Equitable Team Culture (1/3): Leadership

June 12, 2017

Note: Because the divisions of our sport run along a gender binary, including within the Mixed division when fielding a line, I follow the gender binary in my terminology. I want to acknowledge that the experiences of trans* athletes exist in our sport. Those experiences are complex and intersect with the content of this column.

A few weeks ago, a group of leaders on Mixed teams in Seattle came together to discuss and share ideas about how each of our teams could set up our team processes and culture to show a value for gender equity. We took an intersectional approach, meaning we were also thinking about the other aspects of equity along the way. We considered a few elements of team culture and brainstormed strategies together, and I’d like to share those ideas with you in a three-part series. If your team has done something that you think is helpful, please share it with the EMU Campaign or NUL on social media, and let’s all learn from what you’ve done!

The first element we considered is the leadership - how do you set up leadership in structure, conversational norms, and modeling to ensure everyone’s voice is heard? How can leaders give their team a positive model of gender equity in their leadership?

The first idea is simple, but often overlooked. If you’re on a Mixed team, the people on leadership should reflect that your team is Mixed. I’ve personally quit teams over this. At a time that I felt ready to be a leader on the team and had already taken on an informal leadership role in giving feedback and making match-ups, I approached the two male captains of my club team to say I felt we needed a female captain. They said, “leadership discussed it and we think leadership is fine how it is”. Then and now, I feel that this was absolutely the worst response they could have given (and it lost them a player that I’d like to believe was pretty valuable). Because men and women think about match-ups, field sense, and communication from a different lens, it’s critical to have female leaders in on the conversations that guide the team.

One of the stumbling blocks, though, is that often women are less likely to step into positions of leadership than men. We experienced this on Mixtape this year - two women accepted captaincy nominations, while five men were in the running. We certainly have enough expertise on both sides to produce just as many female leaders as male. To combat this, ask women to step up, and ask them repeatedly. Additionally, find ways to give formal and informal leadership positions to women you hope could be captains in future years, like on committees or through peer to peer feedback structures.

Dividing Tasks
Once you have the composition of your leadership, remember that there are expected gender roles that may factor into how tasks are divided. Remember how in middle school we normally made the girl write on the poster because she had the prettiest handwriting, and then the boy could be the facilitator? Keep these conditioned gender roles in mind when you’re delegating tasks. Who are you having speak in front of groups? Who’s taking on the background organizational tasks? When you set up committees, who steps up for what, and how does that play into perpetuating these stereotypes?

Now, I’m not saying you should assign people to do tasks they’re bad at just to prove that you’ve achieved #gequity as a team. I’m simply asking that you examine roles and responsibilities with a lens on gender equity and don’t assume that people are in their best roles based on stereotypes about gender, race, etc. For example, I’m a Strength and Conditioning Coach with a Masters in Teaching. It would be pretty dang silly for me to be a silent, administrative captain given my skillset, but being a captain who explains drills and talks about weightlifting flies in the face of my traditional gender roles.

On Mixtape, we divide up practices fairly evenly so all four captains explain about an equal number of concepts to the team and we’ve divided up players into feedback groups so captains can foster growth in their quarter of the team (and do so equitably!). This leaves the administrative tasks, which we’ve tried to delegate out to some team members and between the captains so no one has to do too much of the plug and chug tasks.

Conversational Norms
Because of all the aforementioned historical ideas about women vs men in leadership, it’s also important to ensure equitable representation of ideas within meetings (captains, committees, and whole team). Men are more likely to take up air time in a meeting or get credit for ideas, so putting in place conversational structures and norms can help ensure everyone’s opinions are accounted for in decisions.

Acknowledging this tended disparity, then working proactively to make sure women are heard is a valuable practice to truly representing your team. Even in small groups, women get interrupted more often than men, including by other women (I’m guilty of this!). Consider passing an item around at meetings to designate whose turn it is to speak. Perhaps structure discussion time so that each member of the group is assured equal airtime where everyone else listens as one person talks for their allotted time. In larger group settings, like when captains are running a team meeting, put someone in charge of tracking the conversation - who’s talking, whose voice isn’t being heard. Here’s a tool to track conversation on gender lines, but also consider other perspectives that might be missing! Have that person invite specific people to speak up and give their thoughts, and have them ask people who are dominating the conversation or interrupting to monitor their airtime to make space for others. There are countless different ways to structure small group and large group discussions that you can find in teaching guides, so poke around and find what you think will work best for your group. If you want support, again you can hit up the EMU Campaign on social media, send me an email, or ask a teacher on your team to help you out. Chances are, they have structures like these in place in their own classrooms.

Leaders as Models
When leaders recognize the privilege they hold and their limited perspective, and actively and publicly work on themselves, the whole team benefits. Usually, we elect captains that we respect and look up to as players, leaders, and individuals. These are people we trust with our team’s future and have elected to listen to for countless hours throughout the season. When leaders are intentional about their interactions and word choices, players pick up on that and start adopting those patterns as well.

When we’re in a huddle talking offensive strategy, and someone asks fellow captain and offensive committee member Evan Klein a question about handlers, he (a cutter) will turn to me for my expertise, and vice versa! When we set up drills, we make sure we’ve got men and women out there to model each drill by intentionally specifying the people or the gender representation we want on the field. If a captain uses unintentionally gendered language in a huddle, they’ll correct themselves publicly before continuing rather than keep going. (Note that this is huge for my own ability to follow the conversation after the gendered comment. By taking a moment to correct and say, “I mean, person…” before continuing their explanation, I can refocus on the point being made rather than seething about the fact that my fellow captain just made the implication that only men can get poach blocks.)

There are certainly other pieces of successful leadership models for teams, both in general and in terms of equity. If you have ideas or perspectives that I’ve missed, please share them with the community! My voice is just one viewpoint, and I’m sure I’ve got blind spots, especially with respect to the other dimensions of equity that I haven’t addressed here. (See what I did there, publicly acknowledging my privilege and limited perspective?) Now go forth, team leaders both formal and informal, and set yourselves up for success!