The Global Community of Women in High School Sports
“Be brave enough to start conversations that matter.” These are the words I continue to repeat. These are the words I needed to believe. I was a female working in a male-dominated industry. Often I was told I did not belong. Often I was told my opinion didn’t matter. I had to be brave enough to start the conversations that mattered. I had to remind myself of that. If I am honest, it took years for me to be brave enough. I was mad enough. I just wasn’t brave enough. I wasn’t even sure where to start.
I’ll start my story in the middle. It was years before I was brave enough to start the conversation. I was no longer mad; I was inspired. You see, I had had enough. I had had enough of walking into a room of people — all men — and they did not acknowledge me. I was tired of being asked if I was in the right place. I had enough of being invisible.Being brave means taking a leap of faith. It means being willing to push yourself into a place that most likely will, at first, be very uncomfortable. Being brave means being willing to lead. I was ready to do all of those things. I had some reservations, no doubt, but it was time to start the conversation. It was time to be seen.
It sounds as though I was gearing up for war or facing a huge medical crisis. Rather, I was living life as a female Athletic Director. I don’t say this to ask for pity. I don’t want pity. If you are a female who wants to be an Athletic Director, I don’t say this as a scare tactic. If you were one of the men who looked through me, I don’t say this to make you feel bad — I say this because I want you to hear what it’s like to be the only woman in the room. If you can see me, you will hear me. I had to decide if I was going to allow being the only woman in the room to continue to intimidate me or if I was going to be brave enough to start the conversations that mattered. I chose to empower myself and to start the conversation.
I became aware that I needed to use my position as “the only” to benefit other women; those who couldn’t be in the room or at the table. It was here that the Global Community of Women in High School Sports was created. It was here where I became brave enough to start conversations that mattered.
Beginning the conversation meant I had to counter every preconceived notion my male peers had about me. Though these men never once had a conversation with me, I had to refute them. Those false assumptions never allowed for the men in the room to hear me. I didn’t fit their narrative of what a high school athletic director looked like. I had to find ways for them to get to know me, not the person they assumed I was. In turn, I needed to get to know them. Having these preconceived notions about me made my job that much harder. The visual I like to use is that of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, the great dancing duo. Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did but backward and in heels; and that is how I feel every day as a female athletic director. I am doing my job backward and in heels. As women, we are expected to perform at least as well as our male colleagues but without pointing out why what we are doing is actually more challenging. We sit shoulder to shoulder with our male colleagues doing the same job but with a higher degree of difficulty because of the preconceived notions of women in sports and that is the game-changer.
Every time I walk into a meeting, I know I will be viewed as too masculine and, at the same time, too feminine, simply because I am a female athletic director. People have told me my place is on the sideline, not at the table or the meeting. I have walked with my husband through the vendor fair at the national conference and every single vendor approaches my husband for the sale. The vendors assume he is the athletic director. I have had vendors try to sell me equipment for football or baseball, things I don’t need because I work at an all-girls’ school. I have been told on more than one occasion “that must suck — working at an all-girls’ school — because girls’ sports are boring and not as good as boys’ sports”. “Not as good as boys sports” — this is a sentiment I face every day. While it may be their reality, I have the added responsibility as a woman in sports to broaden perspectives. I have the opportunity to educate; there is a better way to address me, to view girls and sports, and to hear the female perspective.
This responsibility was the genesis behind the Global Community of Women in High School Sports. If I was to change the lens through which my male colleagues looked at me and my female peers, seeing us as more than just visitors in their male space, I needed to first find support from and with people who looked like me. Therein lies the problem, finding people who looked like me, female athletic directors. I live and work in a state with over 500 Athletic Directors, yet very few are females. This is where the global part came in. If I was going to have a major impact, a global impact, a “go big or go home” impact then I needed females from all around the globe so our collective voice could be heard. There simply weren’t enough females in my county, much less my state to have a united presence.
I walk the fine line between being an introvert and an extrovert. So trust me when I say taking that first step was the hardest; reaching out and connecting. I decided it was time to unsubscribe from doubt and decide to be confident. I believe confidence is a choice and it is perfected over time and through experiences. I choose to be confident. Immediately, I was rewarded. Upon making those connections I was instantly inspired, energized and in awe of the amazing female athletic directors, I met. The best thing about those connections? They wanted to be a part of the movement, the education; The Global Community of Women in High School Sports. A number of us had previously inquired to other organizations to see if they would create a space for us. The answer was that no one saw a need for it. Of course, they didn’t see a need for it. They had a seat at the table and for various reasons couldn’t see why women were not at the table as well.
My mantra for life is “this is good”. It means finding the good in all situations, even those that appear to be negative or challenging. When the COVID-19 pandemic closed the doors to my school and those across the country, the need to connect virtually skyrocketed. So if I am looking for the good during this time of uncertainty it is that by being pushed into the world of virtual connection, it allows for the Global Community to connect on a scale that had never before been considered. When once I thought our only connection would be through email and the National Athletic Directors Conference, the opportunity to meet weekly “face to face” became a reality. It also became a lifeline.
In March of 2020, The Global Community began weekly conversations. We discussed what was happening in our schools all across the nation. We leaned on each other for wisdom and support as we navigated a spring unlike any other. We also were able to invite speakers from various institutes and organizations to share their insights and opportunities. This fellowship was so different from any other experience I had previously had in relation to high school athletics. It was also an experience that I knew needed to continue. We were doing well; we were being heard. We were being seen.
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We, women, are an inclusive community. You learn through diversity. It is necessary for men to be members of our community and we welcome them. The only way our voices will be heard is if we can be seen. The Global Community has allowed us to be seen. The Global Community reminds us that being the “only” woman in the room doesn’t mean you have to be alone. This inclusive community is one in which a woman can proudly own that she is able to join the conversation.
We have to ask ourselves, “What are we doing to create space for and invite the next generation of female athletic directors to the table? It is our collective responsibility to ensure that the legacy we leave is open doors and seats at the table. If young women can see us, they can be us! We must be role models. We must continue to demand our seat so as to ensure the next generation can focus on more than fighting for “a seat at the table.”
If you are still skeptical of me sitting at your table, I leave you with this — you want me at your table because I can provide a different voice, a different perspective. The people at your table should reflect the people it represents (high school girls play high school sports). Diversity at your table advances change. Having me at your table will help build a culture in which everyone feels and knows they have a voice.
The Global Community invites you and welcomes you to have an impact in high school athletics that go beyond the courts or the fields. We invite you to create a legacy that welcomes everyone to have a seat at the table.
Jen Brooks, CMAA, is the athletic director of Ursuline Academy in St. Louis, MO, and is the founder of The Global Community of Women in High School Sports. You can visit their website here: https://globalcommunityofwomeninsports.com/