Written by Susan T. Spencer Thursday, August 11 2011
What is the “Grass Ceiling?” I define it as a pervasive gender bias against hiring women for top positions in sports management.
Athletic director positions are among the top paying jobs and claim the most prestigious status in collegiate sports management. A study by R. Vivian Acosta and Linda Jean Carpenter, professors emerita, Brooklyn College, revealed a sobering statistic: Fewer than 10 percent of the directors of athletics at NCAA Division I member colleges are women. The study looked at women in intercollegiate sports over a 33-year period from 1977 to 2010.
Why does the current system freeze women out? Because many of the colleges and universities exercise very little oversight over their athletic programs, fail to seek out or ensure that talented women are nominated for available positions, and use a selection process based on factors other than demonstrated merit.
Because of this lack of equality in selection, women are often hired for secondary positions (as a senior associate athletic director) and often end up assigned to minor sports – which invariably excludes them from recognition and involvement in important business negotiations. The result: Women have little chance to gain the kind of experience and public exposure that will qualify them to move up and gain the top positions.
What about mentors within the system? Based on the current number of female athletic directors, it seems clear that only a few of our institutions of higher learning encourage male athletic directors to train and promote women.
The best option for women is to identify other decision makers who are willing to help them and to work within the system to create their own demand. They should reach out to other women leaders at their own universities – presidents, vice presidents, deans, chairs of faculty senates, and other administration officials who are in a position to observe their talents and promote individual efforts. They should network by serving on several NCAA and conference committees whose members are administrators and faculty from other universities. This is the best way for women to build relationships and get noticed.
Another way for women to really cut through the grass ceiling is to come fully loaded with impressive educational credentials. Advanced degrees in sports business, MBAs, and LL.Ds go a long way toward authenticating women’s ability to handle the big business deals of Division I college sports.
It’s time that Division I colleges and universities recognize that there is a grass ceiling and establish standards that must be uniformly applied to all candidates, so that the athletic department will not be just another old boys club. Until Division I schools wake up, establish uniform standards, and stop paying lip service to women in college athletic departments, the grass ceiling will continue to prevent women from moving up and establishing themselves as Division I athletic directors.
Susan T. Spencer was an entrepreneur and business professional before many women had the courage to play in the big leagues with men. Her companies reached annual revenues of $50 million, and she was the first and only female to hold the position as general manager of an NLF team, the Philadelphia Eagles.
After her time with the team, Spencer added three more exclusively male businesses to her ventures, one in food distribution and two in meat processing, one of which she owned and ran for more than 20 years. Spencer’s beef company was the only woman-owned company that sold millions of pounds of meat products to national chains including McDonald’s, Chili’s, Dairy Queen, and Jack in the Box.
Her new book, Briefcase Essentials, was published in March.
Spencer earned her bachelor of arts from Boston University, her master’s in education/economics from Hofstra University, and her law degree from Villanova University.
Connee Zotos, clinical associate professor of sports management at New York University, assisted with this article.