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What It’s Like To Be A Woman At The Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

When FiveThirtyEight offered me the opportunity to attend last week’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, I jumped at the chance to geek out on two of my favorite subjects — sports and data.

But my heart sank a little when I saw that only one of 30 speakers listed on the preliminary agenda was a woman. (The final speaker count was 22 women and 131 men.) I’ve been to other sausage fests, and they can operate like insular clubs that leave women feeling like outsiders.

This year’s conference seemed promising, though. While the honorary executive board was all men, the conference chair was event co-founder Jessica Gelman, a former professional basketball player and the current vice president of customer marketing and strategy at the Kraft Sports Group, owner of the New England Patriots. The other women on the agenda were all-stars, too — like Amy Brooks, executive vice president of the NBA’s team marketing and business operations department; Heidi Pellerano, senior vice president at Wasserman Media Group; Stefanie Francis, co-founder of Navigate Research; and Elyse Guilfoyle, a senior industry analyst at Google.

But there weren’t many women on stage or in the crowd. Only one of the 23 people attached to a finalist research paper was a woman, and one of her male colleagues presented the paper. Pellerano and Francis’s presentation on how Hispanic fans consume sports and Guilfoyle’s talk about ticket purchasing analytics were some of the only times that women were in the spotlight.

Despite more than 3,000 people at the event, there was never a line at the women’s restroom. Gelman estimates that about 85 percent of attendees were men. That was true of the FiveThirtyEight delegation, too — I was the only woman from our team to attend, and the gender imbalance of our office is something we’ve noticed and that senior members of FiveThirtyEight are working on.

When you feel like an outsider, it’s natural to seek out your own, and as I walked through the hallways, I found myself exchanging friendly head nods with the few other women I passed. It reminded me of that little wave that motorcyclists sometimes give each other out on the road, and I started asking these compatriots what they thought of the conference and what it was like to be so outnumbered by men.

One of the first women I approached turned out to be Leigh Castergine, who is suing her former employer, Mets co-owner Jeff Wilpon, for gender discrimination (the lawsuit alleges that he fired her for being pregnant out of wedlock). She said she had lots to say but couldn’t talk until the lawsuit was resolved. The Mets deny the allegations.

Attendee Valerie Laird, a research assistant at the University of Michigan’s business school, told me that she’d agonized over what to wear. “I want to be taken seriously, but I want to look nice,” she said. Was it better to wear a dress or pants? If she made herself look attractive, would she be taken less seriously, or would she worry that men were approaching her because they wanted her number? Laird’s friend Jessica Edwards told me that considerations about how to dress were part of the ongoing fight for respect. “Guys don’t take you seriously in sports,” she said. “It’s so frustrating because this is what I want to do with my life.”

One student who requested anonymity told me that she struggled with what name to put on her conference badge and her résumé. She has always gone by a nickname that’s a diminutive of her already very feminine name. She was there to network, and she worried that hiring managers, who often make quick judgments about candidates, might too easily dismiss or stereotype her based on her nickname.

Two other young women who didn’t identify themselves (I’ll call them Jane and Jill) laughed when I asked whether they would mind telling me what it was like to attend Sloan as a woman. “We’ve been talking about this a lot,” Jane said. Like me, they’d noticed that many of the women on stage were there as moderators, rather than speakers. “We would prefer to see more women who are actually talking about their experience as the expert, versus facilitating the conversation,” Jill said.

This difference between being the moderator and the expert reminded me of a recent New York Times piece by Sheryl Sandberg that observed that women often do more than their fair share of the unheralded but important tasks around the office — things like organizing and preparing. Moderating is difficult to do well (you have to herd the speakers into serving the audience instead of themselves), but praise about a panel typically focuses on what the speakers said, rather than the moderator’s performance.

Yet everyone I spoke to agreed that a session specifically on women’s sports wasn’t the answer. During an informal discussion about women in the industry, Gelman said the decision not to hold such a panel was deliberate.

Segregating sports by gender just amplifies inequalities. “We want to integrate and show how women are actively part of the conversation and not just a side part,” Danielle Russell, one of the conference’s student leaders, told me.

Jane and Jill, whom I caught coming out of the negotiating panel, had some suggestions on how to achieve that goal. “They could have talked about Brittney Griner’s salary or about deals they’ve done that are related to that,” Jill said, referring to the former Baylor star who now plays for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury.

It’s not surprising that the conference focused primarily on the NFL, MLB and NBA, considering the amount of money they generate relative to other sports. But these are also sports with large disparities between male and female opportunities, observed Alison Mehlsak and Melissa Jenkins, graduate students at the University of Virginia’s business school. Creating some panels focused on sports that are more accessible to women could help, they told me. “Sports like tennis and golf, and events like the Olympics, offer rich opportunities to include women in the conversation,” Mehlsak said. As my FiveThirtyEight colleague Allison McCann recently pointed out, women’s sports are the next frontier in sports analytics.

The lack of women at Sloan isn’t entirely the organizers’ fault. Professional sports is a male-dominated industry — one that ignores women at its own peril. Women now make up nearly half of the Super Bowl audience, and the latest Nielsen stats show that they represent at least a third of the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL audience. The Sloan conference wields a heavy influence, and its organizers have an opportunity to make a difference by seeking out more women’s voices and inviting them into the fold.

Christie Aschwanden is FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for science.

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