Are Women in Sports 'Female Leaders' — or Just 'Leaders'?

Sarah Thomas, NFL referee

Photo Credit: David Richard/AP/Shutterstock

By Brooke Phillips, college student

Kamala Harris. Becky Hammon. Sarah Fuller. All women who are breaking barriers in our society, whether as the first female vice president, first female NBA head coach, or a woman who is breaking barriers in college football. Are they “female” leaders or just leaders?

When asked what my career plan is, I don’t say I want to be “a woman in sports management,” but rather I say “sports management,” to which I often get a response such as, “Wow, a woman in sports — that’s great” or “I didn’t know you liked sports.”

So my question is: Why are we impressed when we hear about a woman going into sports or STEM or playing football? Are they breaking barriers? Sure, but that’s not the point. At least, it’s not mine. I’m not paying to study and go into sports to be a revolutionary female presence in the sports industry. I’m going into sports to be a presence in the industry — fueled by my passion. Because I envision myself happy and successful in an industry that, yes, is predominantly men, but this unbalanced demographic is not what defines my career plan or choice.

A Leader in the Sports Industry

Ten years from now, I see myself standing court-side at an NBA basketball game, with a clipboard in hand, a lanyard around my neck, wearing not fashionable shoes but sneakers. I see myself with a parking spot at the stadium with a plaque displaying my name, and I see myself as a leader in the sports industry. And, I don’t want the focus to be that I “made it” as a “woman” in sports, because labeling myself as such will separate me.

As our society welcomes the first woman to the Vice Presidency, I am thinking a lot about how we move forward. So, as I go through college and create a plan, I try not to get caught up in the stigma of being a woman in a male-dominated industry. Because to truly push forward, we can’t think of ourselves as restricted by these labels or as in different groups. I can’t think of myself as a woman in an industry created, designed, and led by men. And, yes, those thoughts and challenges cross my mind, but ultimately my journey won’t be defined by that.

I don’t see myself as being a change-maker because I will be a woman in sports. I see myself as an expert in sports.

It won’t be about the percentage of testosterone in my body. It will be guided by my passion. It will be about my work ethic, time, investment, empathy, connection, expertise, and character. In the CircleAround panel "Women in Sports," Renee Anderson —the NFL's Executive Vice president and Chief Revenue Officer — noted you must become an expert in your place. Expertise is derived from a passion to be educated and a desire to be a change-maker, one who is not defined by the hurdles they face, but rather a leader who only sees the end goal.

Will I have to work harder or face judgmental looks when I say I want to go into sports? Will I be questioned about my knowledge as to what a "fourth down" is if I am wearing a dress? Do I plan on being a woman in sports? Yes. I don’t see myself as being a change-maker because I will be a woman in sports. I see myself as an expert in sports.

As a woman, I plan to connect with my ability to be empathetic, to be a good listener, and to be a strong communicator. I won’t be defined as a “career woman” or “boss woman.” It will be about my ability to perform and be successful based on my merits. I will have a successful career. I will be a boss and a leader in sports management. As I write this piece, I am an avid supporter of the “Me Too” movement — a follower and fan of ground-breaking leaders such as Vice President Harris and Rep. Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez.

Are powerful women in our society worthy of attention and admiration for all they have done and continue to do? Yes. As a college student and unsure of how I will gain experience in the sports industry during a national pandemic, I’m not thinking about how to make it as a woman — I’m just thinking about how to make it.

Brooke Phillips is a college student pursuing a degree in strategic communications, with an emphasis on sports and event management.

CircleAround is operated by a wholly owned subsidiary of Girl Scouts of the USA. The site serves adult women nationwide by providing content that is uplifting, thought-provoking, and useful. We make revenue distributions back to GSUSA so they can further their mission of building girls of courage, confidence, and character who make the world a better place.


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