This week, Serena Williams did what all great athletes need to do more of — she used her voice to promote change.
One of the best athletes in the world, male or female, the tennis star wrote an open letter, published in The Guardian, on gender inequality. In it, she said: "We're not there yet. We must continue to support and encourage women to reach their potential… we must not accept less pay for being women… we must dream big and break down barriers to achieve success."
The "we" Williams speaks of shouldn't be seen as just an appeal to women. This needs to be a collective initiative, a call to action for both men and women.
Since transitioning from an athlete into the sport business world, I often find myself in conferences and attending panels dedicated to the topic of women in sport. Debates ensue on the issues facing females in the community — girls dropping out of sport at alarming rates compared to boys, sports with unequal pay and opportunity, a lack of broadcast time, a lack of corporate support, and the need for more women in leadership positions.
Yet it's never the issues that alarm me. It's the general make-up of the group participating in these sessions — women promoting women to other women.
I can't help but wonder: if women want to see real change, don't we need men to engage in the conversation?
Beyond the playing field
As a freestyle skiing athlete, I was fortunate to excel in a sport that is comparatively gender progressive. Women earn equal prize money and are trained within a system that values their accomplishments similarly to their male counterparts'. My coaches, support system and leadership team were predominantly men who championed my success and encouraged my progression and achievements as a collective effort.
It wasn't until I began working in the business side of sport that I became acutely aware of the true lack of gender diversity.
The thing is, sport is bigger than just the final product on the playing field. The real meaty decisions affecting our athletes are made by the broader business players, not the athletes. It's the overabundance of male representation in our sport governing bodies, sport broadcasters, corporate sponsors, coaches and management teams that ultimately affect women in sport.
Unfortunately, the conversation always seems to stray to gender equality (or lack thereof) on the playing field, instead of how the lack of gender diversity in the offices far from the ice rink or soccer pitch directly contribute to the resulting outcome.
Diversity of thought
The decisions by corporations on which sports to spend marketing dollars on, the choices by our broadcasters on how and which sports are packaged for public consumption, and who leads our sport organizations all directly affect how women participate in sport and how they're compensated.
More women need to be part of these decisions if we are going to make real strides in achieving change all the way through the system. Since men hold most of the current decision-making power, shouldn't they be included at the table when we're talking about how to bring about change?
Having the conversation in insolation seems counterproductive. We need to work hard to create a space where men are encouraged to be a part of the dialogue, where they are comfortable championing women for power positions. We need an environment where the topic of women in sport doesn't scare men away.
Otherwise, are we not making the same mistake? I believe a room full of women attempting to bring about change is as short-sighted and detrimental as a group full of men doing the same.
Change is best made by encouraging both men and women in power positions to understand why gender equality matters in sport. Our strength is in our diversity of thought.
Collectively, we need to figure out how to champion the cause from the boardroom all the way down to the playing field to make sport bigger, better and more profitable for both men and women.