By Kieran Heffernan
When Own the Podium CEO Anne Merklinger first started out in sports management, there were very few women involved, let alone in senior positions. Now, she can rattle off a whole list of fe-male presidents and CEOs: Lorraine Lafrenière from the Coaching Association of Canada, Karen O’Neill from the Canadian Paralympic Committee, Leanna Caron from Skate Canada, and Kathe-rine Henderson from Curling Canada.
Before entering this field, Merklinger was a successful swimmer and curler, having won a silver medal in the 200 metre breaststroke at the 1977 Summer Universiade and a bronze medal at the 1990 World Curling Championships. Following her athletic career, she was part of an athlete internship program that allowed female athletes who had competed internationally to have a six-month placement with a CEO in sports industry. She worked with Canada Artistic Swimming (then called Synchro Canada).
“That program doesn’t exist anymore, but that was really just the early days of a very strategic program to attract women into the field of sport management,” Merklinger said. She credits a conscious effort, not just in the sports industry, but across Canadian society, with increasing the number of women in leadership positions.
“Our senior leaders in all industries have been very intentional around trying to provide more opportunities for women to be successful,” Merklinger said.
Another important factor may be the success of female Canadian athletes over the past few quadrennium.
“Over recent Games — both winter (and) summer, Olympic and Paralympic — we’ve actually had more women on the podium than men,” Merklinger underlined. “And so all of those women serve to be role models and inspire the next generation of both male and female leaders, but, in particular, female leaders.”
Sue Holloway has also noticed an increase in women and girls participating on the athlete side of things. Holloway is a retired cross-country skier and canoeist, and was the first woman and first Canadian to compete in both the Summer and Winter Olympic Games in the same year. She now coaches skiing at Nakkertok.
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“When I was a little girl, which was a long, long time ago, and I did judo, which I loved, there was just two of us,” Holloway recalled. “There was me and Tina Takahashi in our club (Takahashi won Canada’s first ever gold medal in international Judo and now owns a martial arts studio in Ottawa). And there wasn’t the opportunity for competition like there was for the boys.
“So, I had to fight my brother one time in a competition. That was not fun,” Holloway added.
Still though, women’s sport has problems with visibility and funding. Holloway pointed to the “March Madness debacle,” when a number of inequities between the NCAA’s women’s and men’s basketball tournaments were pointed out, including differences in COVID-19 testing, food, training facilities, and branding.
“(March Madness) really highlighted the fact that even though things have changed, they’re still very much not equal,” she said.
Some organizations have recently made commitments for more gender equality in their sports, such as Curling Canada, which achieved pay equity for the 2021 Scotties and Brier tournaments.
Another issue Holloway noted is the fact that, although Canadians in general aren’t active enough, it is even worse for women and girls. There’s also a certain culture around fitness that she believes can be negative for women.
“I’m not necessarily sure it’s healthy for women and good for women, because a lot of it is based on being lean and svelte and all that sort of thing, which does lead to some pretty negative body image issues,” she said.
Holloway said she thinks the ongoing push to have more women in management positions needs to continue as well.
“A lot of people are against affirmative action,” she said. “But it’s important that you don’t just try and let it happen by chance. You have to plan for it and create the opportunities and prepare women to take on leadership roles.”
According to Merklinger, women who are currently in those positions are keen to make sure that happens.
“We have a very tight network where we support one another and we mentor the next generation of female sport management leaders,” she said.