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Volume 23 No. 18
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Avoid checklist mentality when hiring women

No one does a monetary mea culpa quite like Mark Cuban.

In the wake of the Dallas Mavericks’ sexual harassment scandal, he’s donating $10 million to different women’s groups. Some beneficiaries will be groups that develop female sports leaders. Some will be groups that combat domestic violence. The $10 million is four times what the NBA could have fined Cuban. So, it’s no surprise the sum grabbed a lot of attention. Deservedly so.

But the donation shouldn’t overshadow the most significant number to emerge from the scandal: 47. That’s the percentage of women now in leadership positions in the Mavericks’ business offices. That’s also a 47 percent increase. There were zero women in vice president positions or higher when new Mavericks CEO Cynthia Marshall came on board in February. Of the 17 executive roles on the business side, eight are now filled by women.

Marshall knows the difference between diversity and inclusion. “Diversity is being invited to the party,” she says. “Inclusion is being asked to dance. True inclusion is when people are invited in on the conversation and they’re invited in on the strategy.” 

The more women, the greater the odds of true inclusion. But too often the call for more women in sports leadership positions translates into a checklist mentality. Too often that mentality results in the addition of one or maybe two women. That’s progress, but it stops well short of the kind of inclusion that prompts culture-changing progress. And culture-changing progress is what’s needed with most pro franchises, league offices and international sports federations. 

Why isn’t the addition of one or two women enough to change workplace culture? That should be a rhetorical question. But it’s not for many sports organizations. The simple explanation: One or two high-ranking women doesn’t create an environment where female executives feel comfortable calling out bad behavior or voicing valuable, sometimes contrary, viewpoints about different projects. 

Sports organizations — really any business serious about diversity and inclusion — need female leaders in large numbers, certainly numbers that go beyond one or two. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver understands that. In a recent memo, he asked the league’s 30 teams to hire more women for leadership and supervisory positions.

Marshall sees the tipping point as 30 percent. From her experience with AT&T and as founder of a consulting firm, she learned that inclusive conversations happen when women and people of color fill 30 percent of the available leadership positions. Then, change follows.

That’s why Marshall added female executives in bulk when she took the Mavericks CEO job. Some women were promoted from within, while others were hired from outside. “You make better decisions when you have a diverse group of people around the table,” she says. “When you don’t have a diverse group of people, you’re risking your success.”

The Mavericks learned that the hard way. 

Other sports organizations that are disrespectful to women, whether it’s female employees or female athletes, almost always lack executive diversity. Take FIFA.

While FIFA may have its first female secretary general, its president and eight vice presidents are male. You don’t play the 2015 Women’s World Cup on artificial turf and you don’t schedule the 2019 Women’s World Cup final on the same day as two major men’s tournament finals if the number of women around the table meets Marshall’s 30 percent threshold. Or, at least at 30 percent, you’ve got a group talking seriously about how to do better by women’s soccer in the future. Guaranteed.

Of course, FIFA is far from alone among sports organizations dominated by male executives. Most are top-heavy with men.

That’s the “why” part of the equation, why there needs to be more female sports leaders. But what about the “how” part? How do you get more women in leadership positions? And how do you make sure they stay? 

For starters, it takes more than simply hiring more women. The workplace culture needs to welcome and support women. As Marshall increased the number of female executives at the Mavericks, she instituted a zero-tolerance policy regarding sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. She also created the “Mavs Women’s Playbook” to ensure women had mentoring and development opportunities within the organization. 

None of these problem-solving steps are for the sports world only. But so many sports organizations have been so male for so long, there’s a lot of catching up to do.

The other critical piece: finding and recruiting female talent. Again, there can’t be a checklist mentality. There needs to be big-picture, long-term thinking. Marshall talks about having a “deep bench,” two or three people in mind who could replace any given executive if needed. Not just women, but people of color, people with disabilities, members of the LGBTQ community and white men.

“You look at it and ask, ‘If my entire leadership team was wiped out tomorrow and I have to backfill all of them, would I still have a diverse group of people?’” Marshall says. “If the answer is ‘No,’ you work on it before it happens.”

Before the Mavericks scandal broke, there was a group at NBA headquarters focused on “inclusive recruiting.” The group’s approach is the opposite of a checklist mentality and it’s one that should be replicated far and wide. “You can’t just recruit when you have needs,” says Oris Stuart, the league’s chief diversity and inclusion officer. “You’ve got to be recruiting all the time. Even if you don’t have a role for a particular individual, you build a relationship and nurture that relationship.”

Maybe someday the number of women working for men’s teams or men’s pro leagues won’t draw attention. Instead, ideally, there will be so many women that it’s unremarkable in the best possible sense.

Shira Springer covers stories at the intersection of sports and society for programs on NPR and WBUR, writes a column on women’s sports for the Boston Globe and teaches journalism at Boston University. She can be reached at