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New survey reveals lack of clarity about designation of senior woman administrators

When Jane Miller gave up coaching in 1995 to become a full-time administrator in Virginia athletics, three letters in her title catapulted her career. Her new position as an associate athletics director also made her the first senior woman administrator at the school — a designation that secured her a seat at the decision-making table at the campus, conference and, eventually, national levels.

Yet 22 years later, Miller’s SWA title is still misunderstood. Occasionally, she has to correct a person who introduces her as the “administrator for women’s sports.” She has been asked whether athletics needs a “senior men’s administrator.” And one time, in a meeting with presidents and athletics administrators from various schools, she was surprised to hear an athletics director suggest the SWA designation rotate to a new woman in the department every year, regardless of seniority. “I think they were missing the point about what the senior woman administrator was,” Miller says.

Such confusion around the designation is common across the country, a new NCAA study shows. Commissioned by the NCAA office of inclusion and developed by 3 Fold Group, an athletics consulting firm, the study was structured primarily around a survey completed by 61 percent of SWAs, 42 percent of athletics directors and 67 percent of conference commissioners. It revealed that only half of SWA respondents understand their role and that a significant perception gap exists between athletics directors and SWAs. While 92 percent of athletics directors reported that they understand the SWA role, just 45 percent of SWAs reported having an athletics director who understands it.

“There’s still a lot of confusion around what it is,” says Diana Kling, associate commissioner and SWA of the Peach Belt Conference and a member of the NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics. “It’s not somebody who just deals with Title IX or somebody who just deals with women’s sports. It isn’t about women’s issues; it’s about a woman’s perspective on all the issues.”

The NCAA membership voted to create the SWA designation in 1981 — the same year it added women’s championships — to ensure females were involved in the male-dominated administration of college athletics. But while the NCAA Constitution defines that athletics departments and conferences should designate their “highest-ranking female involved in the management of an institution’s intercollegiate athletics program” as the senior woman administrator, it does not stipulate specific responsibilities the woman in the role should have.

Schools are not legislatively required to have an SWA, although 99 percent of NCAA schools do. A staff member who meets the definition of an SWA is eligible for benefits such as serving on NCAA committees, participating in eligibility hearings, receiving select grants and other opportunities. If an athletics director or commissioner is female, the school or conference may designate another woman as its SWA.

The most rudimentary question the study needed to answer was whether the designation is still desired. Some people had expressed concerns that SWAs were being pigeonholed into taking on certain kinds of duties — often related to gender equity or internal organizational or advisory functions such as compliance — and overlooked for other responsibilities, such as overseeing men’s basketball and football, that could help them advance to an athletics director’s seat.

Others shared qualms about the name, which is often mistakenly referred to as “senior women’s administrator” or thought to refer to the longest-serving woman in the department.

However, the survey confirmed the majority of the NCAA membership believe in the benefits of the SWA designation. Nearly three-quarters of SWAs surveyed said the role has enhanced their career opportunities. And a vast majority credit the title with opening doors for female leaders: Eighty-four percent of the SWAs think some schools would have no women involved in the management of their department without the SWA designation.

According to the NCAA demographics database, a quarter of Division I schools and more than two-thirds of schools in Divisions II and III in 2015-16 reported having zero or one female athletics administrator, defined as an athletics director or an assistant or associate athletics director. (Titles such as deputy athletics director are not options for selection in the database, and it is left to the school’s discretion to classify its staff.) Although the designation is intended for a person with administrative responsibilities, coaches and other nonadministrators have taken on the role in some departments.

Still, to Miller, the ideal SWA experience should include sport supervision and a spot on the department’s senior staff. Miller oversees baseball, men’s golf, men’s and women’s lacrosse, and women’s basketball, among other responsibilities. “I really think it’s incumbent upon the leadership of each institution to make it a priority,” she says.

For MIT Athletics Director Julie Soriero, personal experience has shaped the way she relies on the SWA in her department. As an SWA at Colorado College earlier in her career, Soriero participated in the day-to-day decisions of the department. She says she expects the same level of involvement from her SWA today. “It might be because I’ve been in that role that I understand how I would like to see an athletics director incorporate the role into the leadership mantra of a department,” Soriero says.

Nnenna Akotaobi, Swarthmore associate athletics director, SWA and deputy Title IX coordinator, says her athletics director, Adam Hertz, values female leadership in their department. As a result, most of her job responsibilities have more to do with her being “second in command” as a senior administrator and less to do with gender. Akotaobi has a passion for advocating for female athletes, administrators and coaches, but to her, the delineation is clear.

“It’s something I enjoy doing, not necessarily because it’s tied to my designation,” she says. “It’s easy in our field that is predominantly male for people to say you are the senior woman administrator, so your responsibility is to women. Because there is so much autonomy in how people can approach the designation, I think you often see that happening.”

At the national level, the SWA designation has bolstered female involvement in the governance structure. When the designation was created, the number of women on NCAA committees jumped from almost none to 35 percent of committee seats being held by women in 1985. The percentage remains around the same today.

Akotaobi, who is chair of the NCAA Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee, has embraced the committee opportunities. “The designation has in many ways opened up so many doors for me beyond our campus,” she says. “Within our conference, across my work with the Association, that SWA designation has been almost the most significant professional development opportunity I’ve received in my career so far.”

In her 33rd year at Virginia, Miller thinks she might be the luckiest SWA of all. “I’ve had the opportunity all the way up to the Board of Directors,” she says. In 2014, Miller was elected as the first SWA to serve on the Division I board. “I wouldn’t have had that without the designation.”

NCAA leaders know there is more work to be done. The results of the SWA study will serve as a launching pad for more communication and education about the designation, including new best practice guidelines and other resources. The efforts will build upon efforts tied to the NCAA presidential pledge to promote diversity and inclusion, which 75 percent of NCAA members have signed since it was created in 2016.

While Miller would like to see a future where the SWA designation is not needed, she doesn’t envision that time coming soon. “We still have a long way to go,” she says.

The complete NCAA study on the role of senior woman administrators can be found here.


Talk It Out

The senior woman administrator role on each campus varies based on the unique experiences and qualifications of the woman holding the designation and the specific needs within the athletics department. Open communication between athletics directors and SWAs is critical for clarifying expectations and exploring ways to optimize the role within an athletics department. To assist with the dialogue, athletics directors and SWAs should consider incorporating the following discussion questions into regular campus conversations:

  • What are the most significant priorities for the athletics department, and what role does the SWA play in achieving departmental goals?
  • What professional strengths and interests does the SWA possess, and how are those effectively used in the leadership of the athletics department?
  • How does the SWA actively engage in discussions and decision-making regarding senior management strategic and operational initiatives?
  • In what ways do the athletics director and other senior leaders provide the SWA with opportunities to lead departmental initiatives consistent with her interests and abilities and institutional needs?
  • What resources for professional development do the athletics director and other senior leaders allocate to the SWA to assist her in the completion of her responsibilities and in her pursuit of professional success and/or advancement?
  • In what ways do the AD and other senior leaders encourage and support the SWA to pursue opportunities for conference and national-level committee work?


Impact on Decision-Making

Agreement that SWAs are actively engaged in key decision-making at the institutional level:


Perception Gap


Experience of SWAs

All numbers based on Key Findings located in the Optimization of the Senior Woman Administrator Designation — November 2017.





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