Tackling The Future: CEO's Game Plan To End Gender Bias In Sports, Tech

10/31/2017 03:24 pm ET Updated Oct 31, 2017
 Lisa Pearson, CEO of Umbel (center) says deliberate action will change bias. (L, Kerry Rump; R, Ann Marie Schneider.)
Photo by Erika Rich.
Lisa Pearson, CEO of Umbel (center) says deliberate action will change bias. (L, Kerry Rump; R, Ann Marie Schneider.)

We don’t need another example to know what’s up. Cam Newton, NFL star with the Carolina Panthers, had just recently disrespected a female journalist by mocking her in a press conference.

Lisa Pearson, CEO of Umbel Corp., a data management platform for sports organizations, was not completely surprised at the expression of gender disparity and the tone of dismissiveness.

“Certainly there are enough examples to pull from,” says Pearson, “as the pace of change is so staggeringly poor, it takes my breath away.”

But it does not take away her mission and certainly not the impetus to move forward for women in tech and in sports management. Her eye is on the future, one that has gender parity. One of the reasons Pearson is so hopeful is her 13-year-old daughter, Eloise.

Her daughter explained to her mother recently that on the school playground, some boys in her class made a rude comment.

“And these girls turned around and roared,” Pearson says. And then they went to their teacher to propose a student-led conference with the theme, “Objectifying Women and Believing in Feminism.”

The future is bright in part because of this next generation, she says. Because the bias, discrimination and invisibility of women in the workplace have gone on long enough.

“All the industries I have been in have been male-led: agency side, global consumer brands, B2B software, without a lot of commonalties, except they are very male-oriented,” says Pearson, who also heads Umbelita’s, the company’s women’s leadership group.

At Umbel since August 2015, as chief marketing officer, Pearson moved up to president in 2016, and became its CEO in April 2017.

Pearson’s extensive experience in marketing spans representation of a variety of brands and corporations including Johnson & Johnson, TLC (The Learning Channel), Yahoo! HotJobs and American Eagle.

The Texas-based CEO has also led her own strategic consultancy firm and served as principal in leading marketing agencies including DeVries Global and Euro RSCG where she helped drive strategy and performance for companies including Dell, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, American Express, Procter & Gamble, Starbucks, Stolinchnaya, ABSOLUT Spirits Company, Heineken Fetzer Winery, Champagne Krug, Champagne Perrier Jouet and Champagne G.H. Mumm.

She has witnessed and experienced gender bias for decades. Working through her first pregnancy earlier in her career, Pearson says, “I never acknowledged I was having a baby. And when I came back from having a baby, I did not put up photos.” She adds, “I cannot believe such a beautiful milestone was something I felt no one even noticed.”

The main lesson Pearson learned and wants to pass on is, “Stop hiding being a woman.”

Pearson says the culture of the workplaces she was in early in her career promoted “the idea that you should be less womanly and blend in with the men to be successful.” She adds what is needed instead is “pushing for cultural shifts against sameness.”

Others in sports leadership and management agree that sameness needs to be disrupted.

At the recent espnW.com Summit, Laura Gentile, senior vice president, ESPNW and Women’s Initiatives, said, “The reality is that cultural and societal issues collide with sports all the time so I think we’ve really tried to handle it with great professionalism and maturity. To focus on how it affects the sports world and how it is affecting women in sports, specifically,” Gentile said,  according to The Wrap.

Pearson’s company mission for Umbel is to engage fans and improve the data management of sports brands and clients. That mission is connected to understanding female fans—a demographic that many do not understand accurately.

Stacey Pope,  Associate Professor in School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham University, researches the nature of female fans. She writes in The Conversation,  “When it comes to sports, die-hard fans are often thought of as the men in the crowd. But my new research shows, that despite popular stereotypes of women lacking sporting knowledge or only being interested in the sexual attractiveness of (male) star players – female fans are just as passionate and committed to their clubs as the men.”

The gender bias is pervasive in sports management as well.

“The sports world is often a difficult one for women to thrive in, as women often have to battle against people minimizing their work and expertise,” writes Bee Quammie in HuffPost.

The sports and tech universes need to move to parity, as it will help the bottom line in both spheres.

Stacey Leasca writes in Mic, “Women control 70-80 percent of all consumer purchasing through what Forbes described as a combination of ‘buying power and influence.’ This means even if a woman doesn’t directly purchase an item she influences the person who does.”

The power and influence of women customers is only one part of prioritizing a shift to gender equity.  Changing workplace culture is essential.

[bctt tweet=“Changing workplace culture is essential to prioritizing a shift to #genderequity” username=“takeleadwomen”]

Those cultural shifts can be accomplished with direct strategies to reduce unconscious bias, Pearson says, and she has specific recommendations on how to make that happen.

Act as a mentor. As a woman, “what are you doing to make the company more hospitable to women?” Pearson asks.

Enlist male support. Ask male leaders to be mentors to women and ask men to speak out in order to change the work climate.

Change job descriptions. “Communicating high risk aptitude using language  like ninja, rockstar, aggressive was resonant for male employees so female candidates would feel this job wasn’t them,” Pearson says

Avoid referral bias. Having mostly male employees would result in mostly young male candidates. So reward referrals outside of a network.

Make sure the leadership team is 50 percent female. “From a candidate’s perspective, if I go on the , leadership page and do not see women there, I feel I don’t want to work there,” Pearson says.

Be aware this is not a lady problem. The lack of gender parity in leadership in sports, tech and beyond is “a systemic, cultural problem and men should take this seriously,” Pearson says.

Conduct a salary audit. “I wanted to make sure women are paid the same,” Perason says. “It’s not perfect, but I made corrections.”

Be honest and authentic in service of the collective good. “Believing in something philosophically and prioritizing it are very different things,” Pearson says. “You can say it and say and say it about companies doing ridiculously better with more women CEOS and women on boards. But people are not relating to it, because if they were, it would look different.”

Be more visible. “Get other women leaders out there to show what is possible. We need to show there are women executives who are happy and thriving,” Pearson says. “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Pearson is willing to be persistent in her goal to push for gender equity not just in tech and sports, but everywhere.

“I am willing to be tedious and annoying in talking about” gender parity, Pearson says. “Women need to be willing to talk more freely, push the issues, be an example to other women and hold men who care on principle to accountability.”

She adds, “It will take a combination of stick and carrot. We have to bring consequences. If a client doesn’t see diversity on the board and a tech company loses a big contract. Then it will change.”

CONVERSATIONS