What if We Told you that Women in Sports have Broken the Glass Ceiling?

Women in Sports

By Bernard Goudard and Fernanda Arreola

We have often wondered if there are examples of businesses that have overcome the social challenge of providing equal opportunities while generating sustainable business models. In this article, we review some staggering examples of businesses in sports that have just managed to find such equilibrium.   

The quest for equality 

It is natural today to think that women and men must earn the same living when withholding the same competencies. However, in Europe, in 2022 the gender gap was 12,7%, which means that women make 87.3 euros for every 100 euros earned by men. The issue is complex, and it requires the distinction between different terms. This is why we want to begin by establishing the definitions of equality, parity, and equity.  

When we speak about gender equality, we refer to a situation that grants equal access to rights and obligations regardless of gender. At work, this means that any person should be capable of earning a living based on the capacity and skills that he/she provides. In the business arena, gender equality means that we have access to whatever product or service we want. In human rights, it means that regardless of our background, during our lives we will receive equal opportunities. 

Meanwhile, parity is a numerical concept. It means that in any situation we consider that there is an equal representation of men and women. This is often measured as the ratio of female to male, aiming for a 1:1 ratio to indicate equal numbers. 

Finally, gender equity emphasizes fairness. This involves that we acknowledge the differences between men, women, and LGBTQIA+ and that provided such differences we grant access to similar opportunities. As an example, while equality would mean that we give the same number of holidays to women and men, equity would take into consideration situations like pregnancy, handicap, and others.  

And if sports were a lighthouse for women in business?  

What struck our attention is that under such complicated circumstances, some examples of organizations have started to set new conditions and standards to reduce all these gaps.

Granting equal access to the practice of sports is a subject that has sparked long debate in the fields of education, politics, and NGOs. Today, the access, resources available, and remuneration in sports are far from equal to all. Just last month, a tournament that had been champions of equality sparked controversy due to the scheduling of men’s and women’s matches (during Roland Garros a single female match was scheduled in the evening, the prime time of most sports).  

What struck our attention is that under such complicated circumstances, some examples of organizations have started to set new conditions and standards to reduce all these gaps.  

When it comes to equality, some governments are creating legislation that suggests minimal levels of salary for women who are practicing professional sports. For example in Spain, the government has established that men and women representing the country in international tournaments must receive the same remuneration. 

Regarding parity, the 2024 Olympic Games will come to history as the first to achieve full gender parity.  Out of the 10,500 athletes, 5,250 will be men, and 5,250 will be women  

Regarding equity, in the United Kingdom, a new guidance has been published where women, men, and governing institutions can grant access to all resources and aids available for professional pregnant sportswomen. 

As the reader can note, these examples concern institutional initiatives. But what about when it comes to making change while assuring economic sustainability? Our next section seeks to answer this question.   

Businesses that have broken the glass ceiling (and their secret)  

Some years ago, Natalie Portman was watching a soccer match with some A-list friends when she realized there were still many issues to make sports genderblind. Portman, a founding member of Time’s Up, a movement that seeks equal pay for women in sports, realized there was an opportunity to merge the need for fair treatment of women in sports and a new business with a mission. 

Along with two Co-founders (and many Hollywood personalities), she gave birth to Angel City FC. Angel City is a club where mission and capital can coexist. The business model is built on driving the sport forward, delivering a great experience to fans and players, and positively impacting the community. Building on this passionate quest, Angel City has been able to pack stadiums with fans, pay fair salaries, and contribute 10% of its revenue back to the community of Los Angeles. Angel City FC is today valued at 180 million dollars, the highest club’s valuation in the league.  

A second example is the Olympique Lyonnais, the most successful women football club in Europe. Michelle Kang bought the women’s section of Olympique Lyonnais in December 2023 to form the first MCO (multi-club Ownership) dedicated entirely to women’s football. Already the owner of the Washington Spirit franchise in the NWSL and the London City Lionesses club in the English Championship, she stated from the beginning that, to be successful, the club should generate new synergies in favor of women’s sport and create a favorable ecosystem

The business model is built on driving the sport forward, delivering a great experience to fans and players, and positively impacting the community.

In building momentum toward its breakeven point, Michelle Kang has bet on innovation as the key source to attire a new public. She seeks now to develop the infrastructure of OL Féminin by building for its use, both a training center as well as a new stadium of capacity between 15,000 and 20,000 places. Her approach is simple “we need to train the players like women. We shouldn’t follow a training methodology designed for men.” 

In her spirit to train women as women, Michelle Kang is investing in the creation of an innovation lab that uses research and technology to develop ideas and then adapts them to the particularities of American and European soccer. Finally, Kang is also known for keeping an eye on the career opportunities that she provides for her employees. Amongst her initiatives are scholarships and internships oriented for example to first-generation college students or women in STEM. 

A last example is the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association). Representing more than 500,000 athletes in the United States this association organizes the activities of 90 championships in 24 sports. Founded over 100 years ago, the association has always kept the mission of regulating sport and protecting young athletes. In the last couple of years, its efforts in providing higher visibility to its women’s leagues have paid off with record-breaking seasons. In 2023, the University of Nebraska’s volleyball game against Omaha became one of the highest-attended women’s sporting events in history, being watched by a crowd of over 92,000. More recently, the record-breaker basketball player Caitlin Clark has propelled the attendance, media mentions, and coverage of the entire sport.   

The NCAA has implemented several initiatives and policies over the years to advance women’s sports. First, they have often reviewed the state of parity in women sport’s, taking after each audit time to generate changes thanks to the recommendations from such reports. It has also developed tools to measure equity amongst college students. In using 200 questions, the NCAA can assess if their gender equity principles are appropriately applied across all leagues. Finally, the NCAA works on promoting the training of female coaches and leaders, to improve the existing imbalance in sports leadership roles.  

What can I learn from these examples?  

We believe that these examples shed light on opportunities, and practices that can help businesses across industries, to work on gender equity, parity, and equality. Following we propose some ideas to better use these insights.  

1. Leapfrog to move faster 

Instead of making gradual progress, you can just leapfrog and propose major changes in your organization. As with our previous examples, set new rules that defeat existing practices and force action amongst your different business units.  An audit can help understand where equity in your organization is, leading to actionable objectives to take it to the next level. 

2. Leverage Feminism  

Regardless of your industry, if you want to work on innovating for gender equality use imagery, language, phrases, quotes, or slogans that speak about feminism and social justice. Similar to what happens in sustainable businesses, speaking out about your actions, in a language that is known to your audience, will favor the progress of your business in response to the values and leadership that you undertake. If you do things to make progress, speak about it, share your successes, and generate a conversation. 

3. Tie smart partnerships 

Michelle Kang and Natalie Portman understood that to make their businesses prosper, they had to work strategically along with key stakeholders within their ecosystem. If your business is engaged in supporting gender equality, you must consider reaching out to other members of the community including public servants, suppliers, thought leaders, regulators, and whistleblowers. Working with them can help you influence new regulations, anticipate changes, incorporate new alliances, and help others move in the same direction. 

In conclusion, investing in equity is not only a form of engaging in a fair world but also a smart business opportunity. Organizations that have gone far beyond the glass ceiling have found an expanded business opportunity driven by a larger public and new forms of generating engagement. As with our examples, we hope investors will see that investing in women is a good bet. 

 

About the Authors 

Bernard Goudard

With 15 years of experience in sports management and entrepreneurship, Bernard Goudard is committed to fostering sustainable and equitable football. Known for significantly boosting revenue and cultivating team spirit, he is now dedicated to advancing women’s football. By leveraging his expertise, he aims to drive positive growth and create new opportunities in the sport. 

Fernanda Arreola

Fernanda Arreola is a Professor of Strategy, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship at ESSCA and a researcher focusing on service innovation, governance, and social entrepreneurship. Fernanda has held numerous managerial posts and possesses a range of international academic and professional experience. 

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