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Where are the female leaders in sports?

It’s time to exercise the political will to make gender inclusion a priority, and then create action plans to make that inclusion a reality.

The Rio Olympics underscores one of the fundamental contradictions in women’s sports today. On the plus side, the performances of elite female athletes are commanding respect and headlines worldwide, and the number of women who watch and consume sports of all kinds continues to grow. At the same time, the inclusion of women in the halls of power of influential sports organizations remains a frustrating and slow-moving work in progress.

According to a recent study conducted by Richard Lapchick, Ph.D., a prominent expert on diversity and social justice issues within the sports industry, women are significantly underrepresented in the leadership ranks of major global sports bodies, most notably international sports federations (or IFs).

The ramifications of this gender imbalance are significant. In the sports world, IFs perform myriad critical functions, including, but not limited to:

Developing players and coaches
Approving rules of play
Organizing competitions
Authorizing funding
Devising marketing and television strategies to broaden the reach of sports to fans

Without more women as part of their leadership tiers, IFs are missing important input as they make decisions critical to the future growth and health of both men’s and women’s sports worldwide.

After spending eight years (from 2006–14) as the U.S. representative for men’s and women’s basketball on the central board of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), I can attest that Lapchick’s characterization of Olympic board rooms as an “exclusive club of men” is largely true. Based on my experiences, here’s a formula to improve gender inclusion as the glow of Rio fades and the Olympic world turns its attention to Tokyo 2020 and beyond.

Parting thoughts from 2016 Rio Olympics

1. Acknowledge the facts.

Lapchick’s exhaustive report, which included more than 8,500 data points on the gender makeup of IFs and their zone and national affiliates across the Olympic spectrum, is an unequivocal barometer and should be required reading for anyone operating in the international sports realm. Hopefully, Lapchick or other researchers will build on this baseline data and produce follow-up reports so that improvement (or the lack of it) can be gauged.

2. Include more women in top decision-making roles.

The number of women on the boards and committees that wield the most influence in international sports simply needs to grow. Even in basketball, which enjoys wide popularity among females worldwide, the number of women on key bodies and committees at the international, zone and national levels is startlingly low.

In some IFs, including FIBA, a quota system is in place to ensure that each administrative zone has one female representative at the board level. These self-imposed minimums need to continue, but they can’t turn into maximums, and representation can’t end there. At FIBA, an executive committee with broad powers was created in 2014, but it has no female members. Unless women are part of the principal decision-making bodies of IF structures, their influence will only go so far.


3. Include more women in commissions.

Women should be better represented within IF commissions, which play an important role in developing specifics in many policy areas. At FIBA, a women’s commission, which had been established many years ago to focus on women’s basketball issues, was largely dormant during the last few years of my second term and eventually abolished in 2014; a promise by FIBA leadership to appoint more women to other key commissions (including finance, ethics, legal and competition) has produced limited results (women make up less than 20% of the members of the seven current FIBA standing commissions). Commission appointments can also be a good way for IFs to train future female board or executive committee candidates.

4. Create and enforce gender targets.

The IOC, which currently allows each IF to set its own gender balance governance standards, should establish clearer (and stricter) minimums and force accountability (for example, by withholding funding) if these levels aren’t met. If sanctions would be too difficult to enact, then incentives and rewards for organizations that demonstrate progress would be an alternative.

In terms of targets, 30% by 2024 is a start; higher goals should be implemented for sports where female participation is robust. Token representation by one or two women on a board or committee of 10 or 15 (or more) can no longer be an acceptable standard.

5. Centralize the candidate pool for board openings.

There could be value in establishing a centrally managed pool of IF board candidates across all sports, so that when terms end and slots open, IFs can easily access replacement candidates to consider. Executive search firms, which have a prominent role in management and board placement in the sports industry, could be natural partners. IFs can help themselves by creating programs to identify and groom future women leaders; the oft-cited claim that qualified women “aren’t available” or “can’t be found” is a cop-out and a poor excuse for inaction.

Rating NBC's complete multi-platform coverage of 2016 Rio Olympic Games

6. Make women an organizational priority.

At FIBA, I found that the lack of urgency on women’s matters extended beyond governance. During my tenure, Central Board members regularly requested that strategic discussions about women and basketball be made agenda items for Central Board meetings or quadrennial sessions of the FIBA World Congress. We were routinely turned down on the grounds that the organization had a full plate and more pressing matters to deal with. When I was at the WNBA, then-NBA commissioner David Stern made women’s basketball a priority; international leaders across all sports need to follow his example if real progress is to be made.

7. Focus on women’s sports development.

The need for focus and for resources is especially important at the women’s competition level. In basketball, the dominance of U.S. women on the court should be a natural incentive for other countries to upgrade investments in player development and coaching so they can narrow the gap, much like international men’s programs did after the original U.S. men’s Dream Team came so forcefully onto the scene in 1992.

In 2012, after much lobbying from the Central Board, FIBA hired a part-time employee to assess women’s basketball globally and make recommendations about how other countries could move their programs along. In 2014, the employee left the company; she has not been replaced, and the future development strategy remains unclear.

Without dedicated staff to focus day in and day out on the many components of women’s sport development, no sport has much of a chance to move the needle.

8. Women need to assert themselves.

With so few women involved in the FIBA governance hierarchy, I sensed at times an unspoken pressure on the ones who did sit at the table to fit in and not “rock the boat.” I was often struck by how some of my female colleagues on the Central Board didn’t speak during meetings, squandering precious opportunities to weigh in on matters of import. Women who serve on IF boards have a responsibility to contribute and make their presence felt if the full benefits of their participation are to be realized.

To be sure, the areas where more (and louder) women’s voices would enrich the dialogue at FIBA and other IFs are plentiful: imagine a discussion about whether to allow hijabs during competitions without Muslim women at the table, or how to extend the reach of a sport to a new generation of fans without women in the room to offer thoughts about marketing, sponsorship and ticket sales strategies specific to the female demographic. Women’s perspectives would equally inform decisions on ethics, social responsibility programs, medical issues and a host of other topics.

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9. Establish independent advocacy organization.

Title IX and the force of federal law account for much of the progress women in the U.S. have made on playing surfaces and in sports leadership roles over the past 40 years. This law is without equal globally; as long as that remains the case, continued outside pressure and advocacy will be required if governance reforms are to be made. The advocacy function might be best accomplished by an independent global women’s sports entity or consortium modeled after the Women’s Sports Foundation, which has brought significant attention to women’s sports issues in the U.S. since its founding in 1972. An advocacy structure could double as a think tank on strategic initiatives that could benefit global women’s sports across the board.

The oxygen needed to fuel progress in the international sports world ultimately must come from within. Current leaders need to grasp what women mean to the future of sports and exercise the political will to make gender inclusion a priority, and then create action plans to make inclusion happen.

The world keeps hurtling forward, and the influence of women across so many sectors of society worldwide is only picking up steam. Let’s hope the international sports world isn’t left in the dust.

Val Ackerman served as the U.S. representative for men’s and women’s basketball for the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), was founding president of the WNBA, past president of USA Basketball and is currently commissioner of the Big East Conference.​