2020 to 2021 – Women Leaders in College Sports

2021 brought continuing challenges related to the Covid-19 pandemic, but the year was also a time of evolution. Ever-changing public health parameters, increasing social justice awareness and action, and broad shifts in workplace values and cultures required constant flexibility and adaptation. This climate pushed Women Leaders in College Sports and our members to move forward with openness for innovation and a steady focus on helping women in sports develop, connect, and advance in their careers. 

Women Leaders continued to occupy a critical space in college athletics. As the NCAA navigated historic changes—responding to widely-publicized gender inequities, approving Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) payments for student-athletes, and committing to restructuring the organization’s constitution—Women Leaders focused on meeting members where they are, both in-person and virtually, with essential support and resources: practical career and leadership training, access to an exclusive career platform for the sports industry, and a robust professional network.

Women Leaders also began to serve women in professional sports, an industry that showed progress in bringing women into their leadership landscape. Women Leaders leaned into the opportunity to support and call upon these women, deeply believing in the value of the connections between college athletics and pro sports as well as women’s leadership across industries.

“The past year continued to be a challenging time in our world and industry, from managing the ongoing pandemic to navigating the advent of NIL in college athletics and anticipating the restructuring of the NCAA’s constitution. During this time, more than ever, I felt fulfilled by the opportunity to serve the organization and all the sisters I care so deeply about. Women Leaders continues to innovate, adapt, and grow to help women in sports and make the landscape of women’s leadership more equitable. I am honored to have worked shoulder to shoulder with others who are pushing to further this movement, serving all our members through meaningful leadership development, connection, and advancement,” said President Sandy Barbour. 

Women Leaders enhanced existing programming and created new membership offerings in 2021. As in 2020, our leadership Institutes—WLSIAA and the Executive Institute—served over 200 women via Zoom, providing valuable skills and insights for career advancement. Our newest offerings included a virtual Presidents’ Search Firm Roundtable event and a five-part Performance Catalyst virtual leadership series. Having the Presidents’ Search Firm Roundtable as an online event dramatically increased participation and opportunity for all involved. Twenty-two presidents, 35 search firm representatives and industry experts, and 70 senior-level women from all NCAA divisions participated. Performance Catalyst also expanded Women Leaders’ leadership experiences to a wider audience. Consisting of five 75-minute sessions over five months, Performance Catalyst was available to members and women in other business industries. 235 women participated, which establishes a foundation for the future development of this program.

In October Women Leaders broadcasted its annual National Convention in a virtual format, WOMEN LEADERS X. In its second year, WOMEN LEADERS X provided inspiration, connection, rejuvenation, and growth for nearly 2,500 attendees. Having the Board of Directors in Kansas City for live cameos added special energy to the event. The powerful line-up of speakers included bestselling author and psychotherapist Amy Morin; digital teamwork expert and author Erica Dhawan; Performance Coach Jill Sharp; and a host of experts and panelists in DEI work, leadership, and workplace culture. WOMEN LEADERS brought in 214 new members and 568 corporate attendees.

Other notable successes for Women Leaders in 2021 included:  

  • Increase in overall membership by 16% resulting in highest membership in organizational history with over 4,400 members and counting  
  • 27% increase in Division II and III institutional members since 2019  
  • Women Leaders and the University of Central Florida (UCF) scholarship partnership awarded one member a fully-funded two-year position in the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at UCF 
  • Patti Phillips penned an op-ed for USA TODAY shedding light on the hiring hurdles women leaders face in college sports  
  • Celebrated the 100th episode of the Women Leaders Podcast featuring the Executive Committee leaders 
  • The Women Leaders in College Sports Board of Directors selected Janna Blais to serve as the Senior Woman Administrator (SWA) Appointee on the 24-seat NCAA Division I Board of Directors (more here) 
  • Developed and released the Sport Supervision Toolkit 
  • 57% increase in women updating their Career Connect profiles (1,713 total women) 
    • Women Leaders sent member names and information to hirers for over 75 searches in 2021 using the Career Connect database 
  • Hosted 43 Circle Calls with more than 1,200 participants 
  • Allocated 186 scholarships to members through the Foundation Fund, 55% of which went to women of color
  • Launched the Stronger Together Scholarship which awarded Women Leaders memberships to 75 women with financial need 
  • Engaged over 2,500 individuals in Women Leaders’ second virtual convention experience, WOMEN LEADERS X
  • Created and raffled off the first-ever Women Leaders Non-Fungible Token (NFT) and mentoring experience 

Women Leaders in College Sports Board Members 2020-21

Sandy Barbour, President, The Pennsylvania State University
Jacqie McWilliams, Past-President, CIAA
Heather Lyke, President-Elect, University of Pittsburgh
Val Ackerman, Big East Conference
Joeleen Akin, Georgia Tech
Sarah Baumgartner, Rutgers University
Keri Becker, Director of Athletics, Grand Valley State University (DII – 2024)
Janna Blais, Northwestern University (ex-officio, SWA Appointee on the NCAA DI Board of Directors)
Jill Bodensteiner, Saint Joseph’s University
Joni Comstock, NCAA (ex-officio)
Portia Hoeg, Centennial Conference
Lesley Irvine, Colorado College
Kelley Kish, Lake Erie College
Gloria Nevarez, West Coast Conference
Tamica Smith Jones, University of California, Riverside
Etienne Thomas, Winston Salem State University
Tracy Warren, Legal Counsel, Buchalter
Natalie Winkelfoos, Oberlin College 

Sandy Barbour | The Pennsylvania State University

Recognized as one of the nation’s premier athletic directors, Sandy Barbour enters her eighth year as the dynamic leader of the Penn State Intercollegiate Athletics program. With student success and comprehensive excellence as a steadfast focus, Barbour has helped the Nittany Lions continue to ascend and thrive as one of the nation’s most successful athletic departments.

Sandy began her passionate and effective leadership of the Penn State Intercollegiate Athletics program in August 2014. President Eric J. Barron named Barbour the Nittany Lions’ ninth Director of Athletics after she served for 10 years as Director of Athletics at the University of California, Berkeley.

One of the nation’s most highly-respected Athletic Directors, Sandy has more than 40 years of varied experiences as a collegiate administrator and coach, with a demonstrated record of championships, academic success, innovation, facility modernization and revenue growth.

Sandy oversees a broad-based program that supports approximately 800 students in 31 sports (16 men’s/15 women’s) and an Intercollegiate Athletics staff of more than 300 whose daily mission is preparing students for a lifetime of impact. Penn State’s 31 programs are tied for fourth-largest among all 130 FBS institutions.

During Sandy’s initial seven years of leadership in Happy Valley, Penn State student-athletes have consistently raised the bar and broken or tied school academic records, including the number of Academic All-Big Ten and Big Ten Distinguished Scholar recipients. A total of 1,064 student-athletes have earned their degrees during Barbour’s tenure.

In the seven years Sandy has led Penn State Athletics, the Nittany Lions have captured six NCAA Championships in women’s soccer, women’s volleyball and wrestling and won 28 Big Ten titles, seven EIVA crowns and one CHA championship for a total of 36 conference championships. A total of 24 Penn student-athletes have won NCAA individual national championships since 2016-17, including a combined total of 18 in the past three years from six different sports.

Penn State Athletics has finished in the top 10 twice and top 15 three times in the final Learfield IMG College Directors’ Cup standings under Sandy’s direction. Penn State also was ranked No. 8 among the nation’s 65 Power Five institutions in 2017-18, according to Yahoo! Sports.

Sandy’s leadership was recognized with her selection for the prestigious National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) Under Armour AD of the Year Award in 2016-17, having directed Penn State to nine conference championships and one NCAA title. She was among four Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) Athletic Directors to be honored at the 2017 NACDA Convention, marking the second time in her career she had received the NACDA honor.

Sandy is a member of the NCAA Football Oversight Committee and in 2017, she was selected as one of the inaugural members of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s (USOC) Collegiate Sports Sustainability Think Tank.

Sandy is serving as the chair of the NCAA’s Football Oversight Committee in 2021-22 and represents the Big Ten Conference on the NCAA Division I Council.

Learn more about Sandy in her episode of the Women Leaders Podcast.

World News

Secretary Deb Haaland

Kamala Harris was sworn in as the first woman and first woman of color vice president of the United States on January 20. “While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last,” Harris said after getting elected in November 2020. 

On March 15, Deb Haaland was confirmed as Interior secretary, making her the U.S.’s first Native American Cabinet secretary. 

“I’ll be fierce for all of us, for our planet, and all of our protected land.”—Deb Haaland