In Baltimore, a university president, a college athletic director and an Orioles’ broadcaster are pioneers in breaching the gender barrier in high-profile roles. Here’s how they did it.
Valerie Sheares Ashby
President of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County
The University of Maryland, Baltimore County turned 56 last month; so did its new president. Valerie Sheares Ashby was born Sept. 6, 1966. Thirteen days later, the college opened with three buildings and 750 students.
How they’ve grown. Enrollment now tops 13,000 as Sheares Ashby becomes UMBC’s first female president, intent on continuing the work of her predecessor, Freeman Hrabowski, who retired after 30 years at the helm of the research-driven school.
“He [Hrabowski] left me a great gift,” Sheares Ashby said. “I came here thinking, ‘Who possibly follows Freeman, and how much more can we do?’ What I don’t want to do is to undershoot; I want to leverage every bit of what he has put in place.”
She didn’t seek the job; it found her. A Ph.D. chemist with eight patents to her name, Sheares Ashby was a dean at Duke University when UMBC beckoned. It wasn’t the first time on the Catonsville campus for the Clayton, North Carolina, native. Fourteen years ago, as a professor at North Carolina-Chapel Hill (her alma mater), she sat in Hrabowski’s office as they hammered out details of a collaborative science program between the schools. Then, out of the blue, he said:
“You’re going to make a great college president some day.”
Sheares Ashby was dumbstruck.
“How do you respond to that?” she said. “I don’t think that I did.”
A professed science geek in high school, she said that her chemistry major primed her for this role. Routinely, at various stops in her professional career, she has forged trails for other women in a largely male-dominated field.
“There aren’t many women teaching organic chemistry,” she said. “I’ve also been the only Black in every department in which I’ve taught.”
And while Sheares Ashby once fit the stereotype of a lab rat fussing over test tubes and Bunsen burners in a quest for eureka! moments, that, too, helped set the stage for her new post.
“Yes, I wore goggles and worked in those ‘dungeons’, but it was a very vibrant atmosphere with a whole group of us,” she said. “As team leader, your communicative skills help you put the right people in the right jobs to find the right formulas.”
Science also prepared her for being president, she said, because “explaining complex ideas in relatable ways is what I was trained to do.” Moreover, there are eureka! moments in running a university:
“I love recruiting talent and I’m driven to find it, to launch peoples’ careers while adding to the chemistry of the school.”
Broadcaster for the Orioles
Two years later, the messages still appear in Melanie Newman’s mailbox, mostly from grizzled male listeners who’d questioned the Orioles employing a female broadcaster in 2020.
“The emails always start, ‘When I heard that they’d hired a woman, I didn’t like it’ or ‘I wasn’t sure how it would go,’ “ Newman said. “Then [the men] admit that, when they challenged the gender bias in their own heads, they realized that women are capable of doing the same job; it’s just a different sounding voice.”
Long after her Orioles’ debut, such comments still make Newman’s day. At 31, she is one of four women calling big league games, a number she believes will grow in time.
“In 10 years, I hope it’s all happenstance and that we’re no longer keeping count,” she said. For now, though, she’s a pioneer and role model for female aspirants, who reach out on social media. Newman tweaks their dreams.
“They say they want to be ‘the next Melanie,’ which is great — but I want them to be ‘the next themselves,’ " she said.
Growing up in Georgia, Newman’s own goals lay anywhere but in the broadcast booth.
“I was massively introverted,” she said. “I liked sports but wasn’t athletic and didn’t pick up a bat until three years ago. I hated recess and, on our school’s ‘field day,’ I faked being sick. I just wanted to stay inside and read my books. I remember once in seventh grade when, standing at my locker, I said something to a friend. Several feet away, a boy turned and yelled down the hall, ‘I just heard Melanie speak!’ I thought, wow, now I’m really never speaking again.”
Then, impulsively, Newman entered a beauty pageant.
“On a whim, I thought it might be fun,” she said. “Being on stage, under lights, cracks you out of your introvert shell pretty quickly.”
It was at Troy University (Alabama) that she found her calling and, after six years in the minor leagues, Newman reached the Orioles, naysayers be damned.
“I have truly learned to exorcise [criticism] from those who live in a boxed-in world,” she said. “I’ve let go of the thought that I need to know more than my male counterparts. If someone asks me the blood types of the five best Orioles, just to test my gender, they can take a hike.”
Women broadcasters, she said, excel in “the emotive side of the game. We have the ability to talk to players and get answers that I don’t think all men can do. We’re not there to talk 100 percent stats; there’s a human level that [women] bring out a little more.”
In the end, she said, “I just want to call a good game and be one who expands this [job] for women, or any minority, that hasn’t had a presence. If I bring honor to this role, that’s it, for me, at the end of the day.”
Vice President/Director of Athletics, Morgan State University
When Dena Freeman-Patton became Morgan State athletic director in June, her second order of business was to hire a head football coach. The first? Ask the players what they sought in a boss.
“I met with the team to talk about what they needed in a coach. I also put a player on the search committee,” Freeman-Patton said. “That’s how I work. I’m not going to come in and arbitrarily choose their new leader without getting feedback from them.”
Once the coach, Damon Wilson, signed on, the players thanked their new AD for seeking their input. That helped squelch any preconceptions about Freeman-Patton, 48, the first female AD in Morgan State’s 155-year history.
Not that she couldn’t meet gender bias head-on. All her life, the Baltimore native has been flanked by strong and assertive women, from an aunt who’s a retired Army colonel to two athletic directors at Lake Clifton High to three female college ADs who mentored her on the job.
Freeman-Patton had sought such clout early on. At Lake Clifton, she was senior class president and captain of three sports teams.
“I work best in those [leadership] situations, and I do it mostly for others,” she said. “In high school, I’d [keep tabs on] other student-athletes. I’d fuss at the boys’ basketball players and ask, ‘Are you doing what you need to do in the classroom so you can go to college?’ The coach, Charlie Moore, began calling me ‘coach.’ His players didn’t mind the nagging; they knew the advice was coming from a good place.”
It’s a mindset she brings to Morgan State.
“I want to prepare student-athletes for life after college,” she said of her career development plans for the school. “We’ll help them network, get internships and build leadership skills.”
While attending Liberty University, where she majored in sports management, Freeman-Patton interned with the Baltimore Stallions in 1995 when they won the Canadian Football League’s Grey Cup. That experience earned her kudos and hardened her resolve to reach the top. In 2018, as deputy AD at California State-Bakersfield, she was named Administrator of the Year by Women Leaders in College Sports.
While her move to Morgan State made headlines (”I’m honored that it happened but, in 2022, gender shouldn’t be that big a story”), Freeman-Patton said that, overall, her efforts supersede both sex and race:
“I do advocate for women and African Americans but, in the end, my reach goes further. I care about people in general.”