"No, I'm not the coach's wife. I work here!"

This was my canned response to the ever-present question of how I had the access or the knowledge I did working in the National Football League (NFL) and in men's college basketball. The implication of that question was clear: you don't belong. Many women who enter male-dominated fields deal with the same types of questions regularly. Finding footing and thriving looks different for everyone. But one thing looks the same: women are showing up more and more in these spaces and being as disruptive as ever!

I was fortunate enough to land my first job out of college in the NFL as a media and public relations intern. It was difficult landing that position, but I fought for it and began my career. It was a very public position, one almost always held by males, so my presence in these "sacred spaces" was often questioned. In my first week, one of the coaches approached me. The first thing he asked me was what I was doing there.

My roles in the NFL, and also serving as Director of Operations at a Division 1 men's basketball program, another predominantly male position, taught me a ton about life in the "boys club." Unfortunately, my experiences are nothing new to women working in the sports sector, especially in male sports. And similar to my transition into the legal industry, also heavily dominated by men at the top, the sexism and racism I've experienced in both industries has taught me how navigate each space successfully.

In my current role as the Director of Operations in the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Davis Wright Tremaine, I speak daily about the baked-in assumptions that only men can sit at the top of major organizations. Although that belief is still prevalent and it is rare to see women hold high-level positions in sports and law, the landscape of work and leadership continues to evolve.

To highlight a few trailblazing women:

  • Kim Ng kicked the door down in Major League Baseball (MLB). She is the highest-ranking female baseball executive, serving as the General Manager for the Florida Marlins. Michele Roberts serves as Executive Director of the National Basketball Association (NBA) Players Association.
  • Sam Rapoport has led the NFL's diversity efforts, serving as the Senior Director of Diversity and Inclusion. Out of the 65 member institutions in the NCAA's Power 5 Division 1 conferences, five women now serve as Athletic Directors.
  • And Kim Davis, who serves as the Senior Executive Vice President of Social Impact, Growth Initiatives and Legislative Affairs for the National Hockey League (NHL). This is progress, but although a shift is underway, it is still not enough—not by a landslide.

In the legal industry, it's not much better. When the National Association of Law Placement (NALP) published its 2020 Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms, women made up around 25% of partner-level positions, and only approximately one in five equity partners were women. It's not enough.

So why do I say all this? And what does all this mean to a young woman with aspirations of entering the sports industry or the legal field, both fields that on their face do not appear to put women in leadership positions?

How do we continue to inspire the next generation in spite of the lack of representation?

I've been asked this question many times, and I answer in one of the following ways:

  • Show up knowing it's going to be tough Right out of college I was hired as the first female intern in the media relations department for an NFL team. I was young, super ambitious and couldn't wait to change the world. Then, whoa! The smooth path I'd envisioned taking took hit after hit, with sexist comments, confused looks when I walked into important meetings, and people generally not believing I belonged. These spaces were quite literally created without women in mind. Understanding that from the start probably would have helped me prepare for day one being hard, through no fault of my own. I had great fellow interns that first year and we all stuck together, through the varying levels of hard. And I quickly learned that the "tough" would teach me more than anything else.
  • Do it anyway It's hard, right? No one believes you should be there, right? You're in over your head, right? So what? Keep going. Working in sports and, similarly, in law, the excuses get you nowhere. The ability to analyze the situation, make a plan and execute that plan are paramount. When I'm asked how I "made it," so to speak, I always give the same answer: I just did it anyway. Yes, I was terrified, every single day. Yes, I was furious I had to continue to prove myself, far more than my male counterparts. But I found daily wins, even the most mundane, and added them to my tool belt. And I can guarantee some of the most successful women in these fields did the same thing.
  • Get to know all the people One of the keys to success for any woman with aspirations of destroying the status quo is to get to know the people in those positions early and learn from them. It can be incredibly difficult to get access, let alone time, from people in charge. But you have to! Find a common interest, figure out pockets of time that person has for a quick chat, align with their support staff and get to know what's on the horizon. Whatever that looks like for you, do it! Learning from the people in these positions, whether men or women, will help inform how you move up!
  • Get them on your side and do the work For any person entering these industries, it is important to find allies and mentors. People who will talk about you when you're not in the room. People who will make a call on your behalf and sing your praises. One of the most pivotal moments of my career came when my boss had to leave town for a meeting and put me in charge of a potential number one draft pick. I had limited instructions but his total confidence. I used this as an opportunity to show what I could do and prove myself trustworthy. I put a plan together, presented it to the General Manager of the team and executed a flawless press conference, all on my own. We ended up drafting this athlete first overall, which came with an onslaught of media coverage. During the General Manager's intro speech to ALL football staff at the beginning of the NFL Draft, he called my name. Naturally, I was frozen. Trying to think, "did I forget to get him something?" And my boss gave me an equally puzzling look. He addressed the staff and told them all what a great job I did on the fly and how well I prepared the athlete for the press conference. This was from the man in charge, and he was not the easiest person to impress! After that my credibility skyrocketed, and I was on my way. I tell this story to illustrate that your work product and effort will not go unnoticed, and that you never know who is watching!
  • Bring your friends along! "Each one, teach one" is a great way to characterize this suggestion. It is important that when given a chance, we continue to bring other women with us. It can be hard enough to advance in these spaces, so taking time to teach, answer questions and listen is incredibly valuable. Share those stories with an unhappy ending. Talk about what you did to get better and rebound. We've all been exposed to the success stories, but we hear less about the missteps and lessons learned.

The good news is that women truly are breaking down barriers in the sports and legal sectors. We're seeing more and more women on the sidelines at NFL games serving as coaches and as part of the scouting and evaluation process, as well as more women in the front office of professional teams and beyond. Organizations like Women Leaders in College Sports have made it their mission to "develop, connect, and advance women working in sports."

Women are joining the legal industry in droves, with the percentage of women associates reaching over 47% in 2020, the highest in the 28 years that NALP has been collecting this data.

All of this is very promising as we continue to grow and develop the future of these industries.

As someone who has lived a professional life in both, I'm proud to be part of the solution and watch diverse women continue to confuse people who still hold the belief that these spaces are only held for men.

And with all of this, my wish is that no one will ever have to answer the proverbial, "what are you doing here?" question. Because in the not-so-distant future, the statement will turn into, "I'm so glad you're here!"