Kicking Glass: Making Way for Women’s Leadership in Sports

Before Title IX, only one in 27 girls played sports; today, two in five play, and nearly 30 percent of Division 1 student athletes are women of color. In the late 20th century, women like Janet Guthrie, Ann Meyers Drysdale, Dee Kantner and Violet Palmer broke glass ceilings in sports.

But 47 years after the landmark legislation passed, much work remains.

Oregon State University, where I teach, recently sponsored an Advancing Women in Leadership panel called “Kicking Glass.” I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with three glass-ceiling-breaking women in sports who spoke that day about their careers and the challenges that remain for sports equity.

Nearly 100 percent of coaches for women’s teams before Title IX were female—but now, women make up less than half of women’s coaches. (In a viral press interview, Muffet McGraw pointed out that women have not had the same entre into coaching men’s sports.)

Valerie Cleary, who became Portland State University’s first woman Athletic Director in 2016 and served previously as PSU’s senior associate athletics director and senior woman administrator and as AD at Willamette University, is similarly an outlier.

Women are only about 10 percent of NCAA Division 1 Athletic Directors, and there only a handful of women of color ADs in Division 1, especially at schools with football. PSU’s football team even had to adopt a “15 minute rule” after football games to accommodate her: players have to wait that long before they can start undressing, in case Cleary wants to come talk to them.

“Every decision you make is critiqued against a different set of criteria,” Cleary said of working in a male-dominated space. “It’s a different rubric laid on top of a woman leader,” she explained, especially if the decision affects the men on her staff—“what could I possibly know about coaching football?” can become the subtext.

Diane Penny, who became Senior Vice President and General Manager of NBC Sports Northwest in early 2019, knows that it can be difficult for women to be heard in such spaces, too. She tells the usual story: saying something only to have it repeated five minutes later, by a man who’s applauded for his great idea.

“You wonder if you’re speaking a different language,” she recalled, but she decided to just speak louder. “When I get passionate about something, it’s hard to get me to back down,” she explained. “You have to be the squeaky wheel—you have to fight for what you want, but it also gets you noticed.”

It’s a common theme among the women I spoke to. Cleary got into a lot of trouble as a kid for talking so much and being loud—but in college, she realized these were leadership skills.

Beth Mowins, a play-by-play announcer for ESPN who became the first woman in 30 years to call an NFL game, spoke up with the encouragement of another woman, and with the courage she found through playing sports herself. “My mother told me I could,” she remembered. “My parents raised a point guard. I wanted the ball. I wanted to be in charge. I wanted to tell my brother and the neighborhood kids what to do.”

Mowins knows the power of her voice, and the impact it can have in sports and in the lives of other women. “Don’t walk quietly through this life,” she advised, recalling the women who told her that her own work inspired theirs. “Make some noise.”

She’s also learned how to tune out the other voices—those that challenge her with gendered expectations and obstacles. “You just keep doing what you’ve always done and don’t pay attention to any of the negative voices,” she said. “I learned from a very early age that you’ve got to find your own voice and do it your own way. If you’re going to succeed, that’s great—and if you’re going to fail, at least you’ve done it your own way, and you can sleep at night.”

The three pioneers are also invested in speaking up for other women—and they take their trailblazing seriously. Penny knows from experience: “It’s a huge responsibility to be a first.” But she also knew that what she did would reflect on the women who would follow her. “You have to be really good,” she noted. “And you have to make sure you’re consciously bringing others along. “ 

“Research does show it’s important for us to see people like ourselves being successful at something we would like to do,” Mowins explained. “So just the fact that you get an opportunity to do the NFL, or call Monday Night Football, is a big deal—just for a lot of young people, young women, to see that somebody is doing something that they want to do, or that somebody is successful in pursuing their dream, or figuring out a way to get there even if the odds are stacked against it.”

Cleary also zeroed in on mentorship and the importance of lifting up her own female colleagues and athletes. “We need to do a better job encouraging women to seek careers in sports,” Cleary noted. “When we look at the student athletes we serve, we strive for half of them to be women. Where do they go?” She was proud of Oregon’s recent successes in women’s basketball—where teams from Portland State, Oregon State and the University of Oregon all made the NCAA Division 1 playoffs—but was careful to note that “there’s still a big gap.”

“We can do the exact same media push, the exact same arena, the exact same tickets,” she explained, “and we just don’t get the same response for our women’s sports. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to keep trying and keep giving equitable resources to our women’s sports. You just hope that the world catches up to what these groups of phenomenal young women are already doing and have been doing for decades.”

Cleary still remembers the days when women’s teams at PSU practiced on a blacktop in the church parking lot because they believed in themselves as a team. “It’s better now than it was then,” she said, “and we’ll look back and it will be better then than it is now, and I think the more we can do that, it’ll get closer and closer. We need strong voices at the table.” 

The fact that PSU’s athletic department’s leadership errs female “causes some discomfort,” but Cleary has not been deterred. “I take hiring [women] very seriously,” she said. “We make a strong effort to seek out female candidates.” Men who see three women leaders together may worry about what the women are discussing, and whether they’re making decisions without them. Cleary cares about that concern—“but I’m not going to cater to it.”

Mowins harkened back to the theme of a past Super Bowl—“who’s in your huddle?”—and encouraged women to form one together. “You’re in a huddle,” she urged. “This is your team. That’s the most significant group. Find your people. Find people who can give you a better chance at an opportunity when it comes along. Read situations. Figure out how to put yourself in the discussion. Maybe somebody from your huddle will be in that room and will say, ‘hey, she’s the right one.’”

She also urged those women to lift one another up as they climbed themselves. “Hopefully, once you get through the door, you are able through your work to keep that door open behind you,” she said. “You don’t want a leader that’s blazing a trail that turns back around and looks back at everyone else and says ‘hey, look at me, look at what I did.’ I hope I’m the kind of leader who turns around and says, ‘hey, check this out, look how much farther we can go,’ and it’s up to the next person to blaze that trail wherever their dream leads them.”

Of course, it isn’t just up to women to change the playing field. “My mentors were always men,” Penny declared. “That’s not necessarily good or bad. It’s what it is. It’s the result of industry I’ve chosen to work in.” Breaking glass ceilings, she said, is also about men being willing to support women.

“It can’t be just all of us women sitting in a room talking about it. Men have to be present, engaged and a positive force.” (None of this means Penny is interested in helping her own: She’s also part of the team working to launch a Women in Sports and Events chapter in Portland.)

“I love to advocate for opportunity,” Mowins added. “Let us earn that opportunity, and let us prove that we’re capable.”

Mowins has seen what can come of it. When she called her first Monday Night Football game, she heard someone calling her name when she was down on the field. When she turned around, she saw a little girl in the first row holding a microphone with ESPN written on it and wearing an ESPN t-shirt.

She was holding up a sign with a simple declaration: “Hey, Beth, I’ve got next.”


Susan M. Shaw, Ph.D., is a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University.