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Women on the Court Need More Women on the Bench

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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College basketball's March Madness resumes Thursday evening, and while the men certainly dominate air and the back page, the women have a pretty great tournament going on, too. The one thing both these groups of athletes have in common? They probably don't play under a female coach.

The percentage of women coaching women has steadily dropped over the last four decades, owing to new positions and salaries as well as old stereotypes and biases. A common explanation, still touted by men and women alike, is that female coaches often choose their families over their careers. But that excuse doesn't fly in the boardroom, and it shouldn't fly on the bench. Plenty of qualified women want to be coaches, and it's a problem with the system that they're not.

Ironically, a major culprit seems to be Title IX, enacted in 1972 to ensure equality for women on campus. According to Women in Intercollegiate Sport, a longitudinal study conducted every two years since 1977 by R. Vivian Acosta and Linda Jean Carpenter, professors emerita at Brooklyn College, more than 90 percent of women's college teams were coached by women when the law went into force. By last year, that share had fallen to 43.4 percent. Since 2000, they found, there have been 2,080 new head coaching positions of women's teams, only a third of which went to female coaches.

Title IX has served female athletes well, helping to raise the level of competition and quality of women's sports. But as women's teams got better, coaching them suddenly became more desirable -- and lucrative -- positions for men. Head coach of a woman's college team is now a legitimate and financially viable position for a man to hold. While their salaries don't hold a candle to what their counterparts in men's basketball get, Division I women's basketball coaches can make well into the six figures, while a handful of top coaches such as legendary former Tennessee Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt and UConn coach Geno Auriemma can make millions.

With more men increasingly applying for these positions, it's worth looking at whose doing the hiring. The Acosta/Carpenter study is a treasure trove of data, but some of its most telling sets of numbers are those on college athletic directors. Across Division I, Division II and Division III teams, the percentage of female college coaches of women's teams is universally higher under female athletic directors.

That fewer female coaches are hired for women's teams under male athletic directors can largely be explained by networking bias. It's similar to what we see in the NBA, where blacks comprise the majority of the players but trail behind whites in coaching positions. Executives and administrators tend to hire people from their own social pools. Men are more likely to come to mind to other men making hiring decisions -- a phenomenon that's certainly not limited to athletics. University of California, San Diego, professor David Lake points to "highly gendered" professional and social networks as fostering the gender gap in academia.

Gendered networking by male athletic directors isn't necessarily intentional. But some recent high-profile personnel decisions seem to reveal the sexism female coaches can face from male administrators. Last year, University of Iowa field hockey coach Tracey Griesman was fired just days before the start of preseason. Griesman had one of the school's most successful coaching records, posting 12 winning seasons and six NCAA tournament appearances, leading her team to the final four in 2008. Athletic director Gary Barta accused Griesman of being verbally abusive to players, but many of her players rallied to her defense after the firing. In February, four of them filed a civil rights complaint against the university accusing the athletic department of systematically firing qualified female coaches. According to espnW, under Barta, five women have been fired or forced to resign from head coaching positions in the past five years.

Then there's University of Minnesota Duluth women's hockey coach Shannon Miller, whose contract will not be renewed after March. The Boston Globe's Shira Springer neatly sums up Miller's bona fides: "Five NCAA Division 1 titles. Fastest coach to 300 wins in Division 1 history. Career winning percentage near .700. Head coach of the Canadian women’s Olympic team at the 1998 Nagano Games." With 380 career victories, she's fourth all-time in Division I women's hockey history. Yet she'll be out of a job after 16 seasons because of what athletic director Josh Berlo calls "financial considerations." Miller is the highest-paid DI women's hockey coach, earning a base salary of $207,000. Springer estimates Miller's replacement could earn around $160,000 -- not exactly the major cost-cutter you'd expect from firing one of your most successful coaches. Meanwhile, men's hockey coach Scott Sandelin earns $265,000 and only has one national title, and the men's hockey team spends $275,000 more in operating costs than the women's program.  As Springer put it, the decision is "less about 'financial considerations' and more about a low valuation of women’s sports" and, by extension, women coaches.

Inevitably, people will ask, why does it matter whether women or men are in these jobs? Because more female athletic directors would help women's sports be taken more seriously among university administrators, which will only help the growing number of high-quality female athletes. Diversity in coaching hires doesn't just benefit qualified women who seek equal opportunities, it also helps the players. Much like in business or academia, female athletes need mentors and role models, women who hold positions to which they can aspire and who demonstrate that a career in athletics isn't just for the men. Women's college rosters include not just the next Diana Taurasi and Jenny Finch, but also the next Pat Summitt and Becky Hammon.

The good news is that the number of women doing the hiring is on the rise. According to Acosta and Carpenter, the NCAA had 239 female athletic directors in 2014, an 11 percent increase since two years before. And with women such as  Griesman and Miller refusing to stay quiet, it continues to shed light on the barriers women face until they're fairly represented in both the front office and the sideline.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net