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‘It’s all coming together.’ Muffet McGraw sees signs of progress ahead of Simmons Leadership appearance

Muffet McGraw has been Notre Dame's women's basketball coach since 1987.
Muffet McGraw has been Notre Dame's women's basketball coach since 1987.Jessica Hill/Associated Press

A year ago, Muffet McGraw used her platform at the NCAA Women’s Final Four basketball tournament to issue an impassioned reminder of how little power and representation women have in sports, politics, and business.

Now that tournaments and basically all games and events have been wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic, the fabled Notre Dame head coach will join tennis legend Serena Williams and other women leaders on a virtual stage at the Simmons Leadership Conference being held on Thursday.

While the gender equity gap remains vast, McGraw sees the gathering as an opportunity to point to subtle but real signs of progress that will help give today’s girls a reason to believe in a future where they can stand shoulder to shoulder with men in every walk of life.

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“It’s all coming together,” said McGraw in a phone call last week from South Bend, Ind., where she has been the head coach since 1987 and has led the Fighting Irish to two national championships. “I think the best thing that’s happened to women since the 2016 election has been how we have just gone out, protesting and resisting. I think the women’s movement is so much bigger now across the country – MeToo, Time’s Up – just women stepping up and running for office and getting elected in record numbers. There’s so many great things and women have finally gotten to the point and said ‘It’s our turn, and we need change, and the only way we’re going to get change is if we do something about it, so stop sitting back and waiting for somebody else to take the lead – take the lead.’”

In her unscripted and unplanned response during a press conference in Tampa Bay last year, McGraw spoke of how “she’s getting tired of the novelty” of hearing about the first female CEO or athletic director or first anything. When women leaders are seen as the exception rather than the norm, there’s less of a chance for role models to shape the future of young women, said the member of both the Women’s and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

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Roughly 60 percent of NCAA Division 1-3 women’s basketball coaches are men, according to the latest report from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. McGraw is underwhelmed by the lack of women head coaches, but she is more bothered with a mere 7 percent of women serving as athletic directors.

Hiring practices won’t change dramatically until and unless more women hold the power to hire, McGraw noted, and that’s an issue that transcends sports. Besides sports and politics, McGraw sees the media, specifically Hollywood, as the most important areas for women leaders to be seen sooner, not later.

Muffet McGraw has led Notre Dame to a pair of national titles.
Muffet McGraw has led Notre Dame to a pair of national titles.John Bazemore

“Those are the three areas where young girls can look up and see women leading, so I think it’s so important for those three – girls don’t know how many women CEOs there are around the country but they’re watching TV, they’re watching movies, and they’re watching sporting events,” said McGraw. “And they have to see what’s going on politically, so I think when we get more women in those areas – we had a pretty good run this year for the presidential election. Now, unfortunately, we got shut out of that but maybe we’ll get a female vice president. I think we’re making strides.”

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Other speakers at the Simmons conference include Pat Mitchell, CEO and producer; Dambisa Moyo, PhD and international economist and author; Sonia Manzano, Emmy Award-winning actor; and Yeonmi Park, human rights advocate.

After McGraw delivers her keynote speech on “Gender Equity Through the Lens of Sports: Leveling the Playing Field,” she will moderate a 1-on-1 discussion with Williams, whom she’s never met.

“Serena, gosh, what she does, is amazing, everything she does, she’s just battling the stereotypes and hammering through the glass ceiling – she’s really forging a new path for women in professional sports,” said McGraw, who admitted to some disappointment she won’t be able to get a picture with Williams. A screenshot will have to do, but McGraw is happy enough to get a chance to participate for the first time in the Simmons conference.

“So disappointed I can’t be there in person, but I’m excited they’re continuing with it – they’ve done a lot for women and promoting women leaders,” said McGraw.

Simmons has sponsored the conference over the past 40 years, drawing 4,000-plus senior and mid-level women from businesses and organizations. For more information, visit Simmons’s website.


Michael Silverman can be reached at michael.silverman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeSilvermanBB