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Being the only woman in the room

Updated: Aug 8, 2023

Hi friends,

Being a woman in sports can be a very lonely experience. Whether you’re a student studying sports management or a seasoned professional working in the industry, you’ve probably been in a situation where you’re vastly outnumbered by your male peers. It can be scary, uncomfortable, and honestly pretty exhausting, always feeling like you have to “prove” yourself and work twice as hard for the same opportunities. We know because we’ve been the only women in the room many times and experienced both explicit and implicit bias throughout our sports careers. We talk about that and more in this week's blog and our newest free resource, How to Approach Being the Only Woman in the Room.

 
SAM

I noticed that implicit bias pretty quickly when I started applying for jobs. At first, I submitted my resume using my full name, Samantha. After failing to get a response for a number of roles I was very qualified for, I decided to try applying as “Sam” instead. After making that adjustment, I was genuinely shocked at how many more responses I got, sometimes for the same job I’d already applied for as “Samantha”. What was even more interesting, was how surprised hiring managers were when they’d meet or talk to me. Without fail, they commented that they had expected to be interviewing a man.




As for being the only woman in the room, my first experience with that came while I was interning with former ESPN reporter CL Brown while in college. While I was getting incredible experience covering UNC and Duke basketball, it was daunting to be the only female at press conferences and in the locker room. Luckily, CL was an amazing mentor and advocate. He made me feel comfortable in that role. In fact, he encouraged me to “own it” and joked that I shouldn’t be afraid to throw some elbows and muscle my way to the front of the interview scrum to make my presence known. CL made me realize that I had a unique skillset and that I shouldn’t be intimidated and I’m so grateful for that! There’s seriously nothing better than a male mentor, boss, or coworker who advocates for women in the industry.


MEGHAN

Working in statistics and player personnel my entire career, I’m very used to being the only woman in any given room. When I started as an intern in the Stats and Info Group (SIG) at ESPN, there were just two female researchers. Not much had changed by the time I started my full-time role after graduating a year later. Both of the women I’d previously worked with had left, replaced by two others. With just three of us in the department, it was common to be the only one in the research room. Even outside of SIG, I was often the only female working on a given show, such as SportsCenter or Goal Line. It probably comes as no surprise that this statistical disparity fostered a locker room environment that could be toxic at times. While we’ll get into that and the resulting sexual harassment in more detail in a future blog post, I can say that as a 22-year-old fresh out of college I was often scared to even speak up in meetings for fear of being ridiculed or having my sports knowledge questioned. Which, in hindsight, was completely ridiculous. I belonged there as much as any of my male coworkers. But as women in the industry, we’re often conditioned to feel that way, to second guess ourselves, and to apologize for taking up space. I still struggle with that to this day.



When I finally did speak up, I often dealt with misogynistic comments. For example, as a huge fan of all things college football, I was a member of the SIG CFB research team. During weekly team meetings, we would go around the room pitching story ideas. During one midseason meeting, I brought up the ranked Notre Dame-NC State matchup that weekend and how it would come down to who won the line of scrimmage, as NC State boasted Bradley Chubb and the top defensive line in the country while Notre Dame’s O-line had two future first-round draft picks in Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey. While I was speaking, the SIG manager running the meeting began to laugh. Although I was confused and distracted by the outburst, I finished my pitch before looking at him. At that point, still laughing, he said, “It’s just funny to hear a woman talk about ‘winning the line of scrimmage’ and the ‘battle in the trenches’. They’re typically not as familiar with the nitty gritty details.” As the only female researcher in the room, I was upset, not just by his comments but by the resulting laughter from my male coworkers. While I was one of our most knowledgeable college football specialists and was later selected as an on-site researcher for the national championship game, the experience shook my confidence and left me incredibly embarrassed.


Throughout my time in SIG, I dealt with managers “joking” (in front of my coworkers) that I was only a fan of certain players because I found them “hot”, suggesting that women always prefer women’s sports, and making blatantly sexist remarks at my expense. Those situations made me question myself and my role in the industry. As a result, I was often reluctant to speak up and would shy away from opportunities for fear of putting myself out there.


While moving on to a different organization was incredibly beneficial from a career and mental health perspective, I am still very often the only woman in player personnel and draft-related meetings. As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve learned to view my unique perspective as a strength. And while Sam and I both struggle with self-doubt and imposter syndrome more often than we’d like, we’ve surrounded ourselves with an incredible support system (Sam and my husband Paul, who also works in sports, are always my biggest cheerleaders) to remind us that we belong here.


 

Our situations are not unique. Currently, women make up roughly 10% of the sports workforce, so chances are you’re going to be in the minority in many meetings, departments, or organizations. You may even experience the bias and discrimination that we talked about. We’re not going to lie. It sucks, but there are ways to navigate the challenges while remaining unapologetically you! Check our newest free resource, How to Approach Being the Only Woman in the Room, for strategies on how to handle those situations.


Being the only woman in the room
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As for long term solutions, we founded empowHERed to create more opportunities for women in sports. Our Career Pipeline directly links members to exclusive job shadowing experiences, jobs, internships, and informational interviews with our partner organizations, including sports media companies, leagues, and teams from the NFL, NBA, NWSL, MLS, MLB, and more. Recognizing the lack of female representation in many organizations, we’ve also created our Mentor Program to match empowHERed members with incredible women in their desired field. Our diverse pool of mentors represent numerous departments and roles across the industry and are dedicated to helping others find opportunities. For access to both programs, check out our Elevate Your Game subscription. Plus follow us on Instagram, join our exclusive LinkedIn group, and check out our free resources and networking events. Together, we’re leveling the playing field and creating a more equitable workforce.


And above all else, remember you’re awesome and you belong here!


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