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Observer Editorial: Follow McGraw’s example

| Friday, April 12, 2019

Head coach of Notre Dame women’s basketball Muffet McGraw took a stand April 4 in a pre-game press conference ahead of what would become one of the most competitive Final Fours in the history of the women’s tournament. With a major rivalry on the line and the target that comes with being the reigning national champion, McGraw responded to a question about her hiring process — McGraw makes a point of only hiring female assistants — and how she views her role as a voice for women in basketball. Seizing the publicity of the national championship as a platform to consider broader issues, McGraw delivered a powerful, 140-second response addressing gender equality that has since gone viral, even earning a retweet from former President Barack Obama.

While McGraw’s comments raised some criticism from certain corners — some accused her of either failing to recognize the privilege her winning record has earned her or of being hypocritical with her strictly female coach policy — they were generally well-received, emerging as the “mic-drop moment” of the tournament.

The question was asked in the context of women’s basketball, but McGraw’s answer extends beyond her field to address a deeper issue — that of the absence of women in visible leadership roles.

More specifically, one of the main arguments McGraw made addresses the executive level. She cited congressional representatives, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and — in her case — athletic directors, noting that less than 10% of Division I athletic directors are women. She detailed how none of these fields surpass 25% female representation and identified the problem as stemming from the top down. Simply put, “people hire people who look like them,” she said.

Applying McGraw’s litmus test to Notre Dame reveals a similar breakdown in representation. At the broadest level, 32.9% of full-time regular faculty members are women, according to University spokesperson Dennis Brown. Regarding departmental leadership, only 15.5% of department chairs and college deans are female.

Administrative leadership paints a similarly stark picture. The President’s Leadership Council of 26 members includes only seven women. The 48-member Board of Trustees includes 15 women. Further, Diana Lewis, former judge of the 15th Judicial Circuit Court in Florida, is the lone female representative on a board of fellows that consists of six members of the Congregation of the Holy Cross and six lay people. Of course, since the board is comprised primarily of CEOs, politicians and esteemed academics, it is self-imposing the selection from a male-dominated pool.

Female leadership numbers at Notre Dame generally hover around a quarter — with the exception of the full-time faculty and the Board of Trustees, both of which barely exceed 30% — staying consistent with percentage of women in Congress and reflecting a general lag in the movement to ensure equal opportunity.

Furthermore, at the highest level, Notre Dame requires the University President to be a Holy Cross priest. Therefore, all women are entirely excluded from holding from that position. Given how executive organization impacts aspects of the work environment, this reality creates difficulties in the University’s ability to address gender relations between faculty and staff members.

While it is true that a number of other Catholic colleges are led by priests and the tradition of the Office of the President has helped maintain close ties to the Congregation of the Holy Cross, times have changed since the school was founded. Whereas at its inception, Notre Dame was a university exclusively for men, the school has been co-ed for nearly 50 years. It seems inappropriate that half of the school’s population can never hope to see someone who looks like them in the school’s top leadership role.

The past decade has brought on a new wave of inclusion and support of women in various fields, most recently, leading to a record-breaking number of women running for — and winning — political positions. Similarly, women have continued to emerge as key contributors in the entertainment, medical and business industries. Although commendable progress has been made, it’s important to not lose sight on the bigger picture: When women see other women reaching their goals, they too will feel more enabled to do so, and when women are empowered to improve the quality of our leaders and innovators, everyone benefits.

The question over representation will likely remain a contentious and gray area for years to come, but until significant changes are made within leadership positions, the conversation should continue to focus on the sources of and solutions to female empowerment. This goal needs to be intentional. To some degree, institutions need to make an effort to identify and recruit women who can grow into leadership roles, just as Muffet McGraw has done with her staff. She consistently looks for the best female candidates without compromising standards for herself or her team. Others can learn from her example.

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