Women in athletic departments: welcomed or marginalized?

"The world of intercollegiate athletics is coming to understand more and more the value of different voices and perspectives," says Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour. TNS via Getty Images

We didn't need the musical "Hamilton" to tell us the importance of being in "the room where it happens," but it did provide a fantastically catchy tune that reiterates the advantages of being among decision-makers.

For women in college athletics, as we approach the 45th anniversary of Title IX, we can embrace that idea with at least some optimism.

Of the 1,101 athletic directors at NCAA-governed schools, 269 are women, according to Women Leaders' in College Sports, an organization that tracks hiring trends in the industry. Of those women, 55 are in Division I programs, 57 are in Division II and 157 are in Division III.

As of earlier this month, 19 women had been hired as athletic directors or conference commissioners in 2017, including six as Division I ADs. Women Leaders CEO Patti Phillips said the 37 women who advanced to AD or commissioner roles in 2016 was a 95 percent increase from as recently as 2012.

"The world of intercollegiate athletics is coming to understand more and more the value of different voices and perspectives," said Penn State AD Sandy Barbour, who earlier this year was named one of four Athletic Directors of the Year by her peers at the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics convention.

But while the landscape for women in college athletics administrations is improving overall, a lot of work remains.

In the so-called Power Five conferences -- the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC -- there are only four women ADs: Barbour, NC State's Debbie Yow, Washington's Jen Cohen and Pittsburgh's Heather Lyke, who was hired in March.

With more and more research showing that hiring women into executive roles improves a business' bottom line, why are Power Five schools so behind?

One big roadblock has been football, and the myths that surround it. "There was this notion that because women, in general, don't play football, how would you administer or supervise it?" Barbour said. It's an obstacle that men, whether they played football or not, don't face. Not to mention, there's no expectation that ADs have played every other sport they supervise.

But women sometimes have trouble getting even lower-level athletic department positions in football, which limits their advancement opportunities. But that, too, is changing, Barbour says, with more women getting day-to-day responsibility in football -- the primary revenue driver of Power Five schools.

"Those [Power Five AD jobs] are coveted, and a lot of talented women and men have that as their goal," Barbour said. "But from a numbers standpoint, the women have a steeper hill to climb."

And at schools nationwide, women in athletic departments still sometimes find themselves isolated. Why? That depends on the culture of the program and the people running it.

'Constant vigilance needed'

In May, Jane Meyer won a lawsuit against the University of Iowa, where she had been senior associate athletic director for 13 years. She was originally hired as second-in-command to then-AD Bob Bowlsby in 2001, and she remained in that position when he left for Stanford and Gary Barta took over in 2006.

But Meyer felt increasingly marginalized. In 2014, Barta created a new position -- telling Meyer she wasn't a candidate -- that paid $70,000 more than her salary at the time and included some of her own duties. Barta gave the job to a man.

Barta then fired Meyer's partner, field hockey coach Tracey Greisbaum, for alleged "abusive behavior" toward her players, even though a school inquiry didn't find violations.

Later in 2014, Meyer approached Barta about what she considered wide-ranging gender inequity; she was soon moved outside the athletics department to a university post for which funding was ended in 2016.

Then Meyer had filed a lawsuit in 2015, alleging gender and sexual-orientation discrimination, as well as unequal pay and retaliation for being a whistleblower. Greisbaum also sued. A jury decided in favor of Meyer, and Iowa eventually decided to settle with both for a combined $6.5 million. Barta, at the center of the allegations, is still Iowa's athletics director. Meyer and Griesbaum are doubtful they'll get a chance to work in college sports again.

"It was more important for me to stand up, and hopefully move the dial for any other people who have been discriminated against," Meyer said, adding that "constant vigilance" is still needed for how women are treated.

"There are some leaders who are doing a great job of that. But there's still discrimination. And it doesn't necessarily matter if the athletic director is male or female; it happens with both."

Christine Grant was director of women's sports at Iowa from 1973 to 2000, when the men's and women's athletic departments were separate. They merged after she retired. Grant was also a founding member of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), and one of the most ardent opponents of the NCAA taking over governing of women's sports in 1981.

Grant's concern was that women would have less control under NCAA governance, which would impact the number of women in coaching and administrative roles. And it did. But would women's sports have had the same growth without the NCAA?

Grant said that there are other situations like Meyer's across the country.

"It's a very hard choice: 'Do I say something about lack of equality and possibly lose my job, or keep quiet and pretend everything is OK?' " Grant said. "And it's not always as obvious as it was in Jane's case. When you're talking about different standards for men and women, and the feeling that there is a bias against women, it can be hard to prove."

'A culture where everybody can speak up'

Tennessee is another example of a school that was long thought to be at the forefront of women's sports but hit turbulence.

A gradual merger of Tennessee's men's and women's athletic departments began more than a decade ago. Dave Hart took over as athletic director in September 2011, shortly after legendary women's basketball coach Pat Summitt announced she had early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.

Hart's supporters say his primary job was rebuilding the football program, and that the final stages of the merger would've been difficult for anyone. But many fans felt Hart didn't understand or care enough about Tennessee's women's sports tradition and undermined the Summitt-led culture of camaraderie between female athletes at the school.

By 2012, only one woman remained in a senior decision-making capacity at Tennessee. And the school dealt with a gender-discrimination lawsuit by three former employees, plus a Title IX lawsuit alleging a "culture" that enabled sexual assault by student-athletes. The university settled both lawsuits in 2016.

Hart retired and, earlier this year, was replaced by John Currie, who'd previously been in athletic administration at Tennessee from 1997 to 2009, and left to become AD at Kansas State for eight years.

While Currie pragmatically knows he'll be judged on football success, he cares about mending fences with Tennessee's women's sports followers. And he seeks camaraderie and idea-sharing department-wide: "Building a culture where everybody feels like they can speak up."

Currie says he doesn't want to generalize about how people interact in athletic administration, but "with senior staff, we have the responsibility about insuring that we do have different kinds of backgrounds. And I have experienced where maybe if there was just one woman in the room, she might not speak up in front of the group. But one-on-one, she would.

"We recognize that happens with men, too. But we should be intentional about developing strong leaders who happen to be women."

Women Leaders is actively trying to fulfill that mission.

"We do not advocate for women to receive jobs just because they are women. We advocate for qualified women -- and there are many -- to get a fair shot," Phillips said. "There is empirical evidence that shows us that traditional female skill-sets -- relationship skills, collaboration, higher emotional intelligence and a deeper focus on meaning and purpose -- are becoming more valued in the workplace."

Phillips said that her organization regularly talks with university leaders about the biases that women still face. It's a journey that women in college athletics continue to navigate: To not just be in the "room where it happens," but to truly feel they belong and are welcomed there.

Barbour gives this advice to young women -- or men, for that matter -- seeking to become athletic administrators: "Take some time to figure out what you're good at and what you're passionate about. Then become an expert at that, and make sure you have a good sense of the entire landscape.

"And you can't have a thin skin. That isn't advice just for women; the reality is, this is a tough business. But it's a great job, too."