future leaders can only be acquired on-the-job. With so few women at the top of athletic leadership, women coaches or women at the assistant and associate level are too distant in the organizational hierarchy to gain all the mentoring they need at their institution.

The few women who rank highest in the department cannot be expected to mentor all of the women on their staff. Existing programs, such as the NACWAA/HERS Institutes and NCAA Leadership Institutes, play an important role. Fostering interactions across generations and institution types, create opportunities for women in senior roles to get to know women early in their careers.

Increasing the interaction between generations of women leaders is important so that senior women can actively “pull up” emerging women. Creating a stronger network between generations of women leaders is critical to ensure that more women are known and included in the candidate pool.


With sophisticated search processes and increased awareness for diversity in candidate pools throughout higher education, the question of why so few women are ADs, especially in institutions that garner the most visibility for athletics, goes far beyond intercollegiate athletic departments. The search for an AD is situated in higher education, not isolated exclusively in the social and cultural dynamics of college sports.

Beliefs of search committees, university presidents and the services of search firms shape the composition of applicants, candidates and finalists in important ways. The interaction between individual characteristics and structural barriers in the search process help explain the lack of women in the AD role, especially at institutions with the highest visibility for their sports programs.

Since the emergence of combined athletic programs in the early 1980s, the programs that compete in NCAA Division I status have the lowest number of women in athletic leadership roles. Although women leaders tend to congregate in higher proportion at NCAA Division II and III athletic programs, the issue of the low number of women leaders in athletics cuts across all institution types.

Simply acquiring specific leadership skills is not the solution. Creating experiences for women leaders among university presidents and mechanisms for greater awareness of strong women candidates is integral. These are important strategies to minimize the interaction between individual characteristics and structural barriers that disadvantage women in the search for an AD.

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