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Sheila C. Johnson

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Women Have to Champion One Another

Posted: 06/15/2011 2:18 pm

This month marks the 39th anniversary of the signing of Title IX, which broke down the barriers to opportunity for women, on the playing field and in the classroom.

The results have been dramatic: In 1971, 300,000 high school girls played sports; today, that number is more like 3 million. Women now outnumber men in undergraduate and graduate enrollment, and earn more doctoral degrees. They are increasingly visible in positions of authority, from the C-Suite to the Supreme Court.

Yet, there's still far to go before we can claim true equality for women -- in sports, or in the workplace. And while it's tempting to blame everything on male chauvinist bias, the truth is, women are part of the problem.

As an owner of three professional sports teams in Washington DC, I know that many corporate sponsors still look at women's sports as second string. Men's sports teams are front page news; women's achievements get buried in the back. Yet, as Patrick Pexton, ombudsman of the Washington Post, writes, these choices reflect the reality that "women as well as men are more interested in men's pro teams and men's sports generally than they are in women's teams or women's sports, and by large margins." If women don't think women's pro sports are worth watching, then why should anyone else?

Some studies show that even female athletes say they'd rather play for a male coach. Likewise, in the workplace, while 43 percent of Americans say they don't care about the gender of their bosses, among those who do, even women say they'd rather work for a man.

I've heard too many stories from young women who've reached out to more senior female colleagues for career guidance and advice, only to be rebuffed or ignored. I've seen too many women engage in the backstabbing behavior captured in a line from Bridesmaids: "Why can't you be happy for me and then go home and talk about me behind my back like a normal person?" Worst of all, studies show that while men are more likely than women to be workplace bullies, 80 percent of female bullies target other women.

It could be that women are fighting each other because there are still so few spots at the top. Women hold more than half of all management, professional, and related positions, yet, according to research organization Catalyst, just 13.5 percent of executive officer jobs.

But if women won't champion their female colleagues, then why would their male superiors? I say, it's time to start cheering for the home team -- not out of some syrupy sisterhood, but because if we don't stand up and make some noise, then no one else will either. Women have got to be more willing to support and speak out for one another -- and, at the very least, to stop blocking, betraying, or belittling one another's success.

So, here's a challenge: In honor of Title IX, take your family to a women's sporting event. Celebrate the strength and competitive spirit of the women on the court or field. Pay attention to the way those female teammates trust, collaborate, and communicate with each other, and bring that kind of leadership and mutual support back into the workplace as well.

If our society is to fully champion women, women have to champion one another.

 
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