Head Coach Hannah Nielsen high-fives Maya Rutherford before the start of the game.
Athletic directors are predominantly male across the NCAA and at Michigan, no women has ever held the position. Julianne Yoon/Daily.  Buy this photo.

The concept of women in sports often centers around the idea of female athletes. But there are so many roles beyond athletes that are crucial to the functioning of a team behind the scenes. For every school and for every sport, the athletic director is a role that is vital to the success of each team.

And while there are roughly the same number of men’s and women’s sports programs at each school — for example 13 men’s and 14 women’s teams at Michigan — there are significantly fewer female athletic directors in that front office position across the NCAA.

That problem is not new — it has a long history.

Before the NCAA took over the governing of women’s athletics prior to the 1982-83 school year, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) served that role. And in the AIAW, many leadership positions were held by women. 

But after the NCAA — which actively fought against Title IX and the AIAW — took over due to its larger budget and more widespread marketing, many of those roles disappeared as the AIAW folded.

In 1973, 95% of women’s athletic programs were women-led, but in 1985 — three years after the NCAA replaced the AIAW — that number dropped to 14%, and that same year, 38% of programs did not have a single female administrator. Many women who previously held leadership positions in the AIAW were demoted when their institutions joined the NCAA. Liz Murphey, a former women’s athletic director at Georgia under the AIAW, was demoted to assistant athletic director after the switch to the NCAA. Murphey is just one example of how women in leadership positions were treated after the NCAA took over.

But female athletic directors didn’t go away quietly. The Council of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators — now known as Women Leaders in College Sports — was founded in 1979 by a group of female athletic administrators. The organization aims to develop female leadership, advance women in their careers and create a community of women working in sports.

Its current CEO, Patti Phillips, wrote that “cultural and societal bias drives much of the inequity in college athletics … gender inequality in the world of sports has existed for decades, and a major contributor can be explained in one word: football.”

Chief among those influences, football — almost exclusively a men’s sport — is the main revenue source for many colleges, especially in Power Five conferences. Accordingly, gender bias when it comes to hiring an athletic director — who oversees football — prevails. 

According to a 2019 research report from the Michigan Task Force on Women in Sports, both women and men perceive gender bias in the hiring practices and workplace culture of sports leadership at the college level. Women experience gender inequity amid a deeply ingrained male-dominated culture. In sports leadership, women must work both within and against that culture to succeed.

“I think the perception is (that) opportunities are there and processes are fair and equal, but they aren’t truly whether it be budgets, salaries, promotions, or how women leaders are viewed and evaluated by peers and administrators,” a respondent to the Women’s Sports Foundation’s Female Leaders in Sport Survey in 2019 said.

The report also found that the lack of access to mentors was the greatest hindrance to the development of women leaders. While the number of women in high-level positions has increased in recent years — this week, for example, Nevada hired Stephanie Rempe as its next athletic director — the inequity remains glaring.

In the 2020-2021 academic year, only 24% of athletic directors in the NCAA were women — and just 14% in Division 1. And the University of Michigan, which has never had a female athletic director since the position’s creation in 1898, exemplifies that disparity. The Wolverines aren’t alone in that regard, and there are currently no female athletic directors in the Big Ten.

The absence of women leading NCAA front offices highlights the need for increased female mentorship in the sport industry.

In her USA Today op-ed, Phillips proposed keys to evening out that disparity. Those include creating diversity commitments, encouraging university academic leaders to join in finding a solution and speaking directly to men about sports gender inequity.

Currently, opportunities exist for women as athletes, coaches, administrators, general managers and broadcasters that would not have been possible prior to Title IX. But there is still a long way to go, and change begins at the top.

“It’s on us as female coaches to keep pushing. It’s on athletic departments to keep hiring strong females and females in administration to bring to light just what we have to go through as female athletes,” Michigan women’s lacrosse coach Hannah Nielsen said in a video about Title IX.

Fifty years after Title IX passed into law, change still needs to occur in hiring female athletic directors. Doing so could be key to expanding gender equity in sports beyond the law’s current progress.