When they took their jobs, they became victims of a great hypocrisy, they said. Women, it seems, can become high school athletic directors -- so long as they sometimes act like men.

Anacostia's Eileen Covington learned to speak loudly and forcefully -- both against her nature -- so her voice would resonate in male-dominated meetings. Sidwell Friends' Anne Renninger coached two boys' sports and studied several more so she could become an expert on male sports culture. North Stafford's Margaret Lowry, fearing she might look like a "weak female," worked herself into better shape so she could move equipment and line fields as well as any man.

For all three women, a minor makeover seemed a necessary requirement to thrive in a job dominated by men. Out of 214 athletic director positions at Washington area schools that compete in public school leagues or major private school conferences, only 37 athletic directors, or 17 percent, are female. At the 12 public schools in Anne Arundel County, all of the athletic directors are men.

Some administrators said women don't look into athletic director positions; others said women are overlooked. Either way, at a time when girls make up 42 percent of all high school athletes, according to various studies, the lack of women running high school sports programs is a glaring problem, athletic directors say.

"It definitely feels like you're cracking into an old boys' club," Covington said. "You just have to decide that you're not going to let anybody push you around. It's a manly world, so a woman has to go the extra mile and work the extra hours to succeed."

Girls' participation in athletics has increased by a factor of 10 nationally since Title IX was enacted in 1972. But girls' progress in finding opportunities to play has not been matched at the administrative level -- and administrators such as Renninger say the lack of diversity, in the end, hurts students.

"It's not even about being a role model -- it's about our perspective in athletics," Renninger said. "It's different. . . . I think [women athletic directors] look out for gender equity, you look out for all the programs and you learn not to assume a program is fine just because it's winning."

Regardless of gender, most high school athletic directors put in a minimum of about 60 hours per week during the school year. Typically, athletic directors arrive at school about 7 a.m., then spend the next 12 to 15 hours juggling myriad responsibilities. They often work Saturday, too, if school teams play that day.

North Stafford's Lowry spends most of her mornings answering e-mails, scheduling games and arranging transportation to events. In the afternoon, she mows athletic fields, moves equipment, meets with coaches, talks to students and addresses parents' concerns. She's usually at school until at least 8 p.m., whether she's watching a game or attending a booster club meeting.

At Centennial High School in Ellicott City, Jean Vanderpool does all those same things -- while teaching classes every day. In Howard County, athletic director is not considered a full-time position, so athletic directors also teach.

"When you're doing all that, it's not just a job. It's a lifestyle," Vanderpool said. "It's extremely difficult to find any time for yourself."

And it's almost impossible, athletic directors said, to find any time for a family, which might be why so few women occupy the position.

"In our society, traditionally starting families and raising children are things that will take females out of the athletic ranks," said Ned Sparks, executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSSAA). "Putting in so much time is hard for anybody, but particularly for women who might be trying to do family things."

Covington waited until her children left for college before becoming an athletic director in the late 1980s. Loudoun Valley Athletic Director Janeen Schutte refused to even become an assistant athletic director until her children reached high school. According to Marlene Kelly, supervisor of athletics in Anne Arundel, six athletic director jobs have come open in the county during the last decade. No women applied.

"To my knowledge, the schools in this county now have never had a full-time woman [athletic director], and it's not because [school officials] haven't tried," Kelly said. "As much as you want to say this is a new world and things like that, there are many things traditionally that women still do. Women are still mothers. It would be very hard to do that and be an athletic director."

Said Donna King, who retired as athletic director at Chantilly on Sept. 1: "Sometimes women don't apply, and that's true. But there are still women that aren't being considered. There's still a gender bias across the country, especially in sports.

"Our football team might have been 0-10, but I don't recall calling any plays. What happened was parents said: 'Oh, there's a woman athletic director. She probably doesn't know football. That must be the problem.' "

Long before that, though, King said she felt mistreated as a female athletic director. During meetings dominated by men, King would sometimes make a suggestion to little response. A minute later, King said, a man would say something similar and suddenly the entire room agreed.

Many other women said they experience the same phenomenon: Respect, they said, is sometimes based less on knowledge and experience than on gender. "It takes some incredible balancing and decision making to be liked as a woman in this job," King said. "It's like walking a tightrope."

Carol Satterwhite, a former athletic director at Wilde Lake and the first woman to become an athletic director at an MPSSAA school, gave experienced male coaches more flexibility.

"You can't always tell them what to do," Satterwhite said, "because they might not listen."

Loudoun Valley's Schutte decided to direct all student complaints to coaches first. "I never want somebody to think I'm stepping on their toes," Schutte said.

Renninger developed patience at Sidwell Friends. She often deals with parents who discredit her because of gender, Renninger said. When that happens, Renninger bites her tongue and silently blames ignorance, not maliciousness. Sometimes, though, she'd like to scream.

"Parents think, 'Well, what could you know about football? What could you know about the locker room? What could you know about male coaches? '" Renninger said. "People don't think that a woman can do this job, so being a woman works against you. There's no question, when certain things come up that have to do with sports, people tend to think that men are the experts. It's too bad, but these things are hard to change."

So hard, in fact, that nobody is particularly confident there will be any improvement. At many schools, the coach of one of the highest-profile teams -- usually football or boys' basketball -- still becomes the athletic director almost by default, which means -- almost by default -- the athletic director is a man. College sports yield no reason for optimism. According to a poll conducted by the NCAA, only 7.9 percent of Division I athletic directors in 2003-04 were women.

The National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association has spent the last six or seven years trying desperately to attract women to its national conference, only to be continuously disappointed with the results. Bruce Whitehead, executive director of the NIAAA, has helped design and run several workshops catered to women in leadership roles. The same people seem to come every time.

"It seems like the number of women has kind of plateaued," Whitehead said. "I've been here on staff for almost five years, and I haven't really noticed an improvement at all. It seems like it's pretty much stuck."

Said Covington: "I hope we get more women. I hope it gets better. Because the way things are right now is not very good."

Staff writer Jon DeNunzio contributed to this report.

Margaret Lowry, the athletic director at North Stafford High School, said she worked herself into better shape so as to not look like a "weak female."North Stafford AD Margaret Lowry's job involves talking to parents, creating schedules and mowing athletic fields.