Plenty of Glass To Break for Women in the NFL

The most popular spectator sport in the United States has no woman head coach in sight.

When sports began airing on network television in the 1940s, it was completely dominated by men. The idea that a woman would be allowed onto the field itself was not part of the plan—except as a cheerleader, sexy and scantily dressed, cheering their warring men onto victory on the iron grid battleground where no woman had dared tread.

Little by little, as women marched for equal rights and liberation, things began to change, even breaking NFL stadium glass ceilings.

  • In 1976, Boston Globe reporter Lesley Visser became the first female beat reporter for an NFL team. While at ABC Sports, she was the first woman assigned to Monday Night Football and to even walk the hallowed sidelines to report during a Super Bowl.
  • In 1987, Gayle Sierens was the first woman to do play-by-play for an NFL football game.
  • In 2012, Shannon Eastin became the first woman to referee an NFL game, and in 2015, Sarah Thomas became the first full-time female  NFL official, also becoming the first woman to officiate in a Super Bowl in 2021. For the 2020 NFL season, she was on the officiating crew headed by referee Shawn Hochuli.
  • In 2021, Maia Chaka was the first Black woman to officiate an NFL game.
  • Less than a decade ago, there were no women coaching in the NFL. During the 2021 season, there were 12—the most women to coach in the NFL in one season.

While I applaud these gains, we are still far from any semblance of gender parity. There are no women head coaches in the NFL. Most of the NFL’s 32 teams do not even include a woman on the coaching staff.

Before we cheer, “You’ve come a long way, baby,” one thing hasn’t changed: the gender of the players. Only one woman—Lauren Silberman—has ever attempted to actually join the NFL. Silberman had never played the game before and botched her 2013 tryout, leading observers to assume the tryout was a mere publicity stunt. Even still, “girls don’t play ball” permeates our consciousness.

In my book, Just Not That Likable: The Price All Women Pay for Gender Bias, I vividly recount when my daughter was in elementary school, driving through a fast food line to order a cheeseburger Happy Meal and was asked the question that has followed every boy and girl from infancy, through childhood, and to infinity and beyond: “Would you like the girl toy or the boy toy?” I admit that I was having a long day and feeling a bit  “triggered” so I shot back and asked what difference does the sex of my child make. The voice crackled through the microphone, “Girls get dolls, boys get cars.” My efforts to ascertain what type of a toy it was—so my daughter could choose—ended up with me having to park the car and go in to argue with the manager for a toy to go into a not-so Happy Meal!

Photo by Isaac Martin on Unsplash

That was over 20 years ago, but these male-female sex stereotypes still impact virtually all aspects of our social life. Girls play with dolls; boys play with footballs. Boys are football players; girls are football cheerleaders.

In all sectors of the workforce, double standards exist in what we expect to see of women in authoritative and leadership positions, be it as a football referee, a Fortune 500 corporate executive, or a school superintendent. The roots of long-held stereotypes about women in authoritative roles—often in traditionally non-female workplaces—have shaped our perceptions of “proper” gender roles. Such gender socialization starts before birth. From infancy through adolescence, parents routinely reinforce gender bias by treating their daughters and sons differently, in everything from clothing choices to assigning chores to the tone of voice they use. Girls are still rewarded for playing with Barbie, boys with G.I. Joe. Have you been to a toy store lately? These gender-role perceptions permeate our media, music, and language, and condition our career choices. Boys play with footballs and drive fast cars; girls: not so much.

No wonder girls grow up to be women who strive to strike a balance between being sweet and strong—often to the detriment of our career advancement and authentic selves. The conflicts and consequences are even worse for women of color (e.g., Black women are “angry”) and become even more stereotypical as women age (e.g., can she lead or officiate due to “menopausal mood swings”?). 

Historically, women have had to battle to not only break the glass ceilings of authoritative roles, but to stay and advance due to stereotypes of how women in leadership roles are supposed to “behave.” In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled in the historic Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins gender-bias case that employers could no longer evaluate employees based on stereotypes.

Photo by Dane Deaner on Unsplash

Yet, even today, both women and men say they would rather have a male boss because of perceived “likability” attributes. Leadership characteristics such as being assertive or decisive typically taken for granted in men become denigrated as “abrasive,” “bitchy,” and quite frankly, just not that likable for women.

Certainly, progress is being made but, yet again, another Super Bowl will be played without a woman referee making the calls we know they can make. Intentionality to create pipelines for women to advance, coupled with tackling lingering and biased malevolent gender stereotypes, are needed to no longer keep baby in the corner—or on the sidelines—of any workplace.

Gloria J. Romero is a Professor Emeritus of psychology at California State University and the first woman ever to have held the position of Majority Leader of the California State Senate.