As a female and entrepreneur in the sports industry, men grossly outnumber me. I’m often asked if this makes me uncomfortable (it doesn’t) but why is that the assumption and why am I outnumbered? It’s 2016, and women account for half the population – shouldn’t we be seen as equals by now? And while there has been a noticeable and positive shift in the way we celebrate female accomplishments across industries, if males and females equally contribute to society, why is this a celebration? Even stranger is, just by saying that, I feel as though I am looking a gift horse in the mouth. So far, 2016 has seen women in sport triumph like never before, however, as we’ve seen over the last two weeks, maybe we haven’t come as far as we thought.
The year started off strong – in the lead up to Super Bowl 50, the NFL hosted their first ever NFL Women's Summit: "In the Huddle to Advance Women in Sport." An initiative led by Roger Goodall, In the Huddle was “the league paying tribute to the critical role sports have played in the lives of female leaders past and present and raising public awareness of the role they can play in developing the next generation of leaders.” This was exciting. That this was also a way to appeal to the NFL’s fastest growing audience – women – was not lost on me, but it was a strategic investment that had a large social profit component. Goodall also announced that the league would be implementing the “Rooney Rule” – meaning that at least one woman would be interviewed for every executive role. You see, the thing is – young women need leaders that look like them to emulate, and having more women in leadership roles isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s also good business.
This is not news to Ernst & Young. E&Y created the Women Athletes Global Leadership Network, based on research that shows a direct correlation between girls’ participation in sport and greater achievement in higher education and employment. The role sports plays for young women and their business career is impossible to ignore – 94 percent of women in the C-suite have a background in sports. With such a strong association between women in sport, better business and the lasting social impact that female leaders leave, one would assume that society, as a whole, would benefit from supporting female athletes.
Cue the Olympics. What better platform than the Games to highlight the power of women in sport? Rio featured more female Olympians than ever before. We saw women literally own the podium, rewrite history and inspire a whole new generation of girls. Team Canada was 59% female and women won 16 of our 22 medals. It was women who saved India’s face in Rio, defying odds and proving that sport isn’t just for the upper echelon of the country, and not to mention the trailblazers winning their country’s first female medal. The legacy these women are leaving on young girls across the globe is monumental, inspiring a whole new wave of empowered female athletes who will one day inevitably take a seat at the table. So why were these triumphs eclipsed by tired and repetitive sexist coverage? Why do we build women up, just to knock them down?
If Rio was a microcosm for society, we should be worried.
Part of the problem lies within a 2014 Women’s Media Center report, which states that almost 90 percent of American sportswriters are white, straight, able-bodied men. You almost can’t fault the bias because, what are we to expect? Words like ‘strong,’ ‘powerful,’ and ‘great’ were traded for ‘strive,’ ‘participate,’ and ‘catfight.’ Appearance, and gender policing overshadowed incredible accomplishments. Victories were credited to men. Unsolicited hair and makeup advice were widely tolerated, and historical ‘firsts’ were wrongly attributed to male athletes. Somehow, when we seem to make substantial steps forward, we end up taking even larger leaps back.
We should be excited about where these female role models are taking us. We need to be more tactical in how we inspire the next generation - it’s both equally as important for young boys as it is young girls to see a woman sweat, persevere and show some grit; whether on the field or in the boardroom. We can only hope that the legacy these women have left in Rio will dwarf their critics, and that girls around the world will be the new wave of empowered females who won’t have to please, impress, or thank a man when they make it to the top.