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Volume 25 No. 177
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Top Female Sports Execs Believe Gender Hiring Improving, But Progress Still Needed

Gender hiring in sports is improving, but far more progress is needed, especially at the executive level, according to a C-suite panel discussion at Game Changers that was moderated by NBPA Exec Dir Michele Roberts. Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman was asked first about the state of the industry, and, giving a shout out to longtime gender report card author Richard Lapchick sitting in the audience, gave a rundown of gender diversity in intercollegiate athletics, from commissioners to coaches and even college presidents. While the figures were not great, Ackerman said, “Progress has been made, and the numbers have greatly improved from when Title IX was passed in 1972. ... But is there more work to be done? There is.” WWE CRO & CMO Michelle Wilson cited Ackerman’s legacy in sports, telling the story of how she was inspired by Ackerman during Wilson’s first days in sports when at the NBA in '96. “I was looking for people to look up to,” said Wilson, “and at that time, there was only one: Val. There weren’t a lot of role models in executive positions, so I thank Val for being a role model and being a trail blazer.” As Wilson has moved up from the USTA to her role at the WWE, she acknowledged, “The higher you go up, it definitely becomes fewer and fewer women in the room. We have a long way to go when it comes to executive management, in particular. ... At the decision-making level, there is a ways to go."

GET UP, STAND UP: A constant theme of the day was for women to speak up and be themselves, but not let the opportunities to contribute pass by. USTA Chair, President & CEO Katrina Adams talked of being one of the few women when it comes to meetings on global tennis. “When you’re in the room with the guys, it’s all about the wisdom you can share,” she said, noting women often sit in meetings but don’t want to speak. “It’s important that you understand your stuff,” she said, “and that you are prepared and educated -- so you can give an educated opinion.” Roberts talked about her frustration of walking into a meeting where there is only one other woman in the room, and seeing later that the woman would not contribute anything during the discussion. Roberts called such a move “window dressing” to just provide another female in the room. “It really pisses me off when she doesn’t speak at all,” Roberts said. NASCAR Senior VP & CMO Jill Gregory added, “If you have the opportunity to prove yourself, to show your knowledge, you need to take advantage of that. If you don’t, and continually defer to the men, then you are going to continue to be in the back in the room. If you want to move ahead, you have to take advantage of those opportunities.”

CALLING OUT SBJ: In one of the most buzzed-about comments of the day, USOC CMO Lisa Baird talked about having influence on an organization in various ways. “There is a value of looking up,” she said. “I used to always look up.” Then she called out SBJ and Exec Editor Abe Madkour for their annual list of the 50 Most Influential People In Sports Business. Looking at Madkour in the audience, she said, “Abe, I get so depressed when I see your Top 50 list. I mean, come on. So I stopped looking up, and I started looking down. I can do a lot to develop the women below me, to get them the attention they deserve, so they can move up. I think you have to start looking down. How many lives are you affecting, and how many roles are you impacting? Who can I help and enable by helping her do her job better? That is satisfying. That helps me.” When Ackerman said, “I want to add a point to that,” Baird followed up, “On how depressing their Top 50 list is?”

THE ADVICE FACTOR: Advice to young women looking to get involved in sports was a common question. NFL CMO Dawn Hudson said, “[Sports] tends to be an industry that runs fairly lean, so to have an impact, you can’t wait to be asked. It’s about seizing the opportunity, having the idea and injecting it when you can.” Wilson agreed, adding, “Take proactive management of your own career. Sure, we all work hard, we try to be experts in our area and we collaborate. But we like to believe it’s a meritocracy. We don’t take the time to be proactive and aggressive on our own career management. You can’t just expect it to happen. Women have to work harder to take control of their own career.” Asked if there would be any difference in their advice today from five years ago, Baird cited the impact of social media as a factor. “Five years ago, 10 years ago, I was all about taking action. But today’s media environment has injected some caution and some prudency. ... The advice I’d give women today is to be more thoughtful and deliberate, because you can make a mistake, and it can have unintended consequences because of social media. Before it was about acting, today it’s about being more prudent.” Ackerman cited relationships: “My answers wouldn’t be much different. Of course, you have to work hard, you have to sacrifice; we all do that. Competency in your subject matter area is indispensable. But the relationship part of our business to me is probably paramount. The primacy of relationships in sports, it really matters how you interface with people in our business.” She also added, “Listening is something I really learned. We are all so focused on what we’re saying, but we really have to listen.”

ENOUGH ALREADY? One question from the audience was whether we need panels on growing women’s roles in sports business in the future. The feelings were mixed. “I’d like to be on panels that assume that women are there because they are contributing, rather than that they are there because they are a woman,” Baird said. “I still believe we need to raise the issues that are keeping women from the top layers of management. But do we have the right people in this room to affect the top layers of management?” Wilson said the sessions should focus on the larger issue of diversity. “Maybe the evolution of this panel is diversity,” she said. “We are still lacking on diversity. But there is still a lot of work to be done, so maybe it’s more about diversity than about gender.” Ackerman had the final word: “These panels can’t hurt. They can only help until we’re 50/50 in terms of hiring. It does more good than harm to keep at it.”

* Wilson: “Mentoring is great, but don’t just mentor women, mentor men as well, because they need to understand it as well.”