TORONTO — Catherine Raiche, then assistant GM of football operations for the Montreal Alouettes, recalls being at a Florida minicamp last year when an employee at the training facility had a question for the team’s head athletic therapist.
With a glance over at Raiche, he asked the therapist: “Or should I talk to your secretary?”
The 29-year-old Raiche, now director of football administration for the Toronto Argonauts, says that kind of antiquated mistaken identity happens “very, very often.”
“It’s funny how you have those pre-conceived ideas because you’re a woman in this world, that you’ll only have a certain type of position,” she said.
“People will ask ‘What do you do for the team? Are you a cheerleader?’ I’m like ‘No. I’m not,'” an unamused Raiche added.
Sadly, it’s a story most women in positions of sport leadership have to tell.
Raiche grew up an Als fan and dreamed of a job in football. She got a law degree in hopes of becoming a player agent before the Alouettes made her the first female assistant GM in the CFL in almost 30 years in 2017.
Her hiring was big news, largely for the same reason Hayley Wickenheiser made headlines when the Toronto Maple Leafs hired the Canadian hockey star as their assistant director of player development last month. Wickenheiser’s hiring came a few days after Raptors 905 named Tamara Tatham to their coaching staff, making the two-time Olympian the first Canadian woman to join the staff of a G-League team.
Allison Sandmeyer-Graves, CEO of the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity (CAAWS), looks at it two ways.
“One is this is awesome that these women are being recognized for their technical abilities that transcend gender, and that these two organizations have the sophistication to make these sorts of choices at this point,” she said. “On the other hand, and I think this comes from more of an idealistic place, is that I can’t wait for the day that this isn’t newsworthy.”
That day doesn’t appear to be coming any time soon. While the hirings of Wickenheiser and Tatham are worth celebrating, women are woefully underrepresented in sports leadership roles. Women won 16 of Canada’s 22 medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics, but just six per cent of Canada’s head coaches on that team were female — the lowest percentage since prior to the 2000 Sydney Games.
CAAWS, in partnership with the Dairy Farmers of Canada, published a report in 2016 that showed the glaring chasm at the collegiate level. In U Sports, just 32 per cent of head coaches of women’s teams were women. Men’s teams? That number plummeted to just one per cent. It was the same percentage for assistant coaches of men’s teams.
“And the percentage of women who are coaches has fallen,” said Bruce Kidd.
Kidd, a scholar, activist and former distance runner who raced at the 1964 Olympics, is a member of two Canadian working groups on women in sport.
While the numbers in amateur sports are dismal, the face of professional leagues is almost entirely male. The NFL is tackling the gender imbalance in its league, and the woman in charge is Samantha Rapoport, a Canadian.
The 37-year-old from Montreal first worked with the league in 2003 as an intern out of McGill University. For the past two years, she’s been in charge of “broadening the diverse talent pipeline in football operations for the NFL” — creating a path for more women and minorities in NFL jobs.
“We really honed in on football operations, so coaching, scouting, front office, officiating, really kind of the last frontier certainly for women in football,” said Rapoport, who played both touch and tackle football growing up. “And we’re making a concerted effort to change that.”
The NFL has two female full-time coaches amongst the several hundred across the league. Their names and jobs rolled easily off Rapoport’s tongue: Katie Sowers, a wide receivers assistant with the San Francisco 49ers, and Kelsey Martinez, a strength and conditioning assistant with the Oakland Raiders. It’s not tough to remember just two.
“Our ultimate mission is to normalize females on the sidelines, and everything that we do, every program that we have is geared towards the point of normalization, and so there have been some instances where we’ve stopped talking about it and one example is athletic trainers,” Rapoport said.
The NFL has six full-time athletic trainers, still a huge drop from U.S. college football programs, in which she said approximately half of the trainers are women.
“I’ve spoken to many of them in college, and that’s what they relate is that they didn’t even consider it an option because they didn’t know: were there female trainers within the NFL? If so, how do I even get there? And so we’re working on bridging all the gaps that we possibly can for women who previously thought ‘Yeah, I’d love to work in football, but I have no idea how, and is it for me?’ We’re trying to answer that question: yes its for you. And we’re trying to provide the pathways for them to enter the field,” Rapoport said.
The WNBA, which has been the loudest voice on social issues, not surprisingly leads the charge in gender equity, boasting a female commissioner and president, and a coaching roster that’s 50 per cent female. Of the 10 head coaches in the National Women’s Soccer League, on the other hand, three are female, up from just one last year.
When the Leafs hired Wickenheiser, GM Kyle Dubas tried to downplay the significance of the moment. Wickenheiser was the best fit for the job, regardless of gender. And adding more diversity could only help the franchise, he pointed out.
“Research shows that the more diverse your organization, the better your decision making, the better your operation in general,” he said. “If you’re only hiring white males, and I’m saying that as a white male, you’re probably leaving a lot on the table in terms of where your organization can go and how it can think and how it can evolve and develop.”
It’s a philosophy echoed across the hall at MLSE’s basketball franchise. After Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri hired three women for several key off-season positions in the 2017 off-season, he said: “It works here for us, because it’s worked for me. Hire women. I said that because it’s working for us.”
Teresa Resch, the Raptors’ VP of basketball operations and player development, hosted a couple of events dubbed “She The North” last season to celebrate the work of women in sports.
Michele O’Keefe is one of the few female policy makers across the world in basketball. The former CEO of Canada Basketball is the FIBA Americas vice-president and lone woman on its executive board. She’s one of five women on FIBA’s 20-member Central Board.
Often the lone female in a board room full of men, she never feels “disrespected.” But just as business gets done on the golf course, O’Keefe said her rise to the top included a few beers in the lobby bar.
“You have to put the time in to get to know (men), so if that’s having a beer after dinner, and if everybody’s going to the lobby bar then you need to high-tail your bum into the lobby bar,” she said. “You’ve got to put the time in. I’m not saying you have to stay there all night, but you have to be a part of that conversation, because everybody knows it’s the meeting after the meeting, where most of the work is done.
“In my opinion, it’s always better to be in those conversations than to hear about it the next day.”
The 32-year-old Tatham, meanwhile, hopes her work with Raptors 905 can help pave a path for other young women to follow.
“I’m hoping women can see (coaching men) as a legit career path, and feel comfortable to go after what they want,” said Tatham, who’s also an assistant with the University of Toronto women’s team. “I think being in my new role will inspire young women to go with their instincts and not be afraid of the unknown. You can never really succeed without taking risks, or betting on yourself first.”
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press