By Sarah Wolfer, LICSW - Founder and CEO of Girl Boss Sports
What does it mean to be a woman who leads?
I have asked myself this question close to a thousand times over the past decade since entering the workforce.
What I can say, is that being a woman who leads is incredible… one of my favorite things in the world actually. It might not be something you hear as often from women (for a variety of reasons we will dive into), but I LOVE TO LEAD - and sometimes people don’t like that about me.
Being “too ambitious” and “too assertive” are real labels that have been thrown my direction. As a woman who leads, I have been told that when I bring up certain issues I am “being perceived a certain way.” It has been said to me before that “all this leadership stuff” I do is “bothersome” and have even been called “only book smart” by yet another insecure man in charge. Over the course of my career, I have been sexually harassed, fought for and secured equal pay to two men, and been denied promotional opportunities for the words above that have been used in an attempt to belittle me and hold me back from realizing my dreams.
I’m happy to report that It hasn’t worked. In fact, each of those instances mentioned above have only done the opposite for me.
But, to help you understand how I got to where I am today - running my own company, being a professional tackle football player, and living life on my own terms - I need to tell you about my journey - the good, the bad, and the ugly. You see, shortly after my “face-down in the arena moment” as Brene Brown calls them, is when I began my journey as CEO and Founder of Girl Boss Sports. If you haven’t heard of these moments before I highly recommend checking out the work of Brene Brown. She is a social worker, researcher, story-teller, and overall a powerful woman with vast knowledge and experience centered around shame and vulnerability.
I can still vividly recall the moment I arrived home from work one day, and fell to the floor in my kitchen, sobbing for the rest of the day and night.
I’m not talking about the cute kind of cry either that you see on movies and commercials - in fact it’s safe to say that I am a pretty ugly crier. I remember feeling glued to my kitchen floor for hours and not being able to gather the strength to pull myself up as I reflected on what had happened. You see, at work that day, I had found out that my career at a company I worked for at the time was disintegrating before my eyes. As someone who had poured my heart and soul (and blood, sweat, and tears) into my work, this was especially hard to take.
To provide context to this story, I will back up to about 1 year prior when I had found out that I was getting paid unequally when comparing salaries to two men at the same company. At the time, I was leading several programs very successfully and had even turned around the flagship program of said company from the worst it had ever been, to the best it ever performed in a span of 9 months. After turning around this program, two additional programs were added to my responsibilities. Then, when these other programs began to show signs of success as well, the senior management team decided that it would be wise to add a 4th program to my plate. It was at this point that I learned just how little I was being paid for the level of work and responsibilities compared to men at the company within the same department with less responsibility and requirements across 15 categories (yes, I even made a spreadsheet).
In the moments after finding out about the unequal pay, I was told I was being “perceived a certain way for bringing up issues like this.” This was a clear message that I needed to be seen and NOT heard and was warned that if I cared about my career then I needed to basically shut-up about these issues.
Well I didn’t. And I couldn’t. I’ve never been able to, and nobody should ever have to.
I am not one to stand for unequal treatment, so I began a 4 month journey to secure equal pay. I am excited to share that at the end of those 4 months, I secured equal pay and celebrated like I never had before. You see, I had finally stood up to the big bad villains of the story and had come out on top! During those moments, I found hope in being able to stand up for myself and actually win! I remember thinking that us women are so powerful and that if I could do it, ANYBODY could, because going into those conversations, it was only through reading a ton of books and listening to podcasts on negotiation 101 that I was able to find success.
Yet, when we fast forward to a year later, I recall sitting in that room with the director in charge of deciding my career trajectory at the company. As he said the words “My perception of you is that you’re only book smart and I’m not sure it translates to your actual job,” it took every ounce of control not to shout in his face everything I felt about him. Even with an impressive track record in which I took a program from a place in which the staff were traumatized by my predecessor, no contract requirements had been met for an entire quarter, and with only 75% of the team filled - to one 2 years later where we had some of the best engagement and retention rates at the company, the highest performance of any time period prior, AND clients were being served well, I realized that one vindictive and unethical person in charge could still decide my fate with no repercussions.
As he told me “we really value you” while simultaneously upending my career for reasons like being “too assertive,” I recall saying to him that this moment had helped me to realize that I NEVER wanted to work for him or someone like him again. As he made the decision to deny promotional opportunities for me, I called him on his lack of adherence to our mission and values and told him that I questioned his decision making - and that I wasn’t alone in this. I told him that his actions were unethical and inappropriate while he sat there in silence, clearly not expecting that I would challenge him. I am happy that in those moments I did not allow him to cower me into silence and that I had the courage to share with him exactly what I thought about his leadership skills (which are the worst I’ve ever seen in my life).
The hardest part of this situation was that by making the decisions that he did, he ended up forcing me to make a decision between fighting for myself and treatment of all women (and people of color, and people who identify as LGBT, etc), and maintaining a friendship with the person he selected. This was one of the hardest decisions I had to make because I know that by my fighting the lack of ethics at this company and within this man, there would certainly be an unknown impact to the others involved (many of whom I cared a lot about). Though very challenging, I heard a statement that helped me realize what I needed to do at the time. You see, if I had chosen not to do anything at that time, then that meant that others in the future would face the same challenges by the same individuals when I could have done something to stop it or at the very least bring attention to it.
Though I stood strong in the moment and faced down the proverbial “bully on the playground,” as soon as I left that office every emotion that I had kept locked up tight poured out of me. As a woman in the workplace we are not allowed to be emotional - but we can’t be too “cold” either. We can’t be too loud, but if we are too quiet then nobody will hear the amazing contributions we have. We can’t be direct, but nobody likes it when we beat around the bush. We need to be gentle, but not get walked all over. Everything we do as women in positions of power is analyzed and critiqued to a degree that men in these same positions do not understand.
It is because of these reasons, and a few other life experiences along my journey, that I made the decision to leap headfirst into the life of a “womanpreneur” with the creation of Girl Boss Sports in the Seattle Washington area. As I pulled myself up off the kitchen floor that day (with the help of my amazing support system), I made the decision that I wanted to create a space that was inclusive and welcoming for girls and women in this world. While fighting the battle at the company over the next few months, I spent my spare time forming ideas that ultimately led to combining all my favorite passions in life into one endeavor. At Girl Boss Sports, I have been able to focus on leadership, women supporting women, sports, and breaking barriers at every step as I build this company. I have learned that often in life, moments when we are “face-down in the arena” (and that arena looks different for everyone) are preparing us for future challenges or opportunities. It was through this incredibly painful experience, that I finally gathered the courage to make my vision a reality as a fire was lit in my soul to create a company that breaks barriers for the female population.
Would this have happened had I not experienced everything that I did?
The honest answer is I don’t know, but what I DO know is that I am now stronger because of each of those building blocks of life experiences that occurred along my journey. I proved that I can advocate for myself even given the toughest of circumstances. I proved that I am resilient, motivated, and a gifted entrepreneur. I proved that I can do anything that I set my mind to and that the comeback really is better than the setback.
So then, why the sports industry?
Well, it is not uncommon knowledge that the sports industry is one that has a lot of room to grow for the girls and women involved as athletes and coaches. When we take a look at the statistics - for example that only 21% of soccer coaches in the US are women - we can see exactly how far we need to go. As a soccer player for 25 years and a soccer coach for 15 of those, I have encountered experiences that we are working to change at Girl Boss Sports.
I remember one moment as a competitive athlete where I was screamed at from 1 inch away by a male coach with expletive after expletive laced with spittle being catapulted into my face. I remember being proud of myself for not crying until after I walked away from that conversation - knowing it would only be worse for me if I showed any signs of weakness. I was right about that, because as soon as the tears flowed while I walked away, I was kicked out of practice in an act of humiliation and control.
Looking at the coaching world, I have often been the only female coach in an entire company, department or region. It is striking to me that every time I coach a team, I am told by the parents or athletes themselves that I am the only female coach that many of the girls (and boys) have ever had.
When leaving one coaching position to pursue my educational goals, I was asked THREE times by THREE men if I was leaving because I was pregnant.
It was none of their business even if I had been.
On another occasion, I looked at one company’s website that I was coaching for at the time, and found that 100% of the leadership team - 13/13 Directors - were men, including the Director of Girls’ Coaching.
THIS is what Girl Boss Sports is here to change.
We really have 2 main goals at Girl Boss Sports: One, we are working to provide a quality experience for the female athletes in our program where we focus on high-level soccer development, all from the lens of how to best support a female athlete. We do this by having a coaching staff that reflects who we are serving - with 100% of our coaches being women who understand what it takes to be successful on AND off the soccer field. Our coaches serve as role-models and mentors who understand what it’s like to compete at the highest levels of the sports world.
Our second aim at Girl Boss Sports is to increase the sheer number of female sports coaches. We are doing this by actively recruiting and seeking out female coaches and creating an environment that is inclusive, welcoming, and supportive of women in the workplace. We are eliminating barriers that could otherwise keep women from entering this profession by providing a flexible schedule, excellent pay, and a community of other women coaches who can support and uplift one another.
We have these ambitious goals because we are a group of powerful women who are ready to change the sports world - for female athletes AND coaches - one person at at time.
Though my journey has been a long and hard one to get to where I am today, I am thankful for each experience that has taught me the power in using my voice and that by speaking up for myself, I am also speaking up for ALL women. Every last one of us has the power to change the world, and THAT is what Girl Boss Sports is all about.
So, what does it mean to be a woman who leads?
It means that we have the courage to own our power and use it to serve those we are leading.
It means that we can be both direct and gentle and everything in between.
We are fierce, tenacious, and resilient.
We can be soft and powerful all at once.
We are strategic, visionary, and know how to get the job done.
We are inspirational leaders who already have everything it takes to lead our families, our companies, entire industries, and whatever else we’ve been called to do.
We CAN have that seat at the decision-making table, and if that opportunity is denied, we can create our own damn table and as many seats around it as we want.
2019 is the year for women to break barriers across all the industries you can imagine. The time has come for us to use our voices and skills to change the world - for the next generation of girls and women, and also for us RIGHT NOW.
Collectively as women in this world, we have a story to tell, and nobody can silence us any longer.
My mission is to do this for the sports industry - what is yours?
Sarah Wolfer is the founder and CEO of Girl Boss Sports - a Greater Seattle area soccer company that is devoted to female athletes and female coaches. With 96% of female C-Suite executives reporting they played sports during their teenage years, Sarah understands the positive impact that sports can have - particularly for girls! Sarah is also a Professional Tackle Football Player with the Seattle Majestics and is working on a book centered on women in leadership and sports in 2019. Additionally, Sarah is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW) in WA state and is passionate about breaking barriers that can hold women back, in sports AND in life.