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International Women’s Day 2023: What is it like being a woman working in the sports industry today?

SportsPro speaks to female executives from Tennis Channel, Football Marketing Asia, Wasserman and Integral to hear about their experiences of working in sport and to understand what more needs to be done to create greater opportunities for future generations of women.

8 March 2023 SportsPro

International Women’s Day (IWD) offers an opportunity to highlight and recognise the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women, but it also gives reason to look inward and assess the sports industry’s own efforts to achieve greater gender equality and diversity.

That is particularly pertinent at a time when organisations in sport are talking up their commitment to creating more opportunities for female athletes and drive increased investment in women’s sport.

But how does that tally with the experiences of women who are working in the industry today?

To mark IWD 2023, SportsPro reached out to individuals associated with its New Era career development programme to ask them what the sports industry is doing right and where there is still room for improvement, as well as to hear about some of the challenges they have overcome and the role models currently blazing a trail for future generations of female leaders.

The contributors

Ojonoka Agudah, Head, Legal and Women’s Sports, Integral
Andi Chu, Vice President and Editor in Chief, Tennis Channel
Thayer Lavielle, Executive Vice President, The Collective, Wasserman
Helen Praz, Director, Content Operations and Media Rights, Football Marketing Asia

How would you rate the sports industry’s efforts when it comes to gender equality and diversity?

OA: There are some organisations and brands within the industry that are being intentional about enabling an environment for gender equality and diversity and they should be commended for working to change the status quo. However, the sports industry ecosystem still falls short of being welcoming and diverse.

You only have to look at the lack of female leadership and diversity at the top international sports federations or read about the poor support received by some women’s national football teams less than six months away from the Fifa Women’s World Cup to understand the current challenges regarding equality and diversity in the industry.

AC: There has been progress towards recognising and promoting gender equality and diversity in sports. For example, more women have been appointed to leadership positions in sports organisations, and more support has been provided to female athletes. However, there is still work to be done and a long road ahead for the industry to become truly inclusive.

I’d rate intent highly, but impact and actions have severe room for improvement.

Thayer Lavielle, Executive Vice President, The Collective, Wasserman

TL: There is no one-size fits all answer as each company, property, team and individual is in a different place when it comes to how they approach and advocate for diversity. What we see is that while there is certainly a broader willingness to engage in change, that motivation is often hindered by not knowing how to change.

For us, the important work is to demystify the how – to provide solutions and approaches so progress feels less overwhelming at any stage. So, I’d rate intent highly, but impact and actions have severe room for improvement.

HP: The sports industry still has a long way to go in terms of gender equality, which makes it difficult to rate it favourably. A recent report brought this to light by highlighting that less than one per cent of 850 women surveyed believe there is gender equality in the sports industry. It is honestly quite disheartening to think that so many women do not believe they are treated as equals. But hopefully having these discussions, panels, and highlighting these statistics will make it impossible for businesses to ignore and make the issue a priority for them to tackle.

What are some of the more common stereotypes you have encountered during your time in the industry, if any?

AC: Tennis has a long history of supporting women, with many successful and trailblazing female players, equal prize money for men and women at Grand Slam tournaments, and significant media coverage. However, stereotypes persist, including the common belief that women don’t enjoy sports, women’s sports are not as exciting or profitable as men’s, and women’s tennis specifically would not survive without the backing of the men’s game.

Tennis has a long history of gender equality, including equal pay for Grand Slam tournaments

TL: Like any woman in business, I’ve witnessed and experienced a myriad of aggressions from relatively harmless, ignorant side comments to more overtly inappropriate comments or behaviour. Today – due in large part to the tireless work of the thousands of global organisations, movements and people working to combat inequality – we’re experiencing a sea change in behaviors which result in more welcoming workplaces, more accurate portrayal of women in campaigns and more accountability.

We know the stereotypes; we must have courage to call out bad behaviour and give people the opportunity to change. Often, it’s fear and ignorance – not bad intention – that is the culprit.

HP: I have had several experiences managing broadcast operations at football stadiums, which are often an even more male-dominated environment – from the fans in attendance all the way to the teams and stadium staff. It is strange how myself and women I have worked with just learnt to ignore and get used to the obvious staring and cat calling when walking past fans and even venue staff.

However, the most frustrating is having my knowledge of football or football broadcasting questioned because ‘what does a woman know about football?’.

OA: First is usually questioning my understanding of sports or being surprised I’m a woman who knows a lot about sports. I could be in a room full of men and when talking about specifics of the game, they feel the need to ‘explain’ further for my understanding.

Also, being African, meeting people in the industry from other parts of the world, it is sometimes assumed that I may not know what’s happening in the global sports space or watch certain leagues, teams etc.

How do you balance the challenge of working in what is traditionally a male-dominated industry?

TL: I’d flip the question, because the way this is phrased – and commonly examined and asked in the industry – puts the onus on women. “Women, as the industry continuously perpetuates culture and systems that stack the deck against you, how do you manage the extra burden?” This has led to pressure on women to prove they can do everything and stress about whether they can have it all.

The discussion needs to change towards: “What should everyone in this industry do to make sure I don’t have increased pressures to balance simply because of my gender?” And the answer is: plenty.

Having more women in leadership roles can serve as a positive example for other women and demonstrate that upward mobility is possible

Andi Chu, Vice President and Editor in Chief, Tennis Channel

OA: Because I love sports, love what I do and love being in this space, I always try to focus on my goals and the role I play in the ecosystem. This helps me focus, using it as determination to continue building my expertise and getting more knowledgeable about the legal and commercial side of the business.

It can be tough going into meetings knowing you’re the only woman in the room and then imposter syndrome hits, but I constantly remind myself I’m good at what I do, there’s a reason I’m in the room and I bring value. Also, being in a position where I can be a role model for young African girls who love sports keeps me going regardless of the challenges.

AC: It can be tough for any woman working in an industry that is traditionally male dominated to find balance. However, I am able to embrace these challenges thanks to a strong network of supportive colleagues and mentors, as well as through collaboration with partners who champion these issues, such as the SportsPro New Era programme.

What steps do you think the sports industry can take to become a more welcoming environment for women to work in?

HP: We need to see more women in leadership positions but also across all seniority levels and in different types of roles, removing the stereotype that HR or finance positions are more suitable for women. This also applies to stadium/venue roles where women are scarcely seen.

I cannot express enough how much my recent involvement in mentorship programmes and women’s networking groups has helped with my confidence and development. The latter should be advertised and promoted proactively by businesses to their employees and not just rely on word-of-mouth.

OA: There needs to be more female representation in senior leadership positions, especially at the top major international federations. These women need to be visible and their achievements need to be highlighted so young women can see it is possible to thrive, be successful in the sports industry, and that their voice matters. This means young girls will aspire to work in various roles even if they do not play any sport.

Also, there needs to be favourable and accommodating working conditions for women to balance family and career without having to choose one or the other, especially in an industry like ours that’s largely male dominated.

AC: The sports industry can become a more welcoming environment for women by taking steps to support women and other underrepresented groups. This includes addressing hiring practices, gender pay gaps, and creating tangible pathways for advancement. In addition, having more women in leadership roles can serve as a positive example for other women and demonstrate that upward mobility is possible.

I cannot express enough how much my recent involvement in mentorship programmes and women’s networking groups has helped with my confidence and development.

Helen Praz, Director, Content Operations and Media Rights, Football Marketing Asia

TL: Leaders can hire women, invest in women and pay women. Do everything you can as a leader to ensure that you’re finding and hiring diverse candidates who have opinions other than yours; take the time to mentor and sponsor women so they can achieve their maximum potential; pay women equitably relative to their male counterparts. With the cultural burden wherein much of the unseen labour goes to women, do what you can as a leader to help delegate fairly, investing in the growth and promotion of women.

Do you believe the sports industry is currently following through on its promise to invest more in women’s sports and female athletes?

TL: Well, I am not sure the industry has actually promised anything. And while there are many good faith efforts happening, progress would happen much faster if there were global standards by which we held ourselves – similar to sustainability pledges. A promise has clear goals, accountability and implied measures of success; sports has provided so very few of those to-date.

Women’s football is a perfect example: the game is heralded for its great advances and yet most of these women are working two jobs, playing in unequal facilities with unequal investment. That’s why The Collective exists, to provide vision and the action steps towards progress. We want to make the promise something real that the industry can state and then live up to, with accountability.

AC: In recent years, the sports industry has taken steps to invest in more women’s sports and female athletes. This includes spotlighting players, increasing media coverage, sponsorship, and addressing the gender pay gap. New women’s sports leagues have also emerged, and existing leagues have become more visible. While progress has been made, more resources and awareness are still needed to achieve true equality.

OA: The industry collectively still has a lot of work to do. There is still the gender pay gap issue and even more worrying is that athletes still have to call out their federations for different reasons, such as the recent charter flight saga in the WNBA. Clearly, there’s still a lot to be done to follow through on these promises.

Do you have any role models you believe are currently blazing a trail for women in the sports industry?

AC: Yes! The distinguished women in the SportsPro New Era programme are outstanding leaders paving the way for female excellence in sports. Everyone with whom I’ve had the pleasure of speaking and working alongside in the steering group and inaugural cohort is undertaking remarkable efforts to chart a path forward for female athletes and women in sports, which is truly inspiring.

HP: I have loved seeing female referees and coaches on our TV screens across both women and men’s competitions. On the industry side, I have been lucky enough to take part in the SportsPro New Era mentoring programme, where I am meeting and connecting with the incredibly experienced and successful mentors working across all areas of sports. Each of their personal journeys, including stories of their struggles and successes, have been really inspiring. But what I admire the most is their devotion to sharing their knowledge and supporting the next generation of female leaders.

Because I love sports, love what I do and love being in this space, I always try to focus on my goals and the role I play in the ecosystem.

Ojonoka Agudah, Head, Legal and Women’s Sports, Integral

OA: Personally, I admire Benny Bonsu, the director of daily content for the IOC’s Olympic Channel, who also happens to be a member of the New Era steering group. She is doing an incredible job maximising the IOC’s IP through content creation.

Also, Nicole Lynn, the president of football operations at Klutch Sports, who’s an attorney and one of the few female sports agent in the NFL. Both women are a strong representation for women in sports and are especially successful trailblazers in roles that are usually dominated by men.

TL: There are many of them who make me pause and think differently, push the envelope further, think bigger, be bolder. Change doesn’t happen by playing it safe, and they’re the living proof.

Some of these people are from within our own company, who demand that I push further outside of my own comfort zone, while others are icons like Billie Jean King, Malala and the millions of other advocates who push for change in their daily lives.

Those are the heroes – the ones who lay the bricks toward equity.

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