Female Athletic Directors Often Overlooked but Succeeding

When Marianne Reilly began her collegiate basketball career at Manhattan College in 1978, Title IX, the act implemented in colleges across the United States with the intention of providing equal opportunity for men and women to participate in sports had been in effect for just six years.

Marianne Reilly
Marianne Reilly is the first female athletic director in Manhattan College history. Photo by Kevin Fuhrmann, The Quadrangle

Title IX’s inception was responsible for the transition of the women’s basketball program at Manhattan from a club to a Division 1 sport, and it is a big reason why on March 31, 2016, Reilly was introduced as the first female athletic director in Manhattan College history.

But not many women have had the opportunity Reilly has.

Forty-four years since Title IX, the act has significantly increased involvement in athletics for women on the playing field, where more than 200,000 women participate. But in the athletic offices, the progress has been deliberate. And where it is most apparent is in the athletic director position, where few women have received an opportunity.

“I’m really proud of Manhattan that they were progressive and they thought out of the box,” Reilly said, “and that they weren’t afraid to go with a female, which is a very small percentage of athletic directors.”

According to NCAA data from the 2014-2015 academic year, of the 1,139 athletic directors in the NCAA, just 229 were women.

“I do think in general, what we’re seeing in athletics mirrors what’s going on in our society, in corporate America, in all subsets, and that’s just that there’s not enough women advancing in these positions of leadership,” Patti Phillips, chief executive officer of the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators said in a recent phone interview. “I think it’s a long-term societal issue that is slowly changing.”

Numbers are even more staggering at the highest level, in Division 1, where only 33 of the 353 athletic directors were women.

“Division 1, it’s disappointing,” Phillips said. “It’s really, really disappointing. We have super talented women that are competing for these jobs.”

While the progress has been gradual, there have been signs of improvement. The hires of Deborah Yow as athletic director at North Carolina State in 2010, Julie Hermann—who has since been fired—at Rutgers in 2013, and Sandy Barbour at Penn State in 2014 have placed women at top schools in Division 1.

In 2013, Heather Lyke was hired as athletic director at Eastern Michigan University, and since taking over, has produced 46 individual conference champions across 21 sports, as well as breaking the highest GPA and graduation rate in Eastern Michigan history.

“Because they’ve had success and they’ve been able to sustain their jobs or perform at a very high level, that helps,” Lyke said in a recent phone interview about how other female athletic directors’ success can help in the hiring process for women. “Doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, what color skin you have, that you can be a good leader, and I think that having successful female leaders and role models out there is what’s going to help change the perception.”

Reilly and O'Donnell
Photo by Kevin Furhmann, The Quadrangle

For Phillips, women like Barbour and Yow have served as trailblazers for a position whose pool is in desperate need of more women.

“Our pipeline is getting stronger, but there haven’t been many women that have had that kind of experience at the Division 1 level,” Phillips said. “Especially at the big business of athletics, which is what it has become.”

As leader of NAACWA, an organization which advances women into positions of influence, Phillips has worked with women to encourage them to focus on the business aspect of sports.

“Now it’s more than just student services and student athlete welfare,” Phillips said about what it takes to run a sports program. “It’s running a big business, so a lot of the hirers are hiring people that have more of that type of track record. We have some women that have that track record, but not all, so that’s a trend we’re trying to change by educating our women.”

Among Phillips’ other initiatives are working with college presidents to encourage them to be part of the solution, since they are the ones who ultimately make the hires, and with search firms to diversify them.

Many search committees are comprised of men, putting women at a disadvantage when competing for the athletic director position.

However, Lyke and Reilly place some of the responsibility on women as well.

“Women themselves taking the initiative to build great relationships with the people that they work for,” Lyke said is one of the things that can be done to improve the situation. “Advocate for themselves, work for people who invest in your own professional development and understand that you have aspirations to grow and be challenged. It takes one at a time.”

“I think there are many people that are very content and very happy being the number two or number three,” Reilly said. “Maybe they’re not being as aggressive in trying to take on that role. I think sometimes maybe selections go with what people feel comfortable with and what they’re comfortable with is usually selecting a qualified male. If there are more qualified females at the table in the final candidate pool, that’ll increase the chances.

While the number of women in athletic director positions has steadily gone up, it hasn’t come without it’s share of criticism. The hires of Barbour and Hermann came after controversial points in Penn State’s and Rutgers’ histories.

To some, it is a negative trend that is a slight towards women, who are sought to bring back life to scandalous programs.

For Phillips, the situation at Penn State and Rutgers were coincidences, and just proved that “great leaders come in all shapes and sizes.”

Hermann was fired by Rutgers in Nov. 2015, but her dismissal is not something that Phillips believes will affect women looking to become athletic directors.

“I will say in Julie’s [Hermann] case unfortunately, she went in under very extreme circumstances and because she was a woman, underwent unfair scrutiny, which made it even harder,” Phillips said. “But she did some amazing work there.”

The rise in female athletic directors will be hard to come by and will take some time, but with women like Barbour, Lyke, Reilly and Yow already in place and succeeding, women have a foundation set.

“Having the younger women see women as role models and aspire to be in those positions is huge,” Phillips said. “It just kind of helps it become not such a rarity and just a normal part of life when you see more women as leaders. It shouldn’t be that it’s so different. It shouldn’t be that it’s the first woman AD at Penn State. It should be that it’s just another great leader at Penn State.”