The Designation, Stigmatization, and Marginalization of SWAs

Women in sport have made considerable progress in the workplace, yet they have failed to gain status and power because of how gender is conceptualized; particularly when gender stereotypes and stigmas influence an individual’s behaviors and an organization’s practices. In 1981, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) designated the Primary Woman Administrator (PWA) of athletic programs to establish a minimum number of women serving within  governance bodies. Then in 1989, the PWA title was renamed to the Senior Woman Administrator (SWA) and the designation was modified to “the highest-ranking female involved with the management of an institution’s intercollegiate athletic program.” The intention was to increase representation of women in senior-level athletic administrative roles across institutions.


Although the SWA job responsibilities have evolved over the past four decades, according to the NCAA’s 2017 Optimization of the Senior Woman Administrator Designation, SWAs declared a notable lack of understanding and ambiguity for their role across divisions and institutions. For example, while 92% of Athletic Directors state they understand the role of SWAs, only 45% of SWAs believed their own Athletic Director understood their role. Additionally, several researchers have noted the complex experience and career advancement of SWAs. For example, 31% of SWAs have been the token woman on a college leadership team, and while 65% of SWAs desire a more senior role, according to The Racial and Gender Report Card for College Sports they rarely make it to the highest leadership position within intercollegiate athletics—the Athletic Director. If we know being a social minority contributes to marginalization and redirects attention to the systemic organizational norms and structures that drive the gendered nature of sport workplaces, why in 2020, do we still blatantly focus on gender with the Senior Woman Administrator title?


Previous research on SWAs has found that limited involvement in financial decision-making with football and men’s basketball may inhibit the upward mobility of women working in collegiate athletics. Additionally, SWAs and other women in collegiate athletics are assigned tasks deemed nurturing or gender specific in nature, such as Title IX, student-athlete welfare, and overseeing women’s sports. Furthermore, women in senior leadership positions encounter gender stereotypes and organizational barriers that limit their input and effectiveness on the senior management team which hinders their professional development in areas they need to move into the Athletic Director role (Grappendorf et al., 2008; Hancock & Hums, 2016; Smith et al., 2019; Tiell & Dixon, 2008; Tiell et al., 2012). Thus, if SWAs are not receiving the professional development, mentoring, and skills necessary to move into the Athletic Director position from the designation, then should the designation still be used by athletic leadership teams in 2020 and moving forward?


Recently, we published two studies in the Journal of Sport Management and the Journal of Intercollegiate Sport focused on the designation, stigmatization, and marginalization of SWAs. Providing an open space for SWAs to share their lived experience, we surveyed 234 SWAs from all three NCAA divisions and interviewed 14 Division I SWAs. The majority of SWA survey respondents were White (88%), between the ages of 31 and 50 (58.6%), and had earned a master’s degree (74.8%). Similarly, out of the 14 Division I SWAs interviewed, 11 identified as White, all 14 participants were between the ages of 32 and 66, and 10 had earned a master’s degree. Additionally, 10 had been former collegiate student-athletes, 6 were former collegiate coaches, and collectively they had anywhere between 1 year to 19 years of experience as an SWA.


Both the survey and interview results revealed that the designation of SWA elicits gender stigma consciousness, incivility, marginalization, and tokenism. In the survey, SWAs with higher levels of stigma consciousness noted greater levels of perceived workplace incivility, lower job satisfaction, and lower perceptions of organizational opportunities. In the interviews, SWAs revealed that the designation itself is problematic and accompanied with gender stereotypes (in congruence with results found in the NCAA’s 2018 SWA report). For example, one SWA participant stated, “People still don’t understand it [the SWA title]. People still call it the women’s AD or administrator and think that we’re only over women’s sports.” Furthermore, participants detailed the designation should be removed due to its tokenism and marginalization.


Stigma Consciousness. With the pervasive gender stereotypes in sport, particularly in coaching and administration, women at some point in their career will become aware of the associated stigma. A stigma is spread through stereotypes and is internalized by those that belong to a stigmatized group. As such, when the SWAs became aware of their stigmatized status as a woman it is referred to as gender stigma consciousness. For example, one SWA unapologetically stated, “When strong and capable women challenge men whether it be coaches, colleagues, or administrators, the ‘good ole boys club’ always prevails.” Another SWA consciously noted, “most men I have dealt with in this profession have been respectful, but when it comes down to it, if it involves football or men’s basketball, they will always defer to another man, but rarely a woman.” These high levels of stigma consciousness predict perceived prejudice and discrimination.


Workplace Incivility. Although overt forms of gender discrimination are socially unacceptable, covert displays of gender discrimination like workplace incivility have become commonplace. To maintain workplace norms these low intensity deviant behaviors manifest as rolling eyes, hostile stares, or talking over someone. Even after four decades of the SWA designation, several SWAs described the challenge of obtaining status and maintaining respect, which led to lower job satisfaction and lower perceived organizational opportunities. For example, one SWA declared that “I have had to fight to educate my co-workers and superiors on the title and job responsibilities of SWA.” Another SWA elucidated that “the role of SWA in many institutions is not only undervalued, but used as an ‘NCAA’ requirement position. I have had to insert myself into the role of SWA by taking on multiple responsibilities at my institution; otherwise, I would literally be SWA in name only.” These examples of stigma consciousness of the SWA designation and the uncivil behaviors experienced as an SWA have led to lower job satisfaction and lower perceived organizational opportunities.


Marginalization and Unintended Consequences. All 14 of the participants interviewed discussed how many times the designation of SWA was confused with being the only administrator overseeing women’s sports, when in actuality these women were awarded the designation of SWA due to their status as the most senior female member of the athletic department. For example, a participant stated, “People still don’t understand it [the SWA title]. People still call it the women’s AD or administrator and think that we’re only over women’s sports.” Furthermore, the women explained the unintended consequence of this confusion limited their authority and professional development. Specifically, the participants detailed that the designation of SWA itself was used to marginalize and limit their power and influence. As one participant stated,


We’re kicking the glass ceiling and we’re putting women in that Athletic Director role, but we’re not mandating a senior men’s (administrator). I believe it’s [SWA designation] becoming an antiquated title. The other piece too is that perception is reality, so when I am introduced in a room and they introduce the Athletic Director, and they introduce the Associate Athletic Director for Facilities, who is a man, and they introduce me as the Senior Woman Administrator. Automatically, I am a lesser title.


The designation and the associated confusion of “overseeing women’s sports or being the women’s AD” does not detail the participants’ rich backgrounds and experiences in the internal and external operations of the athletic department. Therefore, being called or labeled the SWA serves as a roadblock causing colleagues, members of the university and athletic leadership team, and even external stakeholders to view this designation and the woman in it as less impactful and influential.


Tokenism. A majority of participants expressed that the SWA designation was accompanied with tokenism. The women asserted the misunderstanding and lack of role clarity of the designation had negative consequences for their careers. Specifically, participants explained that they were brought into the senior leadership team as the SWA, but lacked an ability to step forward and be given decision-making tasks or be perceived as equal with their male peers. As one participant explained, “People don’t question male Senior Associates, but they certainly do question Senior Associates that happen to be female and why they’re there. Definitely whether they’re SWA or not, we still have that element of having to prove ourselves.” If SWAs are only associated as the “AD of women’s sports” or dealing with “Title IX and gender equity” they are not being perceived with the skills to operate and manage an athletic department. The SWA designation is supposed to give women a seat at the table and a voice for the department, but the women asserted it is failing in its efforts.


Implications for Practice. When a social minority becomes concerned about their stereotyped status, it hinders their opportunities to move beyond it. Having a gendered distinction like SWA does not protect women from gendered inequities; in fact, it reemphasizes the imbalance of power to what becomes the normalized, mostly male, alternative. By including “woman” in a title, our results revealed SWAs experience greater stigma consciousness, perceived incivility, marginalization, and tokenism. To avoid any unintended consequences of a title, we encourage the NCAA and athletic departments to deemphasize gender, redefine SWA, and reimagine SWA job titles to focus more on the description of their role rather than their demographic. As one SWA noted, “I don’t think the SWA is the stepping stone. I think the title of the associate or assistant athletic director is the role and the title that helps a woman to the next step of athletic director.” Additionally, in male-dominated industries like sport, we must rebuild structures and systems that were intended to increase representation; yet have inadvertently limited women from ascending to the highest leadership positions, not the highest “woman” leadership positions.


Radically, the women in the qualitative study felt the designation should be removed altogether as it historically and currently has not served the intent founded by the NCAA. As a participant explained, “What I’m concerned about now is that it’s a role that may be delimiting women if they want to become Athletic Directors.” Another participant explained the designation should be removed since women are still undervalued, “I feel like women are moving the needle and making a difference, but we still have a long way to go because there are a lot of women out there that are not valued the way they should be.” To avoid further inequality and perceptions of inferiority in comparison to their male peers the women recommended the designation be dropped and instead their titles represent their expertise and years of experience leading other segments of the athletic department. Recently, at the institution level particularly among NCAA Division I departments, some have begun to remove or alter the SWA designation instead listing the Executive Associate Athletic Director for Administration, Deputy Athletic Director of Internal Affairs, or Senior Associate Athletic Director of External Affairs in the staff directory.


Conclusion. Together, through a survey and interviews these two studies demonstrate the complex designation and uncivil consequences experienced by women who hold the designation of SWA. As the women in the two studies demonstrated, the intent from the NCAA to include a woman to the senior level athletic staff was promising, but in reality, the designation has caused women to experience marginalization and hardships when attempting to ascend into further leadership opportunities. As collegiate athletics continues to evolve and change, specifically collegiate student-athletes and administrators calling for a more diverse and representative workforce, the SWA designation needs to evolve or be eliminated.


Yes, 40 years ago the intentions of designating a SWA were promising; however, the impact has to be greater than the intentions, and today, according to SWAs, it is time to reimagine the designation.




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