Erika Barnes, interim athletic director at the University of Arizona, attained a position of power that women rarely experience, overseeing an $85 million budget as well as a nationally-ranked men’s basketball team.
And although she has decided not to pursue the permanent position, she understands the challenges facing other women seeking like roles in collegiate athletics.
In NCAA Division I athletics, women continue to be largely underrepresented in key leadership positions, specifically administrative and head coaching roles. In 2015-16, only 37 of the 352 athletic directors in Division I athletics were women, according to NCAA data. Twenty-seven of those women were white.
The “Power Five” conferences — Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and Southeastern Conference (SEC) — consist of 65 universities. Only three have employed women as their head athletic directors: Washington, North Carolina State and Penn State.
Kathleen “Rocky” LaRose acted as the UA interim athletic director from 2009-2010 before Greg Byrne replaced her, but the UA has never hired a female athletic director permanently.
In 2015-16, the Big Ten had the highest percentage of female head coaches, while the SEC and the Big 12 had the lowest, according to a report, Head Coaches of Women’s Collegiate Teams, prepared by Nicole M. LaVoi, co-director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport. The ACC decreased its percentage of female head coaches, but the Pac-12 increased. The overall percentage of women head coaches in the “Power Five” conferences was 40.2 percent.
Why are women underrepresented in Division I athletics? It’s a question that can have multiple explanations depending on who you ask.
“I think it has a lot to do with women wanting to have a family because we have that motherly instinct,” Barnes said.
She has two young children, but she said working in college athletics is a huge time commitment for both women and men.
“It can be really hard to decide between focusing on your career and wanting to be a part of your children’s lives as much as you can,” Barnes said. “I think we struggle to find a balance between work and life at home.”
Added Barnes: “This is not a conventional 9-5, 40 hours a week job. It requires sacrifice sometimes. You work a lot of late nights and weekends. Your job really becomes your life.”
Others say that if women want an administrative or head coaching position in Division I athletics, they better know someone in the industry.
“It goes back to a long history. The people in these positions, which are predominantly white males, have built a system,” said Lisa Thuer, the director of membership engagement for the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administration (NACWAA).
“Those men who have built this system know people, and the people they know are the ones who get these jobs.”
The NACWAA is a premier leadership organization dedicated to developing women, connecting them with potential employers, advancing their skill sets and celebrating women who are involved or aspire to work in college athletics.
Barnes said she usually does not think of herself as being one of the few women in this industry and refuses to let her gender define who she is, preferring to let her work speak for itself.
Barnes has been with the university since 2005, and served as the senior associate athletic director. Barnes attended UA and won a national title with the softball team in 2001.
So how can women gain more access into a system that has continuously excluded them?
“Through the pipeline that we have created at NACWAA, we are providing women with the tools they need to be successful in this industry,” Thuer said. “We take them in and challenge them to pursue their dreams and go after what they want. We help them gain experience and knowledge in order to obtain these positions that are normally dominated by men.”
Ashley Mikelonis is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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