Women at the forefront of U.S. Olympic movement
You've heard of the glass ceiling keeping women out of the corner office. But over the past decade, researchers have identified another challenge facing female executives: the “glass cliff.”
That’s the term coined when academics discovered that women are far more likely to ascend into senior leadership when companies face crisis. Therefore, they face a tougher job from the start than their male counterparts — they start on a cliff and must pull the organization back from the brink, or get pushed off.
Which brings us to the U.S. Olympic Committee, still working to emerge from the vast USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal. With a new all-female CEO/board chair duo, its leadership ranks include women at a level never before seen in major sports.
Along with CEO Sarah Hirshland and Chair Susanne Lyons, America’s two International Olympic Committee members are women — Anita DeFrantz and Kikkan Randall — as are eight of 15 members of Hirshland’s executive cabinet. So is Kathy Carter, CEO of the USOC-Los Angeles 2028 commercial joint venture and the country’s top Olympic sales executive.
To be clear, most of them pre-date the scandal — only Hirshland and Carter are entirely new to the Olympics; Lyons has served on the board since 2010 and became chair Jan. 1. But at a time when the USOC is under pressure from Congress, abuse victims and its own athletes to make profound changes quickly, it’s women who will determine the organization’s crucial next steps.
In recent interviews with Sports Business Journal, the female leaders spoke about the dual feelings of opportunity and moral imperative they face. As the former CMO of Visa, Lyons for most of her career strove to be simply a leader for all purposes, not a “woman leader” per se. Now, her gender is central to the task.
“We recognize that some of our sisters were not served well by our movement, and I think we feel a special obligation to them to make sure we are at our best and that we do the best work of our lifetime to make things better for them,” she said.
That’s the challenge facing Lyons, Hirshland and their teams: To restore stability and confidence in the USOC, while also recognize their unprecedented position and help other women thrive.
“I think it’s a story that I hope we all look at in 20 years and say it shouldn’t be a story any more,” Hirshland said. “It’s a story that should go away, but it’s a story right now because it is unusual. And to the extent that telling it makes it more common, or more comfortable, or more normal, then it should be a story.”
The Olympics are a natural environment for female executives and administrators to thrive. It’s the only major sports property that over-indexes with female audiences, and the Games are the only time when women athletes are given equal billing with men, if not in some cases more.
Commercially and competitively, Team USA is growing ever-more dependent on women. In three of the last four Olympics, American women have won more medals then the men, and Title IX has put American women in a position to dominate their global competitors in many sports for years to come.
But at the same time, Olympic sports can be extremely traditional and hierarchical. Without the promise of fame and high salaries that major professional leagues can offer to ambitious young executives, Olympic sport federations tend to be led by former competitors and coaches, and reliant on volunteers who often spend decades around the sport, tying modern management to a culture from decades ago.
“We make the assumption that if we get more women into these leadership positions that it’s going to lead to these massive institutional changes,” said Cheryl Cooky, a Purdue professor and author of the book “No Slam Dunk: Gender, Sport and the Unevenness of Social Change.” “But the institutions themselves are gendered. That’s the important piece. We tend to forget about that.”
Indeed, 48 of the 50 American national governing bodies that report to the USOC have male CEOs, though their volunteer boards are much more diverse. International sport federations are not much better, and the Olympic program still betrays traces of the paternalism of an earlier era. For example, women road cyclists will tackle a much less interesting course than men in Tokyo, and the Olympics have refused overwhelming demand by female bobsledders to add a four-person race in the Winter Games to match the men’s program.
In talking to the USOC’s new leaders, much of the conversation focused on how they can use their positions to bring more women into leadership positions, both inside the USOC and elsewhere in the sprawling movement.
We recognize that some of our sisters were not served well by our movement, and I think we feel a special obligation to them to make sure we are at our best and that we do the best work of our lifetime to make things better for them.
Lyons specifically noted the poor track record of converting female athletes into sport administrators, and promised action on that front. Even though most sports generate roughly the same number of male and female Olympians, administrators and coaches are overwhelmingly men.
“I think we have to take much more definitive action to begin to help women begin to, in the early stages of their career, develop those skills so they can be considered for those roles,” Lyons said.
If they succeed, future executives wouldn’t have to pursue hiring diversity at the expense of the relationships and specialized experience that drive the Olympic industry. Today, there’s a tension between finding new blood and maximizing influence. Hirshland, for instance, was specifically chosen as CEO because she brought an outside perspective, Lyons said, but the board was aware of the steep learning curve.
“I think it’s very possible to find a handful of women to jump into a handful of roles, but at the end of the day, you know that’s not systemic change,” Hirshland said. “[Systemic change] is creating a long-term pipeline where there is this constant pattern of development. Because in a perfect world, you’re not bringing in people from outside the Olympic movement.”
The USOC requires at least half of the candidates for every job be women or minorities. However, it does not mandate that for governing bodies — that level of control over day-to-day hiring would be politically difficult and unwieldy — leaving just USA Fencing (Kris Ekeren) and the U.S. Tennis Association (Katrina Adams) with female chief executives. Many of the NGBs have only a handful of staff, Hirshland noted, so they don’t have sufficient turnover to drive quick change.
But the USOC is looking to play a stronger hand in overseeing the governing bodies after the Ropes & Gray report revealed that its hands-off approach was one reason Larry Nassar’s abuse went undetected for so long. According to Nicole M. LaVoi, co-director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, change could happen swiftly if the USOC really wanted. Simply tie funding to minimum diversity goals in the executive or board ranks, LaVoi said.
She noted, however, that there’s risk in potentially being seen as catering to women exclusively.
“If women leaders start making changes that look like they’re benefiting women, people freak out,” LaVoi said. “But if men come in and hire other men, nobody bats an eye because that’s normal. There’s lots of reasons women are reluctant to make those kinds of sweeping changes, because they get a lot of backlash.”
The women atop the U.S. Olympic movement
U.S. Olympic Committee
■ Susanne Lyons, board chair
■ Sarah Hirshland, CEO
■ Nicole Deal, chief security officer
■ Morane Kerek, chief financial officer
■ Julie Dussliere, chief of Paralympic sport
■ Kacie Wallace, athlete ombudsman
■ Desiree Filippone, VP, government relations
■ Bridget Toelle, VP, compliance and audit
■ Denise Parker, VP, NGB and athlete services
■ Wendy Guthrie, VP, safe sport
International Olympic Committee (U.S. members)
■ Anita DeFrantz, vice president
■ Kikkan Randall, Athletes’ Commission
Los Angeles 2028
■ Kathy Carter, chief revenue officer and CEO, U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Properties
In the post-Nassar world, female leaders could face less of the perception risk that LaVoi notes because empowering women is closely correlated with better serving athletes in general, of whom half are women.
As the USOC reels from the sex abuse cases, one of the new administration’s top tasks is to become more “athlete-centric.” In its report on the Nassar case, the law firm Ropes & Gray criticized the USOC for putting more effort into managing the bureaucracy than serving athletes.
Lyons, Hirshland and DeFrantz, the U.S.’s senior IOC representative who is one of four vice presidents of the global body, all said gender issues played a role in the USOC’s inadequate response to Nassar.
“I think if there was something that we underestimated, it was really the impact of the power dynamics [between athletes and doctors, coaches and administrators],” Lyons said, “and as is true in most of society, often the person in power is male and the person who is not is female.”
DeFrantz speculated that Nassar’s victims didn’t get taken seriously because he enjoyed presumed legitimacy as a male doctor. “[People] thought that just couldn’t be happening,” she said.
That power dynamic is perhaps still the defining issue for women in sports, said Cooky, the Purdue professor. Male athletes are almost never subordinate to a woman; female athletes are routinely subordinate to men.
Female Olympians simply have a different experience. The women on Team USA at the Pyeongchang Winter Games were more than a year younger than the men on average. In Rio, U.S. women were on average seven months younger. And female superstars tend to grasp fame at younger ages than men.
“There are some very unique things about being a female athlete,” said Randall, who won an eight-year term on the IOC in an athletes-only vote in Pyeongchang. “In my case, I was still in the prime of my athletic performance and I wanted to start a family, and I had to wonder if sponsors and the team would still support me. Women tend to have to take on a lot of different things at once.”
Randall, a cross-country skier, won Olympic gold in February — 22 months after her son, Breck, was born and two months before she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Then she joined the IOC Women’s Commission.
She said visibility — simply being in key positions — is important to women and girls. “It’s a very positive thing for the USOC to have so many strong women because I think that’s going to plant the idea in more athletes’ minds that maybe that’s something they want to do,” Randall said, “and we can start developing more women sport leaders.”
Three-time bobsled medalist Elana Meyers Taylor, now president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, said she’s had just two female coaches in a 12-year career. “Without a doubt, my personal experience has been completely different from even that of my husband,” Taylor said, referring to fellow bobsledder Nic Taylor.
“You’re always fighting that good ol’ boys club that kind of runs the system, and having women in leadership roles brings that unique perspective on how to navigate those types of political climates,” Taylor said.
Internationally, the old boys’ club has already taken notice. In Tokyo in November for the Association of National Olympic Committees meeting, Lyons and Hirshland sat together behind an American flag — an unprecedented show of female leadership in the organization. “There were a lot of people who were coming up and taking pictures of us,” Hirshland recalls. “That was a big deal.”
DeFrantz was the fifth female IOC member ever when she was first appointed in 1986. Today there are 32 current members. The IOC has set a goal of full gender equality in Olympic Games participation; however, the international federations are overwhelmingly led by men. “We used to have at least one woman on the executive board of every international federation on the Olympic [Summer] and Olympic Winter Games program,” DeFrantz said. “There has been some backsliding of late, which needs to be corrected.”
The U.S. has to be judicious in deciding when and how to exert its influence in the Olympic movement, but Hirshland promises action abroad. “I can tell you that the three of us are going to be really active internationally,” Hirshland said. “That doesn’t mean we won’t be careful and it doesn’t mean we won’t be respectful. But we’re going to be very active.”
Internally, Hirshland has participated in a networking group of women from the USOC and the NGBs based in Colorado Springs that meets regularly, but she has a long-term goal of a talent development program that would specifically find and develop possible executives.
Like is often the case with female leaders who find themselves on the “glass cliff,” the leaders of the USOC face extraordinary expectations. Society assumes women will bring a more team-oriented and empathic approach to leadership, and Cooky notes, sometimes believes those mere traits can push change faster than is practical.
But along with the high stakes is a sense of optimism about what can change.
“I’m excited and happy,” DeFrantz said. “A disaster brings us here in part, and that’s horrible. But the future is going to be exciting.”
A lot is riding on Hirshland and Lyons’ success. Historically, the Olympics put women in the forefront of sports before anyone else, and today the Games are still sold to sponsors as a unique way of celebrating the country’s full range of diversity. The stakes are high — for the USOC, the Olympics overall and women in sports in general.
“I’m really optimistic about putting these women in positions of leadership,” LaVoi said. “And I really hope they succeed, because we so desperately need them to. There are a lot of people who care very deeply about this, and I hope they get the support they need to change the culture.”