“The time is now to capitalize on the attention and investment in women’s sports to increase their representation in leadership,” Phillips says. The visibility of women’s sports is providing the momentum and clout needed to move the needle in the space of female leadership, adds Jenna McLaughlin, head of the collegiate sports practice at Korn Ferry.
Women in sports suffer from many of the same obstacles and challenges as women in the corporate world—and in the larger society for that matter—among them unconscious bias, a lack of mentoring and sponsorship, and career tracks in softer roles like human resources and marketing that aren’t regarded as paths to leadership. Indeed, representation of women leaders in sports mirrors that of their corporate sisters, where they hold about 10% of CEO roles and 33% of board seats on S&P 500 companies.
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Danette Leighton remembers the opportunity that catapulted her into a career in sports leadership, primarily because she didn’t think she was ready for it. It was 1998, and Leighton was a young administrator at the then Pac-10 Conference. Stanford University’s Senior Associate Director at the time, tapped Leighton to become the Executive Director of the 1999 NCAA Women’s Final Four, which the school was hosting. “She had the confidence in me to take on the responsibility when I didn’t check every box,” says Leighton, who eventually went on to become a Vice President with NBA’s Sacramento Kings and WNBA Monarchs, Chief Marketing Officer of the Pac-12 Conference and now serves as CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation.
It was an important steppingstone in Leighton’s career not only because of the visibility, but also because it opened her eyes to the particular set of skills—to borrow Liam Neeson’s famous line—needed to advance in leadership. Revenue generation, fundraising and development, corporate sponsorships, sales, media negotiation, Leighton was exposed to it all. “It got me to look at leadership through the lens of the skills sets of people who were in those positions,” she says. For most women in sports, however, that kind of access and education is sorely lacking. “As an industry, we need to do a better job of making sure women understand the skills needed for leadership at the beginning of their journey,” Leighton says.
That means being more deliberate about developing a pipeline of female leaders. Diversity and inclusion efforts like those in the corporate world help, as does recruiting, retention, and career pathing strategies that put women on leadership tracts. With women accounting for nearly half of all MBA graduates, for instance, Women Leaders in Sports and other organizations are working with business schools and recruiting firms to bring more of them into the operational side of sports. But it also means having mentors and sponsors to pull women into situations where they can get the exposure needed to advance in leadership roles. Therein lies the problem: the lack of women in leadership roles means there is a lack of mentors pulling them into the spaces where they need to be, such as at the College Football Playoffs.