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Do female athletic directors treat women athletes better?

The data is incomplete, convoluted, and misleading, and those on the inside are hesitant to talk. If the widespread belief that female collegiate athletes are treated worse—i.e. given fewer opportunities, resources, and funds—than their male counterparts is true, does a female athletic director make a difference?

Using statistics to determine if the school is Title IX compliant is tricky. The Equity in Athletics Data Analysis, compiled by the Office of Postsecondary Education of the U.S. Department of Education, is perhaps the best place to start. A recent analysis of the data by VICE Sports revealed troubling gaps between male and female college athletes as far as participation and financial aid.

According to the most recent NCAA data (from 2015-16), there are 34 women among the 352 Division I athletic directors, and 10 female ADs at Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools. Chris Plonsky is one of them—sort of. The University of Texas has a unique hierarchy: While Mike Perrin is in charge of men’s sports, since 2001 Plonsky has overseen women’s sports in addition to the department’s sponsorship, TV, and licensing deals.

Plonsky, one of the few ADs willing to speak on this topic, was asked if she thought schools with a female athletic director treated their female athletes better than schools with a male AD.

“There has always been someone here, since 1973, with the accountability to supervise exactly that—what is being offered in those sports for the female student-athlete on this campus,” she told Excelle Sports. “We’re very proud of it. We think we were a school that set some of the standards early for how an elite program could operate, not only with regard to competitiveness, but all of the other derivatives that participating in sport in a collegiate environment could have. … The proof is asking every female athlete who has been in a program here, ‘Do you feel like you received what they told you they’d give you? How was your experience?’”

Of course, doing so is an impossible task. The latest data shows close to 300 female athletes at Texas for the 2015-16 school year alone. Excelle did speak to Ariel Atkins, a rising senior on the women’s basketball team at Texas.

“I’ve had a truly positive experience,” she said. “I think that’s a testament to our coaches, our administrators, our academic staff, and our support staff.” Atkins said she struggled academically when she first stepped on campus and was provided extra tutors to make the transition easier. She felt the treatment of female athletes was the same as the male athletes at Texas. “I think (when) people talk about gender it’s more about fan support.”

Added Plonsky: “When you say ‘parity’ or ‘equity,’ those are words that can be tossed around and can be looked at in metrics and dollars, but frankly it’s the human impact you measure. I know for a fact that this place was built, long before I got here, by women who were given administrative power and support to get this program positioned to be one of the best in the country.”

Mollie Marcoux Samaan also speaks with pride about her school’s treatment of female athletes. Samaan, Princeton’s athletic director since 2014, played soccer and hockey for the Tigers, graduating in 1991 after majoring in history and writing her thesis on the history of women in sports from 1895 to 1946.

Samaan said Princeton’s core philosophy is to ensure every team—male and female—is given the opportunity to succeed. “They don’t get exactly the same things because every program is different, but they get what they need to excel,” Samaan told Excelle. “We don’t tier our sports and say this one is more important than this one. We are pretty egalitarian across the board.”

When Samaan and Plonsky were asked if they were discriminated against en route to becoming ADs and therefore felt obligated to insure women’s sports were treated fairly, neither felt such a tangible connection. “I don’t want to dodge the question because it’s a good one,” Samaan said. “When it’s really at the core of who you are, it’s not a stretch. People around here really value the women’s teams.”

Plonsky said she has not faced gender discrimination in her career. “I’ve worked for both male and female bosses, and I can promise you that (during) some of the key periods of my professional advancement, there was a man in power who made those opportunities happen.”

Even those who, having experienced gender discrimination or simply by virtue of being a woman, empathize with the struggle for gender equity in athletics are not in position to affect significant change at their school.

“Even when a female athletic director runs a program, it is often difficult for her to get her school to take Title IX seriously,” Title IX attorney Kristen Galles told Excelle.

Tom Newkirk, an attorney who represented Jane Meyer in her successful discrimination suit against the University of Iowa and an expert in implicit gender bias, said that an athletic director is not given free reign to create full gender equality. He said men’s sports—and football in particular—are valued more than women’s sports. And so even a staunch Title IX advocate, Newkirk believes, “would not create a measurable difference (in the treatment of female athletes) because a female AD has to live within the system she’s been given.”

Newkirk believes college athletics, in the area of gender relations, are where the business world was 25 years ago.

“Women are trapped within a system that is outdated and infused with double standards that create barriers for them,” he told Excelle. If a woman who values Title IX rises to athletic director, he believes, she would be careful not to seem like she was favoring female athletes. “It becomes reverse gender bias,” he said.

Galles described a similar problem. “Many women have learned that they must become ‘one of the guys’ to get where they are, so Title IX and gender equity are often not high on their priority lists.”

Plonsky does not believe a woman has to be at the top of the athletic department pyramid in order to ensure women are not overlooked. More than anything, she feels, a homogenous staff is a recipe for disappointment.

“Having the diversity of experience, opinions, and the ability to bring something unique to the table has benefited our university tremendously. Because there were women administrators with authority here does that mean that Texas is better in some ways in men and women’s athletics? Probably, yes. A more diverse workforce—gender, ethnicity—usually results in better decision-making and better programming for who we’re all working for: student-athletes and coaches.”

Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to Excelle Sports. He writes about Title IX and other sports issues at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn

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