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Navigating Challenges as a Female Activities Administrator

By Tim Leighton on February 05, 2019 hst Print

During the 2018 NFHS Summer Meeting in Chicago, a workshop session was held to discuss the challenges facing female administrators today in education-based activities. The workshop allowed attendees to share their individual journeys, including the successes and challenges they faced along the way.

Jill Johnson, a member of the Minnesota State High School League’s Board of Directors, was one of the attendees at the session this past summer. Johnson has been the activities director at Waconia (Minnesota) High School since 2013 after serving as activities coordinator and facilities manager at Eden Prairie (Minnesota) High School for seven years and activities director at St. Cloud (Minnesota) Tech High School from 2009 to 2013.

Before these school-based positions, Johnson was as an administrator for eight years with the Minnesota Sports Federation, a non-profit sports organization programming sports leagues and postseason tournaments in communities throughout Minnesota.

Throughout her career, Johnson has welcomed opportunities to volunteer in numerous leadership roles, including being a member of the National Girls and Women in Sports Day committee.

HST: What are some of the challenges that you face in your leadership role as a female administrator?

Johnson: Activities administrators are faced with a variety of challenges in an ever-changing sports and activities culture. In addition to the day-to-day challenges of securing funding for our programs, meeting the needs of our participants, and conducting safe and successful events for our community to enjoy, I believe we are also challenged to face the reality that, together, we are still breaking through barriers.

Barriers exist today with regard to being open and welcoming to others that our different from ourselves and barriers that exist based on what still may be viewed as the “typical” characteristics needed for a person to serve in this important leadership role. In my experience, breaking through these barriers is about building relationships with colleagues and students alike. Being genuine and always looking for a positive way to connect with those that I have the opportunity to work with has helped me feel that not only do I belong, that I, too, can make a difference.

HST: Can you share some examples of moments when you felt you were treated differently because you are female? How did you react? If you experienced this again, what would you do differently?

Johnson: Over the past 20-plus years, examples of being treated differently have mainly come during conversations with parents. Statements blurted out without understanding of the human being standing before them have included: “Having been given the AD job rather than having earned it,” or “they hired a female even though qualified men applied so that the fine arts activities and girls sports teams felt like they would be represented.”

Probably the most hurtful in all comments you hear, or now read in emails sent in the middle of the night, is that of personal attacks. My favorite: “You would understand if you were a mom.” What do I do differently now? I try not to take things personally. I am steadfast in my work to be consistent and fair and try to lead by example for all students I get to serve. I let my actions speak louder than my words and I keep smiling.

HST: In your opinion, what challenges do female administrators face that their male counterparts may not?

Johnson: I believe that in quite a few cases female administrators have the feeling that we must prove ourselves. Maybe it begins with a simple comment when you introduce yourself and before you can finish your sentence, you are interrupted with the question, “Are you the AD’s secretary?”

I would also share that the feeling of fitting in is something that female athletic administrators struggle with on a regular basis. In my experience, we just don’t automatically have the “good old boys” connection with our colleagues and often find that we have to work at fitting in. For challenges I have personally faced, I would have to say that the feeling of being “tested” in regard to my knowledge of sport is always difficult. Could I really know about football if I have never played? Could I understand the complexities of wrestling if I have not grappled on the mat with another human?

As I continually learn about all of our activities, it has been, and always will be, important to ask questions and surround myself with professionals that are experts in their field. Whether they know the game of football or the current rules of volleyball, the coaches are the true leaders, and it is my responsibility to provide them the support and resources needed to succeed.

HST: This was one of the questions from the workshop: Do you think some of the challenges that female administrators experience are “self-inflicted” because of the pressure that female administrators place on themselves? If so, what can female administrators do to minimize or eliminate those challenges?

Johnson: Self-inflicted? Yes, we absolutely place undue pressure on ourselves and often we are our own biggest critics. For me, unnecessary worry exists when I forget to believe not only in myself, but in those around me as well. Take time to listen and use the remarkable resources that surround us. We are part of a team of professionals that together can open doors for our students when we move confidently in the direction of inclusion. Continue to stand up for what is right, bring strengths and work ethic to the forefront and take pride in the fact that other young girls are watching and learning from our example.

HST: What are some lessons that you have learned in your journey, ones that you would have liked for your younger-self to have known, or that you could share with young, aspiring female activities administrators who are seeking your guidance?

Johnson: I have learned and continually learn something new each day. The thousands of lessons learned from risks I have taken and mistakes I have made have molded me into the person I am today. My wish for others is that you always know that you are not alone and that you don’t have to do it alone. In fact, we can’t do it alone. Ask for help. I used to think that if I asked for help, I was weak or that people would think I couldn’t handle the tasks at hand. Rather, I have witnessed some of the best results and the biggest gains for our students came when we worked together and made decisions as a team. Lastly, go on vacation. Work toward balance in your personal and professional life so that you can be happy and healthy, and a champion at leading by example.

HST: What is your “Why?” as you continue to work in the field of education-based activities?

Johnson: My “why” is simple: I want to help others succeed – from watching a student master a skill he or she has worked diligently to perform, to seeing a coach maximizing a teachable moment during a game or practice, to watching a human connection develop between player and coach. Success comes in all shapes and sizes, it comes in winning and losing, it comes in front of the crowd or in the quietest of moments.

Success is giving hope to others so that their experience goes beyond words. Being able to work in an educational environment where students and staff have opportunity to succeed in life is one of the greatest gifts one could ever have.