The Changing Role of Female Athletes is a Sign of Progress

by Jennifer Erickson

On Oct. 27, 2015, President Barack Obama spoke to the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team at the White House after their crushing World Cup victory. “This team taught all of America’s children that ‘playing like a girl’ means you’re a badass,” he said. Sports Illustrated (SI) named this same women’s soccer team as its 2015 “Inspiration of the Year.” And, for the first time in its history, SI unveiled a “Sportsperson of the Year,” awarding this title to Serena Williams. Women had graced the cover of SI before, but not as “Sportswomen of the Year.” Subtle difference? I think not.

Evolution Revolution

The role of female athletes has evolved. We have gone from battling on the playing field—like the 1973 Battle of the Sexes when tennis pro Billie Jean King trounced Bobby Riggs—to leveling the playing field. Many credit Title IX for creating a pivotal shift in women’s sports. This federal law was passed in 1972 to address discrimination in educational institutions, creating the right to the same athletic opportunities for females in schools. 

Today’s female athletes have burst through these open doors and blazed trails previously unimaginable just a few decades ago. Who could have predicted that Danica Patrick, an IndyCar and NASCAR driver, would be named Rookie of the Year in 2005, or that Ronda Rousey, the first woman to sign with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, would be awarded an ESPY for “Best Fighter” (male or female).

What about the two female reporters who at the 1975 NHL All-Star game became the first women to push their way through the locker room doors to gain access to the male athletes for post-game interviews.  And then, in 1981, a true breakthrough occurred: Rhonda Glenn became the first full-time female sportscaster for a national television network, ESPN.

Would these trailblazing women have predicted a female coach in the NFL? Well, the shock is over: Jen Welter was hired in 2015 as a coach for the Arizona Cardinals.

Girls today are less concerned about proving themselves on the boys’ field and more about proving themselves on any field, or slopes (Lindsey Vonn), or the mountains (Sasha DiGiulian). This is evolution, and we have achieved it together.

Female Forebears

We honor those who came before us, including Althea Gibson, who blazed the trail for Serena Williams. Gibson was not only a female athlete, but she was the first black athlete to play in a major tournament; she went on to win Wimbledon in 1957. After retiring from tennis, she became the first black woman to compete in a Pro Golf Tour. I suppose her true place in history was solidified when she appeared as the Google Doodle on Aug. 25, 2015!

Women are no longer pushing their way into men’s sports; we are playing our own sports because we are badasses. We are inspiring because of what we are accomplishing, not exclusively because we are women accomplishing it.

Last week, my daughter, Alix, 13, saw Gerlinde Katlenbrunner speak. She was the first woman to climb the world’s 14 largest peaks without supplemental oxygen. The next morning, Alix was buzzing along on her way to school, and she showed me picture after picture on her phone of the cliffs Katlenbrunner scaled and the fierce elements she overcame. My daughter was not amazed that this was a woman, she was amazed at the cliff she climbed and the challenges she overcame. She was inspired by her acts and not her gender. This is evolution.

The Thrill of Victory

Last year, when we watched Connecticut win its 10th title in Women’s College Basketball and Alissa St. Laurent win the 77-mile Canadian Death Race, we were inspired by their confidence, skill, and passion, not their sex. Women leaders at all levels who bring these same traits to the workplace will feel the thrill of victory not because they are women, but because they are leaders.

When you watch the female athletes this summer in the 2016 Olympics, be inspired by what got them there: their tenacity. They’re no different from the first women in the Olympics in Paris in 1900, where they comprised 22 of the 997 athletes. By the 2014 Winter Olympics, women’s events comprised 50 percent of the total. I would say that is a level playing field.  

Women’s roles in sports have evolved greatly, the doors are open, so play your role, because the field is leveling, and you are a badass.

Jennifer Erickson is CEO of Kirk LLC. She is based in Scottsville, Ariz.