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Female Leadership: An Inside Look with Texas AD Chris Plonsky

September 22, 2016

Ever since I realized that I would suck as a writer for Sports Illustrated -- my original "dream job" -- I have wanted to be an Athletic Director. I have imagined I could be a voice for students and a protector of amateur athletes, working tirelessly to build and maintain an atmosphere that student-athletes, fans, coaches, and staff would look back fondly on. As a former student-athlete and a darn good employee, I have always felt that if I worked hard, my dream would come true.


Fortunately yet unfortunately, I share this dream with many men and women across the country. Few people strive to be second in command - instead many want to be at the top, just like I hope to be some day. But if I work hard, network, and become one of the best at my craft, what chance do I have of snagging one of these spots? Luckily for you, I did the math.


Did you know that of 65 schools in Power 5 Conferences, only four have women athletic directors? And at one of those four schools, a man and woman share the position? So technically at this point in time, women represent just 6% of ADs at Power 5 schools.


Six percent. When I first did the math, this statistic floored me. How could I and my female colleagues strive to be better and work hard with a goal in mind when the mathematical probability of us achieving that goal is so small?


I decided to find out by going directly to someone who has experience with these matters, and I'm so very thankful to Texas AD for Women's Sports Chris Plonsky for taking the time to chat with me on this topic.  As a female Athletic Director at one the most prominent schools in history as well as the President of NACDA for the 2016-17 year, Chris is the perfect example of a woman who has worked hard and found a path "to the top." We had a great conversation, but I'll give you some of the key takeaways and advice that she had to offer:


Having mentors and a strong network is key.

Rising up in the ranks to become an AD when female ADs are few and far between has taken a lot of work, but Chris was quick to give to credit to her large support system. "I owe everything to my mentors," said Chris. "Not just mentoring in terms of being there for guidance but for opening doors. I learned so much from them, but all along the way, it's been those people who opened doors."


Her first job out of college was as a publicist for women's sports at Iowa State and her first boss set a great example. "He never treated me like 'okay, you're the female PR person,' but instead he knew I could do the job. I've always been appreciative of the people that took a chance on me. I'm not sure what they saw in me or why but I told them I would work hard and that I cared."


She believes the college landscape will change in terms of female leadership.

When I brought up the fact that there are only four female ADs at Power 5 schools, Chris had a much different response than mine. "That’s not impressive; I think we all have to admit that, but I see those numbers changing soon," she said. "There's been a dramatic increase [in female leadership] at Division II, and you can see that when you look around the country and see where athletic administration is going and how many women are in those positions. Being an AD is like anything else: you have to get experience somewhere, and Power 5 jobs may not be the best first step for some people. I think that as we fill the field in DII, DIII, the Group of 5 and the other schools in Division I, those are going to lead to opportunities." She then brought up another thing I hadn't thought of -- the number of women in administrative roles outside of being an AD. "You also have to peer beneath the AD job and look at what's happening in the Deputy AD role and the Executive Senior Associate roles, see who is leading fundraising staffs and alumni associations. I think you'd be more shocked to see how many women are advancing in those positions."


On being a female leader…

"I think that women are actually wired to have some things that are unique to them," said Chris. "I think that women are naturally bonding; they are team-oriented from the get-go and have very little turf involvement. I also think that women administrators have an innate ability to cut across all spectrums of our work. When there's an issue -- particularly in a crisis -- women inevitably seem to think about things that others might miss." She then went on to explain a situation where a student-athlete passed away tragically in an accident, and a female employee was the first person to suggest that student-athletes receive grief counseling and have a gathering place for athletes to be together during such a difficult time. "I just think that women tend to look at things differently and beyond the bullet-point things that you have to think, especially in a crisis. That just comes with how we approach this business; it doesn't mean that we can't be tough when dealing with big issues."


Don't worry.

Despite my initial concern and frustration at the numbers I cited early, Chris has a positive outlook on the future of college athletics. "The opportunities are endless for the individuals who really want to make a difference in this area," she said. "So don’t have a fear about this profession. We always say that it's a great time to be a student-athlete, but I also think that there's never been a better time to be a female or a person of color in this profession, because I do think that diversity is happening and is here to stay, which is such a positive thing. It will be better for our entire industry when we see more balance in those numbers."   


Hearing the thoughts and insights of someone in a position that I aspire to one day earn was awesome, but hearing her positive outlook on the future of female leadership in college athletics was the real treat. I'm not sure if I'll ever stop worrying about my career path -- that's just who I am! -- but it’s exciting to think about a future where women are respected and revered as some of the best leaders in college athletics.


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