Double Punch to the Glass Ceiling: Career Experiences and Challenges of Ethnic Minority Female Athletic Directors

in Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal
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  • 1 Linfield University
  • 2 The University of North Carolina at Pembroke
  • 3 University of Tennessee

Women continue to struggle to reach senior-level leadership positions in collegiate sports, and ethnic minorities face the challenges due to their ethnicity as well. This research examined the experiences and challenges of ethnic minority women who are collegiate athletic directors at predominantly White institutions (PWIs). Semistructured interviews were conducted with eight participants using intersectionality as a theoretical framework. Three themes emerged from the data analysis: (a) intersectional challenges, (b) questions of competence, and (c) professional support. The women were continually battling the idea of having to prove themselves and negotiating the challenges of being an ethnic minority woman working in collegiate athletics. They credit their professional networks as a valuable resource during their career progression. The women noted that sexism was more prevalent in their experiences than issues related to their ethnicity. The masculine athletic director stereotype persists in collegiate sports, but the findings of this study can contest the notion of a standard leadership identity that has long been perceived as a White man.

Carla Williams was named the University of Virginia’s athletic director (AD) in October 2017, making her the first Black female AD at a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I—Football Bowl Subdivision autonomous conference member ever.1 The New York Daily News deemed her the “most important leader in college athletics,” noting the significance of the hire in the wake of the violent White nationalist rally just months earlier in Charlottesville, VA (Phillips, 2017).

Williams told ABC News, “I’m living proof that you can do anything” and declared her commitment to being a role model and helping others reach their goals (Miller & Thorbecke, 2018). Williams began making an immediate impact in providing opportunities for women of color to ascend to leadership positions in collegiate athletics. Her first head coaching hire was a Black woman, Tina Thompson, to lead the women’s basketball team (Wright, 2018). Ethnic minority women perhaps face double the obstacles to ascend to leadership positions (e.g., ADs) in college athletics as they have to negotiate both the challenges of ethnic minorities and of women in the White, male-dominated world of collegiate athletics (McDowell & Carter-Francique, 2017; Taylor & Hardin, 2016). Abney and Ritchey (1992) first explored this idea of the “double jeopardy” Black women in sports faced in the early 1990s, so this concept is not necessarily a sudden realization that ethnic minority women face challenges in collegiate athletic administration. There have been examinations of Black female ADs, but there has not been research encompassing ethnicities other than Black. Thus, the purpose of this study is to examine the experiences and challenges of ethnic minority women who are ADs at predominantly White institutions (PWIs) in the NCAA.

Women are underrepresented, marginalized, and face career challenges that men do not in the male-dominated world of sports, and their representation is persistently a contentious issue (Burton, 2015). Title IX legislation eventually provided women with more opportunities to participate in sports, but the opportunities in collegiate sport leadership have not kept pace, and in some instances, declined (Acosta & Carpenter, 2014). Gender bias in collegiate athletic administration is based on representation of men and women in leadership positions, how job responsibilities are assigned, and gendered discourses surrounding positions held by women (Burton, 2015; Burton, Barr, Fink, & Bruening, 2009; Burton & Hagan, 2009; Knoppers & Anthonissen, 2008). Collegiate athletics is considered a place that perpetuates masculine hegemony, further legitimizing the power of men in society (Fink, 2008).

Not only do women face career mobility issues in sports, but ethnic minorities do as well. The “good ole boys network” reputation in sports might as well be called the “good ole White boys network,” as ethnic minorities also face career mobility issues in the sports industry (Cunningham, 2009). Collegiate sports have historically had the lowest grade for racial hiring practices among all the sports groups and organizations examined by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (Lapchick, Marfatia, Bloom, & Sylverain, 2017). Thus, ethnic minority women face a “double whammy” of discrimination in the sports industry (TUC, 2006, p. 2). The career prospects for ethnic minority women in college sport leadership positions may be best described as discouraging. The most recent data from the NCAA, which encompasses the 2018–2019 academic year, show only 3.1% of AD positions were held by ethnic minority women. In the positions of associate director of athletics and assistant AD, only 6.4% and 6.1% “respectively” were held by ethnic minority women across all three divisions of the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2019). Ethnic minority women held 3.6% of head coaching positions across all three divisions of the NCAA. Thus, the purpose of this study was to understand the experiences and challenges of ethnic minority women in the AD position at PWIs in the NCAA.

Collegiate Sport Administration

The AD is the highest ranking official at the institutional level in collegiate sport administration and, until the past two decades, was usually someone who had retired from coaching and moved into an administration role. There has been a shift within college athletics away from administrators with coaching backgrounds toward administrators with experience in business environments (Hardin, Cooper, & Huffman, 2013; Taylor & Hardin, 2016). Those in charge of hiring ADs, namely university presidents and chancellors, are interested in a candidate’s ability to generate revenue and oversee successful football and men’s basketball programs (Hardin et al., 2013; Taylor & Hardin, 2016). Women have struggled to advance to leadership positions because of their perceived lack of management abilities as well as limited experience overseeing football and men’s basketball (Taylor & Hardin, 2016). Women are often put in charge of the “soft” areas of the department such as academic advising, life skills, and women’s sports (Grappendorf, Pent, Burton, & Henderson, 2008; Hoffman, 2010). This limits advancement opportunities for women because they are unable to gain experience in the areas most valued by hiring committees tasked with hiring ADs, that is, fundraising and managing a successful football program (Hardin et al., 2013).

Masculinity is associated with superior leadership, thus many times women are perceived to lack the skills necessary to assume leadership positions in sports (Burton et al., 2009). Women are often seen as intruders in collegiate sports (Walker & Satore-Baldwin, 2013). There is a general belief that women may not be comfortable adopting the characteristics of self-confidence, assertiveness, and insensitivity needed to succeed in sports (Pfister & Radtke, 2009). These socially constructed views of masculinity and femininity then lead to gender normalcy and homologous reproduction within sport organizations, which perpetuate the belief that women are not capable of being in leadership positions in college athletics (Burton, 2015; Mazerolle, Burton, & Cotrufo, 2015). Burton (2015) suggested that there are numerous reasons why women have not seen the same increases in ability to secure leadership positions as they have seen in participation opportunities, including the gendered nature of sport, stereotyping, discrimination, organizational culture, leadership expectations, and occupational turnover. Although the aforementioned may occur within different levels (i.e., society, the organization, and the individual), they work together to limit the opportunities of women within the sport industry (Smith, Taylor, Siegele, & Hardin, 2019).

Similarly, ethnic minorities have faced structural limitations on their options in athletic departments, including discrimination outcomes of hiring practices and lack of role models and social networks (McDowell, Cunningham, & Singer, 2009). Most research on ethnicity and collegiate sports has focused on Blacks, an example of how other ethnic minorities have often been overlooked in society (Welch, 2019). Eighteen percent of AD positions were held by ethnic minorities across all NCAA divisions for the 2018–2019 academic year (National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2019). Sixteen percent of associate ADs and 19% of assistant ADs were ethnic minorities for the 2018–2019 academic year (National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2019). Ethnic minorities held 18% of head coaching positions for the 2018–2019 academic year (National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2019). In most cases, Black individuals make up the majority of these small groups (∼9%) with Hispanic and Latino individuals accounting for ∼2%. The representation of Black minorities is overwhelmingly present, often leaving other ethnic minorities to be lumped into a group labeled as “other.” However, these low overall numbers of representation in leadership call into question hiring practices and opportunity for all ethnic minorities in collegiate sports.

Institutional racism is a barrier preventing Black individuals from obtaining higher level administrative positions in athletics, and there is a tendency for Blacks to hold lower level positions within the administrative hierarchy (McDowell & Cunningham, 2009). Blacks may experience occupational segregation and be clustered in certain positions within an athletic department, which do not lead to higher level administrative positions (Cunningham, 2012; McDowell et al., 2009). Ethnic minorities are also victim to not being seen as leaders, as Whiteness and leadership ability are closely linked together (Rosette, Leonardelli, & Phillips, 2008). Therefore, White men continue to dominate in the space of college athletic departments.

Wells and Kerwin (2017) found that women and racial minority senior athletic administrators had similar self-efficacy compared with White men, but they encountered more barriers, unfavorable outcome expectations, and lower choice goals associated with becoming an AD. To change the perceptions of women and minority men in sport leadership, there needs to be a change in discourse around perceptions of successful leaders (Knoppers & Anthonissen, 2001). McDowell and Carter-Francique (2017) used intersectionality theory in their examination of Black female ADs to show the effects of Black women’s identity within collegiate athletics. The women experienced occupational stereotyping, gender role conflict, and both racial and gender stereotypes. They also faced heightened levels of criticism and scrutiny (McDowell & Carter-Francique, 2017). This is not a new phenomenon in college athletics as women have struggled for leadership opportunities since the NCAA began to oversee the governance of women’s college athletics and the dissolution of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (Smith et al., 2019). There is a lack of research that specifically addresses the issues of non-Black ethnic minorities; a void that this research looks to fill.

Theoretical Framework

McDowell and Carter-Francique’s (2017) study of Black women who were ADs was used as a foundation for this study and an inspiration for the use of intersectionality as a guide. The theory of intersectionality was developed in the late 1980s by Crenshaw to describe how race, gender, and other individual characteristics intersect and overlap. Crenshaw (1989), a critical legal theorist, coined intersectionality while speaking to the challenges of Black women as a result of intersecting oppressed identities. Crenshaw described intersectionality as “a prism to bring to light dynamics within discrimination law that weren’t being appreciated by the courts” (as cited by Coaston, 2019, para. 25).

Using intersectional theory means considering the effect and significance of multiple intersecting identities on a person’s life (Crenshaw, 1989). The primary intersecting identities in this study are gender and ethnicity. Intersectionality can provide guidance in examining how identities intersect at the microlevel within individuals and relate those interactions to macrolevel social phenomenon (Corlett & Mavin, 2014). It is nearly impossible for intersecting identities to create identical effects based on a certain mix of groups (McDowell & Carter-Francique, 2017). Instead, how identities interact produces effects that are “additive, multiplicative (also called interactional), and intersectional—depending on the social structures at play, the context, and time” (McDowell & Carter-Francique, 2017, p. 395). Ghavami and Peplau (2012) investigated unique stereotypes for Black women and found that there were more overlaps between “Blacks” and “Black men” than “Blacks” and “Black women.” Furthermore, the top stereotypes normally applied to women, such as emotional, caring, soft, were not applied to Black women. This is just one example of how intersectionality theory is not simply adding gender stereotypes to racial stereotypes.

Scholarship has examined intersectionality as it relates to a variety of leadership positions within college athletic departments. Wells and Kerwin (2017) identified that women and racial minority athletic administrators face more barriers than their White male counterparts in college athletics. In addition, LaVoi’s (2016) Ecological-Intersectional model, which situates intersectionality at the heart model, has been used extensively to describe the experiences of female coaches. Larsen and Clayton (2019) modeled that intersectionality impacts the rate at which women achieve head basketball coaching positions with White men outpacing White women and White women outpacing women of color. Walker and Melton (2015) found that ethnic minority lesbians face a myriad of challenges that their White counterparts do not face in college athletic departments.

Purpose and Rationale

The NCAA released a “Barriers Report” in 2015 that investigated factors that influence ethnic minority women’s careers (National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2015). The report identified perceptions of these women and resources they believed would enhance their opportunities, but there is more to learn qualitatively from ethnic minority, female ADs. It is important to examine those currently at the highest level of collegiate athletic administration at the institutional level to better understand their experiences and challenges. This would provide insight for ethnic minority women who aspire to work in collegiate athletic administration especially for those women who desire senior-level leadership positions. Examining this topic will provide ethnic minority women a greater understanding of the career progression into senior-level administration positions, as well as provide guidance for administrators in developing strategies for providing more inclusive departments. The findings can also benefit educators who provide guidance for women as they prepare for their professional careers.

This study also aims to address a criticism of intersectionality as only being about Black women (Carbado, 2013). Intersectionality “does not necessarily and inherently privilege any social category” (Carbado, 2013, p. 812). It should be noted as well that this study is encompassing all Black, Hispanic, and Asian women together, so there is a loss at examining intersectionality in regard to specific ethnicities. It is important to note that intersectionality also includes the social relation between race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, and disability (Burton, 2015). Research regarding women in sport leadership has confirmed additional barriers for intersecting identities, such as parental status/motherhood (Siegele, Hardin, Smith, & Taylor, 2020) and sexual orientation (Walker & Melton, 2015). However, this study’s focus is on gender and ethnicity.

Method

An interpretivist, exploratory research approach was implemented to examine the experiences of the participants in their role as AD as a woman and an ethnic minority (Schwandt, 1994). This design was chosen because of the importance of eliciting a thick description of the participants’ experiences (Geertz, 1994; Van Manen, 2015). Understanding the lived experiences of ethnic minority female ADs is crucial to understanding their experiences and challenges in collegiate athletic administration (Van Manen, 2015). The goal of understanding their experiences from their subjective individual viewpoint connects to the interpretivist paradigm and is also meaningful for an underrepresented population. Ontologically, we acknowledge the different realities that the participants have and how they are shaped by their social interactions as well as their individual experiences. All the participants will have different experiences and will interpret those experiences through their own world views. Our epistemology stems from the desire to cocreate meaning and understand how social experiences are created and given meaning by the participants (Denzin & Lincoln, 2018). This was best accomplished through the interviews, so the participants could share their experiences and constant comparative data analysis to assist in understanding those experiences.

Participants

Purposeful, criteria sampling was used for the selection of participants (Patton, 2005). Criteria-based selection simply means creating and following a list of requirements of attributes that the participant must possess (LeCompte & Preissle, 2003). The criteria required for this study included identification as a woman and an ethnic minority and serving as an AD at a PWI in the NCAA. Institutional Review Board approval was obtained prior to participant recruitment.

Black ADs who were at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were not included in the study population because the inclusion criteria required participants to be an ethnic minority at their institution. Black ADs at HBCUs would not be considered ethnic minorities at their respective institutions. It is reasonable to conclude that Black women at HBCUs are not in the ethnic minority. More than 80% of the student population was Black at HBCUs, and 71% of athletic administrators were Black for the 2018–2019 academic year (National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2019). Their experiences should not be disregarded, but their circumstances did not align with the goals of this project.

Women in a minority position ethnically have unique experiences worth exploring and contributing to the literature regarding women in collegiate athletics. Eight women agreed to participate in the study. Their ethnic backgrounds were Latino, Asian, and Black, with the majority (five) identifying as Black. Half of the participants worked in Division I while the others worked across Division II and Division III. More specific demographic information has not been provided due to the small number of ethnic minority female collegiate ADs at PWIs. Providing such information could potentially compromise the identity of the participants (Taylor & Hardin, 2016; Taylor, Siegele, Smith, & Hardin, 2018). Pseudonyms were assigned to the participants for the purposes of providing their comments. The terms race and ethnicity can be abstract in nature. Ethnicity was used to represent the participants because it is more commonly chosen by the individual, not prescribed based on physical traits (Bryce, 2020).

Data Collection

Semistructured interviews were utilized in this study as it was important to embed in the participants’ perspectives (Merriam & Tisdell, 2015). The interview guide (see Table 1) included open-ended questions with the ability for probes and follow-up questions (Brinkmann, 2014). This interview style allowed the interviewer the ability to diverge from the guide to pursue an answer in greater detail (Britten, 2007). The interview guide was based on the work of Taylor and Hardin (2016) that examined experiences of female ADs, and McDowell and Carter-Francique’s (2017) study of Black female ADs.

Table 1

Interview Guide

Questions
How long have you been in your position?

How long have you been in athletic administration?

Did you participate as an athlete in college? High school? Have you been a coach?

Can you explain how you got to your current position?

Did you face any challenges getting to the AD position? If so, can you describe?

Would you say you have a passion for sport?

What was your family dynamic like growing up? Were sports involved?

Can you describe your educational background?

Have you ever felt bothered by subtle stereotypes or have you ever felt like you wanted to prove them wrong? How do you react to that kind of prejudice?

Do you ever feel pressure as a woman or a minority to just be a representative?

If I were to ask you why there weren’t more minority women athletic directors, is there anything that comes to your mind?

Can you elaborate on your mentor/mentee relationships? Are you serving as mentor to anyone currently?

What motivates you to do what you do?

Would you say there’s anything that keeps you awake at night in regard to your work?

Can you talk about your work-life balance or what we call work-life integration?

What do you envision the future of your career looking like?

Say I was an aspiring athletic director as a minority woman, what advice would you give me?

All interviews took place via telephone with the exception of one that was done face-to-face at a professional development conference. A brief introduction included the explanation of the study and the authors’ interest in studying ethnic minority women working in sports. Informed consent was obtained prior to the beginning of each interview. The interviews averaged ∼50 minutes with the shortest being 36 minutes and the longest being 70 minutes.

Data Analysis

The interviews were transcribed verbatim and sent via e-mail to the participant for member checking (Merriam, 2009). The number of transcribed pages for each interview ranged from 14 to 36 pages with an average of 22 pages. The goal of this was to make sure the participants’ words were correctly recorded, and the meaning of the participants’ message was not misinterpreted through the transcription. Member checking is an accepted means of “quality control” in qualitative research, but it must be recognized there are also issues with member checking in that it does not ensure trustworthiness and reliability (Smith & McGannon, 2018, p. 104).

Data analysis was conducted following Braun and Clark’s (2006) steps for analysis: familiarization with the data, generating initial codes, searching for themes, reviewing themes, defining the themes, and producing the report. The lead researcher began with open-coding, where initial themes were produced through a closed reading (Saldaña, 2015). A codebook was developed to operationalize themes, from which the lead researcher and one other member of the research team independently coded each of the transcripts. The transcripts were coded individually and analyzed using the constant comparative method by the two members of the research team (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Saldaña, 2015). Codes of individual instances were continually compared with the rest of the data (Boeije, 2002) with the goal to find patterns with a thorough and ongoing analysis process (Merriam, 2009). The research team discussed any discrepancies in codes and finalized themes to reach intercoder agreement after individual coding was completed (Saldaña, 2015). This aids in ensuring investigator triangulation, which results in multiple perspectives and conclusions from the data adding credibility and in-depth analysis to the study (Carter, Bryant-Lukosius, DiCenso, Blythe, & Nelville, 2014).

The data analysis used in this study is a widely used method for analyzing qualitative research (Patton, 2005) and has been used in comparable studies on similar populations of female senior administrators (Grappendorf et al., 2008; Hoffman, 2010; Taylor & Hardin, 2016). The eight participants provided a reasonable representation of the larger, albeit small, overall population (Lincoln & Guba, 1985), and the goal of data saturation or the point when new categories or themes stop emerging from the data was met (Corbin & Strauss, 2008).

Positionality

Two of the authors are women with one identifying as an ethnic minority, and they recognize they are presenting knowledge through their own paradigm, but strive to be sensitive to the views of others (Bernal, 2002; Guba & Lincoln, 2005). This implies the belief that knowledge is socially constructed and is formed by the eyes of the knower, rather than being formed from an existing reality (Kilgore, 2001). Qualitative research positions research as the subject of the research rather than the object, which is inherently feminist (Cohen, Hughes, & Lampard, 2011). This study was conducted qualitatively, reflecting the feminist position of the primary authors. This also aligns with the goal of the interpretivist approach, where participants make sense of their individual realities is prioritized.

Findings

Three themes were identified from the data analysis: (a) intersectional challenges, (b) questions of competence, and (c) professional support. The women were continually battling the idea of having to prove themselves and negotiating the challenges of being an ethnic minority woman working in collegiate athletics. They credited their professional network as a valuable resource during the career progression to the position of AD.

Intersectional Challenges

Throughout all the interviews, these women told stories that illustrated their complicated place at the intersections of gender and ethnicity. While not the focus of this study, sexual orientation and class also were intersecting identities these women had to negotiate. It was apparent that their intersectional identities impacted their careers as ADs. These women were very aware of their place and their differences. Jennifer said point blank, “I’m black. I’m a woman, and I’m also gay. I walk into spaces right away and I don’t try to hide my identity at all.” Their unique identities impacted their perceived opportunities and chances for career development. In discussing her career progression, Diane felt she could only get access to job opportunities in leadership, “by going to schools or institutions that nobody else wanted to go to.” It was clear that Diane, and many others, felt they had to settle for lesser opportunities because of their intersectional position.

While speaking on the sense of belonging among minority women ADs, Patricia noted, “most of us are at institutions where we have alumni bases that don’t look like me.” Carrie also brought up the alumni and their input in her hiring,

Alums weren’t excited for me to be a candidate … but it’s never in front of your face. I receive very few letters, but I still receive them saying, you know, I can’t hack it, things like that. But you grew up with that so, it wasn’t a surprise to me.

All of these women had experiences in which their authority was called into question. They described how people would mistakenly identify their husbands or subordinates as the AD. Frances believed people would rather talk to her male assistant AD or her White associate AD. Patricia described a situation early on in her career, at age 24 as an assistant AD, that still resonates with her. She observed an older coach watching an athlete organized practice outside of the playing and practice season, which was against NCAA rules. She described, “I said, ‘well you have to go, you can’t be in here,’ and for him to hear that from me, was a lot.” He went to her superior and told him that she could not talk to him like that, as her boss explained to her, “he wasn’t ready for that from you.” She reflected on her status in that situation,

I’m a woman, and I’m a woman of color telling this, almost 60-year-old White man that he’s not able to do something. That’s probably the first time that’s ever happened to him. And I did it in a way that for me, made all the sense in the world, but for him was really hard for him to digest.

She described this as her “first taste of me needing to be way more thoughtful … how to best deliver messages.” Although it had happened more than 15 years ago, this was an occurrence Patricia remembered vividly and described as a learning moment.

Patricia described another eye-opening moment for both her and that same person at an NCAA event. They were waiting at a restaurant hotel after a conference to have dinner and her supervisor introduced her to a male colleague from another institution they had met and the man asked, “what type of underwear are you wearing?” Patricia took a long breath before saying,

And for me, it’s just like wow, there’s so many layers to that, and I just looked at Mike and said, Mike, I’m leaving, and he said yes, we are. In my head this is still a professional setting … this is where women just have to be more mindful of spaces that they’re in, even outside the actual work setting.

Authority and power were constant themes throughout that the participants experienced at the intersection of their ethnicity and gender in athletic administration. The importance of intersectionality should not be discounted because identities do not exist in a vacuum. Despite this, several of the participants expressed how they felt they were discriminated against because of their gender and not their ethnicity. Nearly, all the participants recounted experiences of being discriminated against based on their gender. Eve discussed how sexism often pigeonholes women into the nonbusiness aspects of college athletics such as academics and compliance. Rather than blame the system, she suggested that women be strategic in developing fundraising skills and be willing to take the risk of working in more male-dominated departments. Patricia also believed people were more thoughtful around ethnicity than gender.

Participants also discussed the diversity of experiences across their ethnicity. Participants of Asian and Hispanic descent mentioned cultural-specific struggles they had when pursuing their careers. Lauren described how in the Hispanic community, leaving your family to go to college was not widely supported and how her community “just didn’t understand why I would ever do this.” Carrie, who identifies as Asian American, explained how her family did not necessarily understand the emphasis on athletics and while she says they were supportive, she believed they never really understood the importance of working in athletics to her. Despite their intersectional challenges, all of the women stressed the importance of diversity for their own personal careers as well as their greater environment.

Questions of Competence

These women had to continually prove to others that they belonged in their position as an AD. Two of the participants described serving as an interim AD before officially assuming the athletic role as a means to demonstrate they were capable of holding the position. They also felt a duty and responsibility to be a good example as an ethnic minority woman in a leadership position. Jennifer said, “I have to work 10 times as hard,” than her male and White counterparts. Diane brought up the double standard when it comes to leadership,

You couldn’t oversee a man’s sport because you hadn’t played that sport and you can’t oversee football because you’ve never played football. And it would be hilarious because you’d be in the same environment where they have men hiring men to coach women sports, I’m like, “Well, you’ve never played softball. You’ve never played volleyball.” Why does it work that way? But not the other.

Similarly, Carrie recalled how people came up with any excuse to tear her down,

Being a woman, being an ethnic minority … people used everything (against me) like I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t play football, whatever, even though the AD before me, he didn’t play football either …. We stuck to our guns and we were successful with it. I love overseeing football.

Lauren expressed a similar experience with skepticism with her ability to manage a football program. She described how when she was first hired, she was amazed at how she would attend different functions and upon being introduced as the AD with her husband by her side, the person she was meeting would automatically go to shake her husband’s hand. She said that upon her hiring, she was questioned by her head coaches, including being asked how old she was and having one male coach tell her they never worked for a woman before. Carrie also discussed the trickiness of gaining experience,

When it always comes to women and minorities they always say it’s not enough experience and it drives me crazy. It’s like, give us the opportunity, then, just like everyone else.

Professional Support

Another point of emphasis for these women was the importance of relationships. Relationships and mentors provided these women with professional opportunities they believed they would not have gotten otherwise. As Carrie stated, “I couldn’t have got anywhere without mentorship.” Similarly, Diane said all of the jobs she got were through her connections. Several participants brought up mentorship without being prompted. All of the women discussed how they were mentored as well as how they prioritized serving as a mentor to early-career professionals. Lauren stressed how important it was to her to have a supervisor and AD who she could emulate. Frances described herself as a benefactor of good mentors who were a crucial part of overcoming her challenges. As she and others described, it was important for mentors to not just provide guidance but also be an advocate. Eve also noted that it is more important who you work for and with than your title because of the relationships you can develop. Jennifer spoke of her connections in the same way, as an asset in her arsenal,

One of the things I realized quickly as a woman of color is that I need to build an army. So, I started connecting with department chairs. I go and I present in front of classes. I’ve connected with student-athletes. I just think that you know, as a woman of color sitting in a position of authority, you really have to make sure that trend continues about your connection. I’m very intentional as a woman of color, making sure that I build allies throughout the campus and the community.

Diane said it as, “strange and unique” that early in her career, she had ADs who were women, emphasizing how lucky she felt for this abnormal trajectory. There was discussion of the still-persistent “good ole boys network,” but these women placed high value in the unique networks of their own. They credited their families and networks for their success and described how their connections provided a crucial support system. Several ADs also acknowledged that not all people have a traditional family to lean on, but pointed out how supportive the university community can be. Patricia described the relationship building as a big piece of the “puzzle” of working in athletics and as something she loves to do. Many of the women suggested they felt a responsibility to serve those to come. Lauren described how someone once told her that it is lonely at the top and how building a team and paying it forward to other people can combat that.

Success in the workplace cannot occur without mentoring and having mentors is essential for a person’s personal and professional growth (Dunbar & Kinnersley, 2011; Gibson, 2004). Mentoring has been linked to increased employee productivity and higher organizational commitment (Evans & Cokley, 2008; Sosik & Lee, 2002). It also can be used as a tool for helping organizational leaders and for assisting new employees transition into the organizational culture (Bower & Hums, 2009; Evans & Cokley, 2008; Sosik & Lee, 2002; Tran, 2014).

Discussion

These ethnic minority women at the top of their respective athletic departments demonstrated perseverance in obtaining their positions and negotiating their intersectional identity. While there were similarities to Taylor and Hardin’s (2016) study of female ADs and McDowell and Carter-Francique’s (2017) study of Black female ADs, these women provided unique and nuanced perspectives from their backgrounds and experiences. The participants often faced occupational stereotyping, resulting in their suitability and qualifications being judged through gendered and racially stereotypical lenses much like what was found in Taylor and Hardin’s (2016) and McDowell and Carter-Francique’s (2017) studies. The participants also spoke of prominent challenges to their career path, such as sexism and the “good ole boys network” phenomenon. The women in this study added another layer of intersectionality in their discussion of their unique upbringings, and the discussion of class and cultural norms were more nuanced.

The women in this study provide a counter-narrative to the perceived pipeline of ADs rising through the ranks of being a coach. The path to the AD position prior to 2000 was typically that of a coach who moved into administration and then rose to the position of athletics director (Hardin, Cooper, & Huffman, 2013; Taylor & Hardin, 2016). While many (five) of the women played at the collegiate level, few (two) coached, and more than half (five) had experience outside of athletics.

There was not necessarily an acceptance of these social norms; there was a sort of defiance in their refusal to focus on the negative interruptions to their career. As Beth stated, it was best to not “waste time fighting battles you don’t have to.” This could also be another example of the rampant normalization of sexism and racism, even by those subject to such discrimination. Despite their downplaying, it was made clear by these women that sexism was the bigger barrier. Consistently, the participants spoke of the overwhelming prejudice that they perceived as being related to their gender. This may be due to the notion that it is a more acceptable form of prejudice in the athletic environment because of the male dominance in the collegiate athletic administration profession.

There has been a plethora of work on the barriers that women face in the collegiate athletic environment. Gender normalcy occurs when gender inequity is accepted at the organizational level. This occurs by the acceptance of the skewed ratio of men to women working in collegiate athletics as well as assigned job responsibilities based on gender (Taylor et al., 2018). Homologous reproduction is when dominant groups reproduced themselves through the hiring of individuals with similar characteristics (Taylor & Hardin, 2016). The findings in this study suggest gender was more of a factor in this barrier than ethnicity. Ethnic minority women have to negotiate both the gender bias then the ethnic bias. Questions of competence are also ever present, as women are not considered to have the adequate skills to lead a collegiate athletic department (Taylor & Hardin, 2016). Gender bias is also present in assigned worked duties as women are often funneled into the “soft areas” of collegiate athletic administration (Grappendorf et al., 2008). Work–life balance issues are also a barrier that women have to face. Women who face high work–life conflict experience job dissatisfaction, physical exhaustion, emotional exhaustion, and burnout (Burton, 2015, Burton et al., 2009; Grappendorf et al., 2008; Taylor et al., 2018). The issue remains that many of these barriers are simply accepted as part of territory of pursuing a career in collegiate athletics for women. Thus, the barriers become normalized. So, that is the primary obstacle that ethnic minority women have to overcome. Then, they encounter the challenges of acceptance presented by their ethnicity.

This study recognizes the diversity among different minorities. A Black AD does not have the same career experience as a woman of Asian or Hispanic descent. The cultural ties to one’s minority status cannot be overlooked and should be added to the identities under consideration when intersectionality is discussed. For example, all Hispanic stereotypes are not necessarily applicable to women, but certain unique misconceptions could be perceived of a Hispanic woman in the AD role as a combination of both gender stereotypes and misconstrued ethnic judgments.

All of the women stressed the importance of diversity, not just for diversity’s sake but because of the increase in creative thinking and possibility for higher productivity. These women provided an example of what the career paths and challenges are for minority women in athletics and leaves us with many lessons moving forward. One of the most significant takeaways these women provided was the defiance that not all minorities are treated equally. They also exemplified intersectionality as examples of the impossibility to separate ethnicity and gender. Professional opportunities and initiatives may keep minority groups separate, often choosing to focus on minorities or women specifically, but the participants cannot as easily attribute their experiences to one part of their identity (Crenshaw, 1989).

Another consistent finding from these women was the necessity that they work harder than everyone else because of their intersectionality. There was a reinforced belief that they had to prove themselves before being taken seriously as an AD. The participants mentioned that they had to take jobs that others did not necessarily want because of their minority status. Many of these women made headlines as the first minority or female AD at their respective university, but it was not the headlines they pursued. Nearly, all of the participants in this study expressed the hope for no more “firsts” and that minority women stepping into the AD role becomes more commonplace. Overall, these women were inspirational and encouraging in their narratives, exemplifying the purpose and mission of higher education and athletics.

This work also illustrates the need for more of an understanding of intersectionality and how it can manifest in organizational structures that are grounded in patriarchy. It has long been a challenge to discuss sensitive issues in the workplace, and this work contributes to more discussion. Continuing research is encouraged and crucial to understanding this important leadership role in a sports world that aims for diversity and inclusion. LaVoi’s Ecological-Intersectional model (2016) has been increasingly used in research related to intersecting identities in coaching beyond gender and race. Continued research on the other intersecting identities of economic class, social class, and sexual orientation and their effect on the experiences of college athletic administrators should be considered. These participants had several different identities, particularly around sexual orientation, that did not fall under the scope of this study. It also important to note that is not an issue isolated to college athletics. Ethnic minorities and women faced increased scrutiny in all aspects of professional life. This is evident in business, education, engineering, and many other professions. These struggles are also not limited to the United States but are present in other countries as well. This work can be applicable to other professions in both the United States and internationally (Arifeen & Syed, 2020; Chen, Mejia, & Breslin, 2019).

The study design might have limited the description of experiences these women provided. For example, the conversation might have been different if the focus was on the business of managing an athletic department rather than their individual experiences. Examining leadership philosophy, business philosophy, and management styles are also important issues, but the focus of this study was on the experiences and challenges of the participants. There was also the inability to compare the experiences with other women and men due to interviews only being with ethnic minority women.

Conclusion

The preceding experiences are representative of eight individuals and not necessarily generalizable, but they are still relevant and significant, especially considering the small population of female minority ADs. For many, minority is often synonymous with Black, and it is important to share the uniqueness of the wider minority experience. This research attempts to provide insight to help improve social justice, remove barriers, and eliminate negative stereotypes. The participants’ intersecting identities as women and minorities were illustrated throughout their career experiences. These women provided positive outlooks on their careers by realizing they were serving as role models and had a chance to influence the career of other aspiring administrators as well as on collegiate athletes. Any negative experiences were balanced by determination to challenge the status quo. They also emphasized the importance of connections and mentorship in a way that was not self-focused but with a “pay it forward type” of attitude. The participants suggested finding mentors who can provide guidance and to whom the mentee can also provide value. Constant evaluation of diversity initiatives is necessary for college athletic departments.

Sports often suffer from “this is a way we’ve always done things” mentality and collegiate athletics is no exception. Women and ethnic minorities have the same career aspirations as their White and male counterparts, but they face several more obstacles in reaching their goals. Leadership in sport organizations is often focused on numbers, but until a deeper understanding of human interactions and individual experiences occur, statistics will most likely not change. These women provide a positive glimpse of the potential for such as they have ascended to the highest level of collegiate athletics administration. The masculine AD stereotype persists in sport organizations (McDowell & Carter-Francique, 2017). However, as Sinclair (2010) noted, these experiences can help contest the notion of a “single, perfectible leadership identity” (p. 451), which for too long has been held up as a White male archetype.

Note
1.

Five conferences comprise the NCAA autonomous conferences: Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and Southeastern. These are considered the preeminent conferences in college athletics.

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If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.

Welch is with Linfield University, McMinnville, OR, USA. Siegele is with the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, Pembroke, NC, USA. Hardin is with the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN, USA.

Hardin (robh@utk.edu) is corresponding author.
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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Export Citation
  • Boeije, H. (2002). A purposeful approach to the constant comparative method in the analysis of qualitative interviews. Quality and Quantity, 36(4), 391409. doi:10.1023/A:1020909529486

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  • Bower, G.G., & Hums, M.A. (2009). Mentoring women to advance with leadership positions as international physical educators. Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal, 18(2), 313. doi:10.1123/wspaj.18.2.3

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    • Export Citation
  • Brinkmann, S. (2014). Interview (pp. 10081010). New York, NY: Springer.

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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Burton, L.J., Barr, C.A., Fink, J.S., & Bruening, J.E. (2009). “Think athletic director, think masculine?”: Examination of the gender typing of managerial subroles within athletic administration positions. Sex Roles, 61(5–6), 416426. doi:10.1007/s11199-009-9632-6

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Burton, L.J., & Hagan, E.M. (2009). Examination of job description in intercollegiate athletic administration: Application of gender typing of managerial subroles. The Sport Management and Related Topics Journal, 5(1), 8495. Retrieved from http://www.thesmartjournal.com/volumeV.html

    • Search Google Scholar
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