In the NFL, women are finally breaking through
In February of last year, there was an article in The New York Times entitled, “These Women Were N.F.L. ‘Firsts.’ They’re Eager for Company.” It discusses the many “firsts” in the NFL from team CEO (Amy Trask of the Oakland Raiders) to coaches (Maral Javadifar, an assistant strength and conditioning coach, and Lori Locust, a defensive-line assistant, both for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) to referee (Sarah Thomas who officiated the 2021 Super Bowl) to the front office (Callie Brownson, chief of staff for the Cleveland Browns).And yet for all the shattering of glass ceilings, these groundbreaking women long for the day that being females in previously male-only roles in the NFL will be no big deal. Said Amy Task, who in 1997 became the Oakland Raiders chief executive and the first woman of that rank in the NFL, “What is really going to excite me is when this is no longer aberrational or when this is no longer something that’s noteworthy.”
It takes guts to go against the tide, but it can be done
There are several points to be made here, not about Ms. Task’s comments but rather, her appointment. For those who follow professional football (as I do), it comes as no surprise that the first owner to hire a female CEO was Al Davis, the Raiders’ former owner and head coach, a maverick who saw the world very differently than his fellow male owners and counterparts. This is the same Mr. Davis who became Commissioner of the fledgling American Football League in 1966 and forced the merger with the NFL following the 1969 Super Bowl when Joe Namath and the Jets stunned the Baltimore Colts, 16-7.
But even beyond that, what makes Al Davis so noteworthy was his unshakeable position on civil rights and diversity. He refused to allow the Raiders to play in any city where black and white players had to stay in separate hotels. He was the first NFL owner to hire an African American head coach (Art Shell) and a female chief executive (Trask), and he was the second NFL owner to hire a Latino head coach (Tom Flores).
Al Davis believed in the impossible, and only that attitude could pull off an industry-changing merger and the hiring of a female executive, 28 years apart. Davis was not guided by tradition but by innovation and doing what is right, and he believed in hiring the best…norms be damned.
For women to succeed, the people maintaining the status quo have to change
I recently listened to a live interview conducted by Andi Simon PhD, an anthropologist, business consultant, Blue Ocean Strategy® expert and award-winning author. (She is also my wife and business partner and to be fair, I am a little biased!) Her second book, “Rethink: Smashing the Myths of Women in Business,” is not about football but about women courageously marching into non-traditional fields. Her podcast interview was with Andie Kramer, one of the women profiled in Andi’s book. Not only is Ms. Kramer a partner in a large law firm but she’s also an author who (with her husband Al) writes about gender bias.
In the podcast, both Andi’s talk about the need to change the conversation…change the expectations created by gender bias. The understanding in the past and even perhaps today is that women are expected to be kind and nice, while men….well, you know…boys will be boys still prevails. So, if you follow these stereotypes forward, how would you expect women to compete for jobs in the National Football League, one of the most male-dominated industries there is?
Put another way, why are women entering these non-traditional fields, and not only entering but excelling? This is not an easy concept to get one’s head around. In any sport but particularly a men-only one like football, introducing elements that both manage and adjudicate outcomes is new and novel, and in most cases, opposed — which is exactly the point of Andi’s book.
Strong women are succeeding today in all kinds of male-heavy industries, like law, aerospace, IT and the geosciences. Why? Primarily because they are refusing to be held back any longer from what they know they can achieve. The other important reason is because smart people in our society (like Al Davis) are now allowing women to take risks and even fail, if necessary, in their quest to excel.
So, if we combine this objectivity (gender acceptance as opposed to gender bias) with a reduction in subjectivity, we will see more women in traditional non-female roles, since how they perform those roles is finally becoming much more important than gender.
Want true gender equity? Here’s what you can do
Although the level of gender bias is getting better, we are not doing enough to thoroughly eliminate it. Here are some things you yourself can do to irradicate it:
- When hiring, don’t look at gender. Be neutral. Just look at competency and accomplishments.
- If you are in the C-suite, find ways to develop women who can move into the senior ranks. In Andie Kramer’s podcast interview, she talks about mentoring and sponsoring. Could this work for you and your organization?
- Think about how to change the conversation so that both men and women can hear each other and have an open mind to corroborate, not compete.
After you experiment with these three suggestions, I’d like to hear from you and get your feedback on whether they have made a difference in your organization. You can contact me here.
Read more about women breaking new ground
- It’s A New Day!!! Finally, Women Have A Seat At The Table
- Do Women In Sports Know How To Smash Myths? You Betcha
- No Women Coaches In The NBA? Yeah, Becky Hammon Changed That.
More and more in all kinds of fields, women are smashing myths
Whether in professional sports or corporate America or the US government, society is changing. Women, and men, are rethinking the way things have always been and looking with fresh eyes at how they ought to be. This is long overdue, but at least there is progress. To rethink your organization and even your own life, I recommend reading my wife’s book, which you can order here. The way forward starts with big, bold steps. We all just need to take them.
From Observation to Innovation,