The NFL or National Football League, like many sports leagues, is dominated by men. However, with society becoming more proactive about tackling gender inequality in all industries, women are making strides in the NFL—as executives, referees, and staff members. Considering that about 47% of the NFL’s about 187 million fans are women, more female NFL employees is a wise business decision as well.
As female executives in the NFL, we are few and far between, but slowly making headway. In 2016, there were about 31 female executives in the league at the vice president level or above. 26.5% of the NFL’s vice presidents are women. In terms of general manager, Susan Spencer was the first vice president, general manager, and legal counsel of the Philadelphia Eagles in the late 1980s. Catherine Raiche is the Cleveland Browns’ assistant general manager and vice president. Both women worked their way up step-by-step with the general manager role being the pinnacle of many NFL employees’ careers. As women in a male-dominated sport, it’s challenging, but also rewarding to take on the primary responsibility for players’ transactions and contract discussions.
Women referees are similarly uncommon, with there being a grand total of two as of last year. There’s Mississippi native, Sarah Thomas, who worked herself up from officiating high school and college football to being the first woman referee ever to oversee a Super Bowl (Super Bowl 55). Her advice for the future leaders of tomorrow is, “don’t do it for recognition…do it because you love it.” The first African-American female referee and New Yorker, Maia Chaka, similarly chartered her career in sports and worked her way up officiating high school football to becoming a NFL referee in 2021. Chaka echoed Thomas’ focus on passion rather than fame, describing her position as a “privilege I’ve been chosen to represent women and women of color in the most popular sport in America, proving I can defy the odds and overcome.”
In addition to the higher-ranking positions that come with more visibility, women staff members in the NFL overall account for about 39% of the league’s total staff. Despite that rather high number, especially for the sports industry, just this year, six state attorney generals have had to urge the NFL to improve working conditions for women. In fact, women of various positions publicly alleged that the NFL has a strongly sexist culture that routinely passes over women because of their gender, host parties where there are women prostitutes, and foster a blatant culture of sexual harassment. For the 39% of female NFL employees who are keeping the NFL running, it’s essential that the league honors women by making it a more equitable workplace.
Photo: Charles LeClaire, USA TODAY Sports