When Kim Davis thinks of International Women’s Day, she remembers the countless women who have worked hard to fight for progress in the past, present and future. One such woman was also one of her first mentors: her grandmother.
Davis has found one particular lesson from her grandmother invaluable throughout a career that has taken her all the way to the NHL, where she serves as the senior executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs.
“She always taught me to be fearless,” Davis said. “She defined fearlessness as not being [un]afraid, but in spite of being afraid, persevering.”
Perseverance has been key for Davis and her fellow participants in MLB’s International Women’s Day panel, which represented all five North American professional sports leagues Tuesday at the Office of the Commissioner. Moderated by MLB Network’s Keiana Martin, the panel echoed the theme of International Women’s Day 2023 by calling for equity for women in sports, not just equality.
Equity and equality are sometimes used interchangeably, but the two terms have different implications. While equality means that every person has the same opportunities, equity acknowledges and addresses the unique obstacles that people face.
“Equity recognizes that there are hurdles that exist differently for different types of people,” said Sarah Horvitz, MLB’s senior vice president and head counsel of business and technology. “The individuals may not even know the hurdles are there, but those folks who are in positions of power … can make changes, make programs, make policies that reduce those hurdles or remove those hurdles for those who are going to face them.”
Mentorship was a recurring theme throughout Tuesday’s panel, as those who have already navigated the unique landscape of the sports industry are well-equipped to guide future generations through. All five panelists spoke to the power of mentors — of any gender — in helping them grow as sports executives.
But guidance alone isn’t always enough for women in sports to take a meaningful step forward in their career. Dolores DiBella, the NFL’s senior vice president of legal affairs, called for mentors to take more action for their mentees.
“I’ve met a lot of women who don’t really need mentors at all. They need sponsors and they need promoters, and they need people who are going to just straight up give them a hand up,” DiBella said. “Mentorship is fantastic, and guidance is great. But often what men have in the workplace is somebody who says, ‘This is a really good job. You should have this job.’ And we need that same thing happening for women.”
Since the sports industry is dominated by men, high-ranking women often draw more attention, for better or for worse. When MLS senior vice president of communications Marisabel Muñoz first started with the league 20 years ago, she was often the only woman in the room and the target of questions like, “How do you know so much about soccer?”
Instead of being fazed by that attention, Muñoz has embraced it.
“I tried to maximize the fact that I am a woman, that I am different,” she said. “All the focus may be on you, but again, if you know you’re prepared, you have good ideas — you walk in there with confidence.”
NBA senior vice president of venues Erin Schnieders is reminded every day that she sticks out among her colleagues, as she oversees arena design and development and spends a lot of time on construction sites. “Contractors say, ‘Watch your head, honey,’ or ‘Excuse me, miss,’ but [for] everyone else it’s, ‘Hey, watch out,'” she said.
Like Muñoz, she focuses on doing her job and lets her expertise speak for itself.
“Once you start talking, and once you start sharing or leading or guiding, people listen to your voice,” Schnieders said. “They realize you are smart and you are capable, and they don’t pay attention to what you might look like in that situation.”
When it comes to empowering women in sports, confidence is key — and that often has to come from within. That means recognizing your own value and not worrying about what others think, which can be difficult, as the panelists acknowledged. But they all did it, and they know the next generation can do it, too.
For women aspiring to rise to the top of the sports industry, the panelists had this advice: Be authentic. Advocate for yourself and others. And don’t forget that you belong.
“You don’t deserve a seat at the table,” Davis said. “You earned that seat at the table.”