The business of sports and the quest for inclusion for women

Sports inspire passion and dedication, and they demand a level playing field. So why are women on the business side of the industry so sidelined?

Our survey of about 1,700 women working in the business of sports in North America found that the business trails all other industries on every dimension of inclusion. Women in sports administration face negative effects from engaging in workplaces dominated by men; they lack support for advancement; and in leadership roles, they work harder than their male peers to support their employees’ emotional wellbeing.

This research is the first of its kind to examine women’s inclusion in the business side of sports, and the findings are eye-opening. Given that women reported being 2.8 times more likely to leave their job when they do not feel included,1Women in the Workplace 2022,” McKinsey, October 18, 2022. our insights push the conversation beyond diversity and into considerations such as the sports industry’s ability to retain and develop women, which has wide-ranging consequences for its many stakeholders.

The organizations that recognize the urgency of this challenge and treat inclusion for women as a business priority stand to win big. And it is possible to rewrite the playbook: sports organizations can create inclusive spaces for women in administration to thrive as full teammates in the workplace by having top leadership commit and by engaging with difficult conversations regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

What we found: Lower levels of inclusion for women in sports administration

Our research found that women in sports administration experience lower levels of inclusion across all dimensions of the metric compared with women in other industries (Exhibit 1). While about 80 percent of women reported some positive experiences as individuals, they are much less likely to say their organization overall is fair.

Inclusion in the sports industry trails the cross-industry benchmark.

We also detailed the following findings in our report, Changing the game: Driving inclusion for women in the business of sports:

  • Only about 40 percent of the women surveyed agreed that their organizations are fair, with all employees receiving equitable treatment and equal chances to succeed.
  • Women are often the only person of their gender or racial identity—or both—at work. This experience of being an “only,” particularly if they have intersectional identities such as being Black or identifying with the LGBTQ+ community, translates into more experiences of microaggressions, such as having their competence questioned.
  • Women in sports administration are less likely than peers in other industries to have sponsors who can help steer their careers and advocate for them within their organizations.
  • While women in the sports industry are more likely than their peers in other sectors to feel they have the right skills to progress, most feel they need to leave their organizations to realize their goals.
  • Women in leadership positions in sports administration do more to support their teams compared with men in similar roles (Exhibit 2).
Women managers do more than their peers who are men to support the well-being of their teams.

Making women full teammates

More-inclusive work environments can help everyone flourish, and we know that the relationship between diversity on executive teams and the likelihood of financial outperformance has only grown stronger since we first measured it in 2014.2Diversity wins: How inclusion matters,” McKinsey, May 19, 2020. We also know that organizations that make commitments to DEI can and do make significant strides.3Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Lighthouses 2023,” McKinsey, January 13, 2023. So how can sports organizations get there? We present four initial actions:

  1. Create fairer organizations by debiasing people processes, and make sure that policies related to work-life balance are not only available but also used by everyone.
  2. Build leaders’ mentorship and sponsorship capabilities—and educate them on the difference between the two. Desirable behaviors can be reinforced and results measured.
  3. Get everyone involved in creating more-supportive work environments, with an emphasis on developing inclusive leaders who create space for difficult conversations and demonstrate care for the well-being of all employees.
  4. Make an individual’s minority status less relevant by retaining and hiring diverse employees.

DEI is a team sport, but commitment, dedication, persistence, and investments from leadership are critical to creating inclusive environments. Leaders should create a receptive space for both DEI work and women’s voices; leaders who model conversations and behaviors that create inclusion also create welcoming environments for women to voice their opinions and experiences and to bring their true selves to work.

If any industry should know about fairness, teamwork, and mentorship, it is sports. Building inclusive workplaces in sports administration requires participation from the whole team; fundamentally, it also requires offsetting the effects of women both feeling and being isolated. Top leadership must create room for women’s voices to be heard, and the industry must show the same dedication to fairness for women as it does to fairness in a game.

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