Talking Point by Lisa Ingarfield

Leadership Matters

Lisa Ingarfield calls into question why organizations with stated goals of increasing diversity and gender equality perpetuate white male leadership roles

A few days ago, like many USA Triathlon (USAT) members, I received an email announcing the new CEO of USAT: Rocky Harris. I don’t know Mr. Harris, but the email certainly sung his praises. Despite the accolades, it wasn’t his experience, or degree, or business acumen that struck me; it was the fact that Mr. Harris is a man. Another man hired as the CEO of an organization representing a sport that struggles to recruit and retain women and athletes of color. The previous two CEOs were also men (Robert Urbach and Skip Gilbert).

If you want to recruit and engage a more diverse audience in a sport, you have to diversify the voices at the table and the places where you do your outreach.

In researching the history of USAT leadership, I wasn’t able to find the names of CEO’s prior to 2006. Perhaps then, a woman and/or a person of color has led the organization in its history. While Mr. Harris may be a great guy, I see this transition as a monumental missed opportunity for USAT to think more strategically about how to meaningfully apply equity and involvement goals to their own organization.

RELATED: Inclusive Excellence; From Higher Education to Sport 

Women and people of color are widely underrepresented in leadership positions inside and out of sport. This is not new information. An Association of American University Women(AAAUW) report, Barriers and Bias released in 2016, details the consistent barriers facing women, and in particular women of color in being hired as company leaders.

The report states:

In 2015, only 5 percent of the companies in the Standard and Poor’s 500 index had female chief executive officers. Of course, the leadership gap is not confined to business. In the nonprofit sector, women are more likely to be in leadership positions, but they remain underrepresented.” (AAUW, 2016, p. 1). The organization Catalyst.org, a nonprofit dedicated to enhancing diversity and the inclusion of women in the workplace, details a litany of statistics about the underrepresentation of women and people of color in leadership roles across several global regions and industries.

In response to the growing evidence of how often women and people of color are underrepresented in leadership positions, companies across the USA are endeavoring to shift their recruitment and hiring practices to more effectively reach and attract women and people of color to apply for leadership roles. The CEO of PepsiCo articulated that hiring more women and people of color is a “business imperative.” Google has released a diversity report four years in a row in an effort to be transparent about their efforts to hire and retain more women and people of color across the company. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released a special report addressing diversity in the tech industry and companies are working to do better.

If a leadership team comprises the same kind of people, then is it any wonder if the sport and its policies struggle to engage diverse communities?

Given this climate of increased attention on the need to diversify the workforce, and to implement strategies to better recruit and retain women and people of color into leadership positions, USAT’s announcement left me shaking my head. Writing in Triathlete Magazine before the hiring of Mr. Harris, Brad Culp laments:

“Whoever the USAT Board selects as its next CEO, the challenges and opportunities will be immense. They will have to think creatively to improve membership numbers, and the sponsorship dollars that come with them. They also must continue to diversify triathlon by working hard to appeal to three demographics the sport has struggled to attract: women, minorities and young people.”

I see this transition as a monumental missed opportunity for USAT to think more strategically about how to meaningfully apply equity and involvement goals to their own organization.

If a leadership team comprises the same kind of people, then is it any wonder if the sport and its policies struggle to engage diverse communities? It shouldn’t be surprising that the external ends up mirroring the needs and perspectives of the internal. How can USAT do as Culp suggests, when the majority of USAT leadership are white and/or men?

Adding fuel to this troubling fire, the current USAT Board of Directors comprises only four women out of the eleven board members, and every member appears white (I acknowledge this may not be the case). Only one member of the executive team is a woman; the three most important positions are held by men. This group of leaders, along with the organization’s paid leadership team, set the agenda, direction, policies, and activities of USA Triathlon.

If you want to diversify your ranks, you have to actively work to do so

Curious to know more about USAT’s stated goals and vision, I reviewed the current strategic plan. There are four key areas of focus, and one is to increase membership and retention of members, particularly women. If one of your primary strategic goals as a governing body is to increase the participation and retention of women athletes, does it not seem reasonable that women should be visible within the leadership team setting the organization’s agenda? USAT’s goal is to increase women’s participation from 38% to 42% by 2020. Just four percent!

a litany of statistics about the underrepresentation of women and people of color in leadership roles across several global regions and industries.

Not unsurprisingly, the percentage of women in leadership positions at USAT is also lagging. If you want more women to participate, and to repetitively participate, then you must have women visible in leadership roles within USAT steering the direction of the organization. It is not enough to have token women as a small percentage of the voices at the table.

Moving beyond gender diversity, it is also glaringly obvious how few people of color participate in the sport and also represented within USAT’s leadership. Recruiting and retaining athletes of color isn’t even in USAT’s strategic vision. Is USAT even thinking about making triathlon more accessible to all who want to try it? Or when they say “all” are they really only thinking about white, able-bodied men and sometimes women who have higher disposable incomes?

They also must continue to diversify triathlon by working hard to appeal to three demographics the sport has struggled to attract: women, minorities and young people.”

If you want to diversify your ranks, you have to actively work to do so. Yes, you could throw your hands up and shrug your shoulders, questioning why few women and even fewer athletes of color participate. But what does that actually do? It just absolves you of the hard work of thinking more strategically about diversification. If you want to hire a more diverse staff, you can’t recruit using the same traditional recruitment methods that pull from a limited pool. If 95% of Fortune 500 business leaders are men and 316 out of 351 college athletic directors are men, in casting your net to those pools alone, who are you likely to catch? According to Catalyst.org: “the percentage of U.S. businesses with no women at all in senior roles rose to its highest recorded level since 2011: almost a third (31%).” This includes USAT. If you want to recruit and engage a more diverse audience in a sport, you have to diversify the voices at the table and the places where you do your outreach.

While the previous and current CEOs have done work to engage women in triathlon at the national and college level, I am pretty sure a women leader would go much further in demonstrating a real commitment to gender equity. It is also unclear to me what has been done to engage and retain athletes of color, both young and old, in triathlon by previous leadership teams. USAT had the opportunity to do better with a change in their CEO and it didn’t. There is a lesson to learn here. The question is, does USAT want to learn it?

We welcome your comments on this topic – 

 Lisa IngafieldLisa Ingarfield, PhD, is a runner, triathlete, USA Triathlon and Road Runners Club of America—RRCA certified coach. She owns Tri to Defi Coaching and Consulting and provides organizational communication evaluation and consulting services. She is a freelance writer specializing in issues affecting women—particularly in sport and education, and is a member of Boulder, Colorado’s Vixxen Racing’s 2017 women’s triathlon team.team.
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