Participants at the Out of the Blocks leadership conference in Eugene (© Taylor Sims)
Four female leaders in athletics from across the world shared their stories of success and growth in their careers as athletes and figures for the sport at ‘Out of the Blocks’, an inspirational leadership conference held on Tuesday (19) at the University of Oregon.
[Watch the conference in full below]
The conference, co-organised by World Athletics, the Local Organising Committee of the World Athletics Championships Oregon 22, the University of Oregon and USA Track & Field, featured a panel that included World Athletics Vice President Ximena Restrepo; Sanya Richards-Ross, 2012 Olympic 400m champion and presently a track and field commentator; Fatma Awale, the vice president of Athletics Kenya; and Claudia Schneck, an international technical official from Brazil. The aim of the conference was to celebrate the achievements of women in sport and World Athletics' pledge to continue striving for equity in track & field,
Michael H. Schill, the president of the University of Oregon, and World Athletics President Sebastian Coe opened the panel.
Coe said that one of his top priorities as president was to build equal space for women in athletics leadership. World Athletics elected its first female vice president, Restrepo, in 2019. Through the #WeGrowAthletics campaign launched on Women’s Day 2021, World Athletics has committed to continue making strides in line with the 2016 Governance Structure Reform in the sport’s constitution by balancing leadership positions so that they are equally represented by male and female leaders. This includes increasing the number of women on the World Athletics Council. The council composition will be 50% women by 2027.
“We’ve come a long way very quickly, but this is still only the start,” Coe said. “And it’s not simply about having some constitutional set of requirements. It’s about how we culturally invest.”
World Athletics established its Gender Leadership Task Force in 2017. The task force hosts programs, seminars and symposiums that can help women prepare for leadership positions in the sport.
The speaker panel, led by Stephanie Hightower, the chair of World Athletics Gender Leadership Taskforce, shared their journeys from athletes to leaders.
Richards-Ross, a multiple Olympic and World Championships medallist at 400m, said that her athletic career prepared her well for her career beyond sports.
“That is my drive — I want to continue to be an example for other young women. I want to walk through doors that athletes have not walked through. I want to continue to break the glass ceiling,” Richards-Ross said. “And I want young women to know that the skills they learned in sports are transferable.”
Restrepo said that when men in leadership roles encouraged her to run for the World Athletics vice presidential election and become the first female vice president, their support made a big difference.
“I accepted the challenge. I was ready for it,” Restrepo said. “But I also needed someone to put me here. And that's something we have to work on. We need more opportunities for women. We need more men to help us get there. And we need more women willing to get out of their zone and embrace new challenges.”
Awale's road in her national federation was similar. “I had the opportunity and authentic standing because the Constitution changed and it was made mandatory that a lady had to be a vice president. Federations and organisations in athletics should follow that in allowing more women in positions, and opening the doors for women to sit on the high table with the men who are already there.”
Hightower stressed the importance of self-promotion, despite how uncomfortable it might be. “Getting out of your comfort zone, I think that is something I think sometimes as women we forget about. We’re talking about taking risks and not having to ask for permission.”
“You’re promoting yourself just by doing the work. Right?" Hightower continued. "Whatever it is, you’re doing it well. There’s excellence there. I think sometimes we don’t want to get our hands dirty as women. But get in there and be passionate about what you’re doing. And trust me, somebody will recognize the work.”
Madeline Ryan for World Athletics