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The balancing act | Universities attempt to address sport’s gender gap

Former NBA commissioner David Stern speaks to a UMass graduate class during his Executive in Residence visit last Fall (Photo by UMass)

Though slow progress continues to be made, the sports industry remains an overwhelmingly male-dominated one. In recent years, the London-based charity Women in Sport has published research finding that the number of women in leadership roles in the sport industry has remained static since the start of the last decade, at around 30 per cent, while 40 per cent of women in the sector claim to have experienced discrimination based on their gender.

Universities preparing the next generation of sport leaders are playing their part in bridging that gap, but even with the work that has been done in this regard, our own research for the 2020 Postgraduate Course Rankings found that only two of the sports management programmes surveyed – Georgia State and Ohio State – currently have a 50-per-cent or better gender ratio for both student body and faculty.

Professor Nefertiti Walker (Photo by UMass)

Nefertiti Walker, interim vice-chancellor for diversity, equity, and inclusion at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, tells SportBusiness that this is indicative of the challenge facing the sector, and emphasises the role education can continue to play. “To be completely frank, I think that higher education and sports management programmes have a responsibility to ensure that they’re doing all that they can to recruit a diverse pool of students,” she says. “Because if not, we’re perpetuating the same lack of diversity that we see in the industry.”

Faculty make-up

Walker says that those running UMass’s Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management have been “very intentional in ensuring that we consider the demographic make-up of our faculty”, adding that almost everyone in the department has carried out work in some capacity in the area of diversity and inclusion. Walker and her colleague Nicole Melton are the co-directors of the department’s Laboratory of Inclusion and Diversity (LIDs), which is dedicated to “real research that will be applied to the industry in the field of representation and diversity”, she says.

In this year’s survey, the Department of Sport Management faculty showed a 50/50 ratio of males to females, while one third of its student body was women. Walker says she thinks the former figure can help in the mission to improve the latter.

“There’s a lot of research that supports the fact that people need to see people like themselves in leadership roles, they need to see it in the people that are teaching them in order to feel like they can achieve that.

“In most sports organisations, women are somewhere around 20 per cent of the folks in leadership. If you look at some of the professional men’s sports organisations at the level of general manager, president, commissioner, women just do not exist. I think women who are looking for programmes see us and they see our commitment to diversity, not just in gender terms, as something that’s quite radical.”

Brian Turner (Photo by OSU)

Walker says that students have told her directly that the number of women in leadership positions on the department faculty was a major influencing factor in choosing the programme at UMass. “Female students know the uphill battle they’re facing with a career in sport,” she says. “This is the reason why they feel at home in this programme, because they feel very comfortable in their ability to ask questions about being a woman in the industry that they wouldn’t normally be able to ask if they weren’t in a programme that didn’t have that 50/50 split.”

Diverse recruitment

Brian Turner, associate professor and coordinator of sport management at Ohio State University, says that achieving an equal gender split was not an easy process, in part simply because the industry wasn’t doing a good enough job making pathways open to women.

“I’ve been at Ohio State for 16 years, and in the early years I could look out at my classes at Masters level and only see a handful of female students,” he says. “I particularly remember one incoming class where we only had two or three female students. Now, we are consistently achieving 50 per cent. Our 2020 intake is right at 50 per cent, 16 out of 31 students are female.

“Ten years ago, I don’t think a lot of students across the board, really, but especially female students, saw this as a career option. We, meaning OSU as well as the industry at large, were not really communicating the availability of jobs in the sports sector. With the things we have done promoting the programme, we see that more female students are seeing this as a pathway to a career in sports.”

One of the main shifts has been in the volume of applications from female students. Beth Cianfrone, professor and programme coordinator of the Sport Administration programme at Georgia State University, says that while diversity plays a role in the school’s wider goals, it doesn’t come into its thinking when approving applicants, and that instead the quality of applications coming in from across the board now consistently leads to a 50/50 split.

“We are fortunate to have a lot of applications every year,” she says. “We have a very large programme, and that gives us the opportunity to select from a wider range of people, but we’re not consciously counting people, like, ‘here’s one male, so here’s one female’. We just get that many talented female and male applicants that it works out roughly equal every year, which is how it should be.”

Turner agrees. “Early on when we started running the course, there were not a lot of female applicants out there, and if there’s not a lot of applicants there’s not a lot of room to improve your numbers. That is why we’ve made a conscious effort to promote the course to more female students and get more applications from them, rather than consciously picking female applicants just to improve our numbers.”

Ohio State and Georgia State’s routes to achieving that 50/50 gender balance among their student intakes have been markedly different. While OSU turned to its 500-strong undergraduate programme, recreational sports department and athletics department, GSU used its position in Atlanta, surrounded by major league sports organisations, to recruit nationwide and internationally.

Beth Anne Cianfrone (Photo by GSU)

“Our biggest benefit has definitely been the relationship with our recreational sports department,” says Turner. “They recruit from all over the country and then people who join there often come through to us, so they’ve been a great partner in helping us to diversify not just in gender but in race, geography, different backgrounds. They are great recruiters for us.

“We’re also helped by the emphasis that Gene Smith, our athletic department director, places on life after sports. He really focuses with the student athletes on career development and helps them to see what’s out there after they finish, he runs a podcast called the Buckeyes Future Podcast that I’ve been a guest on, which helps us get in front of student athletes and explain to them that we offer a major in sport management, and I think that has really helped recruit a lot more females into our programme.”

Conversely, GSU has only recently launched an undergraduate programme, with most of its recruitment to its MS in Sport Administration coming from across the US.

“I think our proximity to sports organisations that are themselves really diverse helps,” says Cianfrone. “We’re right down the street from the Atlanta Hawks, which was one of the first sports organisations to have a chief diversity officer. The Falcons and the Braves are really close by. I think because we have that proximity and students know they can work there, that lets us draw on and recruit from a more equitable number of male and female applicants.

“We also have a really strong social media presence, where potentially students get to see the diversity of our student body, and across our promotional materials we do use the numbers that we get from the Postgraduate Rankings to show students that we’re inclusive, which we hope encourages them to spend the money to apply for our programme.”

Alumni support

Walker adds that as well as putting women in leadership positions within the programme, UMass has emphasised the roles its female students go on to when promoting the course to potential applicants. “Our women are knocking it out of the park,” she says. “They get really good jobs and they’re doing well in the industry, and I think that’s both testament to the fact that they get to see women in powerful positions in our classrooms, and also it creates more role models within the industry for our current students to look up to.”

Crucially, she adds, UMass alumni recognise the importance of utilising their network from the university for support in furthering those diversity goals at their current employers. “I have former students who have reached back to me, especially in the aftermath of the protests we’ve seen this year, to say, ‘I’m leading this diversity and inclusion initiative, what do you think about this programme’ and asking me to support them as they’re trying to lead change in their sport organisations, which is really cool to see.”

Georgia State University graduate students and faculty in an event with the NCAA earlier this year (Photo by GSU)

Turner says that the OSU alumni are “our best salespeople”. The programme there now boasts over 1,000 graduates who are working various positions across the industry, and the school launched a YouTube programme this summer to highlight the success of its alumni. “We were very conscious to get alumni in every area, and to have a gender balance, to really show to all our students that the sports industry can be an equal opportunity one if we keep producing outstanding talent,” he says.

Industry-wide benefits

Achieving greater diversity across the sports industry should not just be viewed as beneficial to the women who make their way in the sector, Cianfrone adds. “It’s just as important for the males in the room to see that women work in sports, and to look around themselves and see just as many female faces as they see male. I think for us, having classrooms that are 50/50 is just as much about opening the male students’ eyes to what the industry should look like as it is graduating female students and getting them into leadership roles. If you are in a classroom which is 80-per-cent men, it’s going to impact their behaviour and their outlook moving forward.”

Walker agrees, adding that the male faculty at UMass – “who happen to be all white” – play a major role in calling out sexism in the classroom and in the industry, hopefully sending graduates into the workplace prepared to do the same. “It’s one thing for me to call out sexism in the classroom, and it’s one thing for me to constantly drive home the importance for equity in the workplace,” she says. “But when the students see their male professors also doing it, it sends a different message that this is just who we are as a programme. These are the things that we tolerate, these are the things that we teach, these are the things that are important to us. Our students take that into the workplace.”

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