How Football Is Keeping Women From the Boardroom
Sorry, Sheryl Sandberg. I tried to lean in, but tipped over a goal post.
March 6, 2019
There’s a very peculiar phenomenon in the American workplace. The movies brush over it and the employee handbooks never mention it, but somehow it always manifests itself in the quiet hours of the afternoon, hijacking conversation and your work life. I’m talking, of course, about football.
No interview training or job prep could have prepared me for how important football was in the workplace. Across all the industries I’ve worked in — tech, finance and law — the sport has never failed to come up. At meetings, the metaphors commonly revolve around game terminology, and the men make thoughtful noises and nod their heads. On lunch breaks, they discuss their fantasy leagues and the top picks from the latest draft. They make it their business to know their clients’ favorite teams. And there I am, politely smiling, listening to a tired conversation thread I have no interest in joining.
Like many women, football never played a major role in my childhood. I never tossed around the ol’ pigskin with my dad and I never watched Monday Night Football. During the Super Bowl, I only looked up from my phone during the commercial breaks. I could care less about Brett Favre or Tom Brady, and yet all of the professional positions I’ve held have seemed to have an asterisk in their job descriptions: “REQUIRED: A working knowledge and passion for football.”
Recently I asked my dad, a private equity veteran, about this phenomenon. He laughed. Then he said, “When you’re trying to make small talk, you can either talk about your wives or your team, and you can only talk about your wives for so long.”
I have neither a wife nor a team. I am a 19-year-old English Literature major; this conversation has absolutely nothing to do with me or my work. And yet, I’m supposed to listen to it, smiling politely and making thoughtful noises with everyone else.
While this is no great sacrifice in its applied form, the abstract is unsettling. While many women care about football, most don’t. We don’t grow up with female Pee Wee football teams and we don’t see female announcers during the Super Bowl. In its current form, football is largely a sport played by men for other men to commentate on, which is to say that it’s, in essence, an old boys’ club. And yet, to get ahead, I’m supposed to care about it.
I took to the internet with my concerns, finding article after article trying to teach women about football, and why they should learn the sport to get ahead. I even encountered an entire website that promised women who joined the sports conversation would be rewarded with relationship-building skills, confidence and even enjoyment. Football is apparently the great equalizer in the small talk world, so why wouldn’t you just take the extra step to learn the game?
This thinking, although commonplace, derives from an ugly, antiquated ideal for working women: that they should strive to mirror their successful superiors, which in most cases, means that they strive to mirror men. To be clear, I think there’s nothing wrong with learning from the best — you should absolutely take advantage of opportunities to learn from your mentors, whatever gender they may be. And I do not believe that women are somehow incapable of learning about and enjoying football, even in its current male-centric state. But I do question why we should need to.
Yes, football is a multi-billion-dollar industry, but it is an industry that’s profited off of an exclusive boys’ club climate — and to harken back to my dad, a way to avoid talking about each other’s wives. In short, it does not apply to me. Nor does it apply to the vast number of American women and men who do not have an interest in the sport.
That said, I don’t expect men to stop talking football in the office and I would never ask them to. I only ask that male-dominated fields make an attempt to minimize the importance of sports knowledge in the workplace.
I’m tempted to say that, if the roles were reversed, female-dominated workplaces would be expecting men to be interested in fashion, but this is not the case. In professions like teaching, counseling and nursing, a working knowledge of fashion is not required of the men to engage in small talk, even though, unlike football, it constitutes a trillion-dollar industry.
I am not a man in a skirt. I should not be encouraged to renounce my interests and adopt a male ideal to hope to make it to the C-suite one day. But in the meantime, I’ll be in the corner, smiling politely and making thoughtful noises, waiting for the actual work to begin.
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Email Claire Fishman at [email protected]