I want to shine some light on a topic that we, as professional women, don't talk about enough: Competition and judgment among women in the sports industry. I chose to talk about this in a confidential forum because I would hate to offend the women I work with, and I don't want to forward my at-work reputation as someone who just can't keep my mouth shut.
I am 34 and in my 10th year as a female working in the sports industry. I have felt empowered at times and marginalized at times but mostly feel somewhere in between those two things. There's almost always a battle that I feel like I'm fighting when it comes to inclusion and I, being neither of the established generation, or of the freshest talent, often feel like I'm alone in that fight. Just recently, however, I’ve learned that I'm not alone in the fight, even when it feels like it.
I’ve consistently worked with both women from my mother’s generation and women a generation younger than me. I've often felt like women in my generation, while definitely having had the benefit of building on the progress of those who came before us, are feeling the pain of marginalization especially hard. My reasoning has been that the previous generations empowered us to believe we could be a force in this industry, and because of that, there are more of us attempting to make a living in sports. Logically, that means there are more of us being told no by the male “dinosaurs” from earlier generations that are still holding positions of power. And whether or not this is based on reality, it has been my experience that the women from the generation that came before, other than some every vocal and well-known exceptions, are “okay” with the inequities that still exist based on the fact that they are rarely the ones speaking out against them today.
In regards to the younger generation, without sounding cliché, (it’s worth being said, in my defense, that most clichés are cliché because they’re true, but I digress), they don’t seem to have the struggles of my and older generations. The industry they are entering is, as a whole, more “used to” having women as a presence than the one we pushed our way into. Because of this, younger women just don’t seem to have the urge to fight for what's right like the generations before them.
These are the thoughts and feelings I've always had about my older and younger counterparts until recently. And before my more experienced counterparts go calling me dramatic or ill-informed of THEIR struggles and the young women call me out of touch, let me explain how these views have changed of late.
As one of only three women in my department, and the one in the middle, (one much older and one a fair amount younger), I often am the only one (it feels like, anyway) noticing the inequities that surround us every day. It wasn't until the retirement of the older woman began to draw near that I began talking to her more about the beginning of her career (which, as I look back, did me a disservice because she has a lot of experience to learn from). Because she was so close to retirement, we began talking about how things have changed throughout her 40 years in the industry and something became clear to me: Even though she often appeared to be uninterested in the inequities that are pretty regularly perpetrated against her in our place of work, through listening to her stories, it’s obvious to me now that she isn't the weak, quiet, complicit woman that I sometimes thought her to be.
I know now that her strength and the strength of the women in that generation came from their ability to cope quietly with those inequities. These women have been told over the course of decades by the powerful men they work for to be quiet, that they are only what they were hired to be and will never be more and that it's futile to want more. More often than not, they probably didn't take that sitting down at first. But as the years went by they began to see that they would be most successful not being the squeaky wheel and knowing what hills to die on. It is only lately that I have come to see the immense strength that must come with the ability to do that every day...for decades.
After having this epiphany about the matriarch in our office, I asked myself to rethink how I feel about my younger female co-worker. In general, she irked me because she often seemed oblivious to my struggles. She was the recipient of opportunities and respect that my older coworker and I often were not. I found this to be intentionally ignorant, a little bit lazy and stereotypically entitled. Didn't she see that she was being favored? Was it a little bit because she happened to be young and beautiful as well as intentionally easy to get along with, never putting up a fight about anything? Didn't she care that her female counterparts weren't being treated equally? Why was she so content to just keep plugging along with her comfortable treatment and great opportunities that the rest of the women weren't getting?
Again, it wasn't until lately, when I challenged myself to put myself in her shoes, did I see it differently. Of all the things I can say about that generation that bother me (sounding like the proverbial angry old man across the street now), I can not say that this specific young woman isn't a hard worker. She puts in huge hours and is amazing at her job and I give her credit for that. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought that her strength doesn't come from sacrificing opportunities and reputation for the good fight, which is what I do, or being able to live with not fighting, like our older coworker. Rather, it comes from quietly keeping her head down and running with the amazing opportunities she's been given, even if those opportunities aren't given out equally. Her fight is getting herself to the highest place she can and not looking back for anyone. She is showing the world what we as women can do when given equal (or at least closer to equal) opportunities and that is important for our cause too. She minds her own business and doesn’t involve herself in the “drama” of each little battle. That makes her more likable to the powers that be, and if that means they promote her more, pay her more or give her more opportunities, that, in the long run, is good for women as a whole.
Before asking myself to re-evaluate, I thought there was only one way to be a strong woman in this industry and that meant taking on every fight that came at me, highlighting every inequity that I saw. That is why I often felt alone at work because my older counterpart wasn't fighting and neither was my younger one, just me. My strength is that I am able to see each inequity and have the willingness to fight them. My weakness is that I often cannot tell which battles are realistic ones, and because of that, I am often seen as the troublemaker or whistleblower, and that isn’t always (hardly ever), welcomed in my world.
When I think about what I have to learn from my older and younger counterparts, I think it's the ability to decide which hills to die on and which to let go like the older generations did. And from the younger women, I want to learn that not every fight has to be my fight. I will be the strongest version of me if I can take what there is to learn from every strong woman around me, now that I see their strengths for what they truly are.