Sports & Business

Gender Equality Business Lessons from the Sports Field

Women have struggled for decades to be taken seriously in the sports industry. Businesses can learn a lot about gender equality in the workplace by considering these struggles and the remarkable outcomes attributed to female perseverance and skills.
— By Vincent Pane

It is frustrating for women that they must continually struggle to achieve equality in the business world. Though progress has been made in terms of hiring and promoting women to a certain level, the glass ceiling keeps them largely out of senior positions, pay inequity still exists, and stories of discrimination and sexual harassment continue to make headlines.

It could be discouraging, but there is a history of determined women breaking down gender barriers in a variety of settings, and despite the ongoing challenges, they continue to do so. In fact, businesses can learn a lot from the women who have been tearing down barriers for decades in one of the toughest industries for women – sports.

Knocking Down Barriers
So what can a modern business in the age of technology and equality laws learn from women who broke through barriers over the past eight decades? One thing they can learn is that women are tenacious despite the odds of failure due to bias.

Some women are versatile and proved they were willing to compete in the world of male sports. Ann Meyers Drysdale is a women who has knocked down numerous barriers.

Drysdale was the first woman to get a four-year UCLA athletic scholarship, eventually becoming college player of the year. She was a medalist with the first U.S. women's Olympic basketball team. Drysdale was the first player drafted to the Women's Professional Basketball League (not the WNBA). She became the first female free-agent in the NBA when the Indiana Pacers’ owner asked her to try out. She was cut from the team before she was able to become a player, in the equivalent of the sports glass ceiling. Now, she is the vice president of the Phoenix Suns and Mercury. Drysdale was also the first woman to analyze a nationally broadcasted NBA game on TV a mere 12 years ago.

Bill Russell, the Celtics great, said this about Drysdale: "Annie was one of the best players ever. I didn't say male or female; I said ever."

Julius Erving II, retired basketball player who modernized the style of play used today, said, "She was always a smart player. She always stayed ahead of the competition in terms of preparation. That's why she's a great executive today."

As women try to break through the glass ceiling to enter senior leadership positions, business leaders should think about women like Drysdale.

Still Out of Reach
The under-utilization of talented women in the business world holds businesses back from earning the full economic success that could be achieved by accessing their versatility, innovative perspectives, and intelligence.

McKinsey & Co. has collected data since 2015 from almost 600 companies and surveyed more than a quarter of a million people on their workplace experience. There was little or no improvement in representation of women at the manager level, representation of women of color, women feeling gender was a barrier to advancement, and micro-aggressions toward women. Gender parity remains out of reach at every level. The conclusion was that fundamental changes early in the leadership pipeline are needed before representation of women will improve.

Drysdale was able to break into traditionally male roles because of her early success in basketball. That was her pipeline.

Mamie "Peanut" Johnson was 17 years old when she tried out for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. She was denied because she was black. Johnson was discovered striking out grown men on a recreation field. She was signed with the Indianapolis Clowns, a pro team in the all-male Negro Leagues. She left the team in 1955 with great pitching and batting stats. During the off-season, Johnson earned a nursing degree.

The lesson for business is that women with a desire to succeed do not let discrimination deter them from pursuing their dreams. They persist, and because of women like Johnson, the conversation on getting women of color into management continues.

Blazing a Trail Into the Future
Becky Hammon was hired as a member of the San Antonio Spurs, after playing pro basketball for 16 years and becoming a six-time WBNA all-star.

Hammon told the Washington Post in 2015, "I'm a little uncomfortable with people saying 'trailblazer' … because I know somebody else blazed the trail for me to even have the opportunity to play basketball. If I can in some way make a path for somebody else to walk through – maybe it's your daughter or your aunt – that's the bigger picture, and that's really what makes everything all worth it."

In just a few sentences, Hammon sums up what it takes to break gender barriers. Women are more likely to succeed if they have female role models and male leaders who sponsor them to ensure they get the opportunity to advance.

A business needs a strategy to get women into the leadership pipeline, sponsors and mentors who help them get recognition and advance, and a plan for holding managers accountable. The slow pace of improvement in getting women into leadership positions could be discouraging, but breaking down barriers and through glass ceilings is not easy.

Ask Janet Guthrie, the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500, or Billie Jean King, the great tennis player who defeated Bobby Riggs in 1973 in what was called the "Battle of the Sexes." They faced bias and forged ahead.

More Changed Needed
These are the qualities businesses need in their employees. They need people who are adaptable, talented and unwilling to let bias stand in the way of their efforts.

The sports world holds many examples of women who succeeded in the world of athletics and sports and then used their experiences to become entrepreneurs, organizational leaders, and nonprofit founders.

Though a lot has changed over the decades, it has not changed enough.