Breaking the Glass Ceiling in Collegiate Sports Management

By: EmmaKate Few

Emma Brown is the director of recruiting for SMU's football team.

Emma Brown, 25, is the director of recruiting for SMU’s football team. She spends long days and late nights working in an environment that is far from typical for most women her age.

“My entire life is football,” said Brown.

Brown’s job, family background, personal interests, and football-playing fiancé all drive her passion for the gridiron. But where she really stands out is as a woman in what is largely a male-dominated industry.

According to research by the Women’s Sports Foundation, women are underrepresented in the athletic director ranks across all three NCAA divisions. Of the 250 athletic directors in Division I programs, a mere 10 percent were women in 2015. Across the range of positions in athletic departments, women were concentrated in roles that are student-life and academically oriented. Very few hold positions like Brown’s.

“Being a woman in the sports industry gets a little hairy but I was raised around boys,” said Brown. “My dad is a football coach, and my brother played both football and baseball and spent some time playing in the minor league. It made me strong.”

SMU presents more promising numbers than the national outlook, with women making up 34 percent of the athletic department. Many female students at SMU are taking advantage of these new opportunities in the sports industry by majoring in the Applied Physiology and Sport Management concentration in the Simmons’s School of Education and Human Development. There are currently 126 female students either majoring or minoring in the APSM department at SMU.

Brown says her confidence and knowledge of football is a result of her strong upbringing as the youngest in a family of males. She said she uses the strength she developed as her main weapon for combatting the negative comments about women in the sports industry.

Lindsay Olsen, associate director of public relations in the athletic department, shares similar advice for females interested in working in the sports industry.

“You have to take yourself seriously and represent yourself as a professional person,” said Olsen, who has been working in the sports industry for 11 years.

Olsen grew up interested in sports medicine and athletic training. Since then, she has ventured into a variety of roles in the sports industry: from sports broadcasting, to coaching, and media relations. It’s the diversity of experiences she has that has made her especially marketable in this male-dominated field, she said.

Lindsay Olsen is the associate director of public relations in the athletic department. Photo credit: SMU website

“The sports industry revolves around relationships,” said Olsen. “The biggest challenge is developing new relationships that have a foundation of trust, and that’s going to be an issue regardless of gender.”

Another prominent female leader in Loyd All-Sports Center is Mariah Chappell, SMU’s assistant athletic director for administration. Chappell’s father, Kevin White, is the athletic director at Duke University, her brother Danny White is the athletic director at the University of Central Florida, and her brother, Mike White, is the men’s basketball coach at the University of Florida. She said her childhood was spent on college campuses with her family, and she was a student athlete at Duke University.

“It is exciting to see more and more women becoming AD’s,” said Chappell. “It’s important to consider that there are as many female student athletes as there are male student athletes, so it is a great option for these female student athletes to be able to go to and relate with a female AD.”

An increasing number of young women at SMU are looking up to female leaders in the sports industry, including those working for SMU’s athletic department. The APSM department has kept about a 50-50 male-female ratio according to Susan Sifford, program specialist in SMU’s Simmons School of Human Development.

“The percentages fluctuate a bit from semester to semester, but have generally remained consistent,” said Sifford.

For the past four semesters, the average number of incoming majors is 49.74 percent female and 50.26 percent male. Department leaders say that the over-all number of APSM majors continues to increase.

“Sometimes I feel like it gives you a leg up because women are typically intimidated by sports,” said Charlie Odell, a female senior APSM major concentrating in health management. “But the combination of being educated in the field and already having the passion can really help make you marketable.”

When asked why she chose the APSM major, SMU junior Celine Horner said: “I like to be around that morale and competitiveness.”

Sports may be entertaining for fans to watch, but the industry itself can be stressful and consuming. A three-part study in 2008 of NCAA member institutions found that of the 1,475 females surveyed working in sports administration, 40 percent indicated they did not have balance between their work and personal lives.

The long hours and late nights required present the biggest challenges for many people working in athletic departments across the country. But for Brown, the most challenging part is not her work itself but the difficulties that come with being a part of the gender minority in the industry.

“You have to know that things are going to be said,” said Brown. “But you have to have confidence that you know what you are talking about. Follow your own routes.”

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