Empowering Women in Hockey: If Not You, Then Who?

Today’s guest columnist is Kim Davis, senior executive vice president at the NHL.

March 8 is the NHL trade deadline, an important day across the hockey ecosystem. The flurry of activity, trade reports and breaking news will dominate the conversation across hockey channels as teams position themselves for the playoffs. But March 8 is also International Women’s Day—an important moment to pause amid the madness and recognize the progress and potential of women in the business of hockey who contribute to the game every day.

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Regularly throughout my career, I’ve reflected on the importance of investing in women. Yes, because I believe in equity and in gender parity in leadership, but it’s more about why I believe in it—because I’ve witnessed and experienced its catalytic potential to generate economic gains for businesses, improve societies and change the trajectory of families.

My grandmother, Dr. Rose Butler Browne, was the first Black woman to graduate from Harvard’s Ph.D. program in 1939. She was an educator, a civil rights activist, a servant to children with disabilities and a leader in higher education for Black people in the South. Her career not only impacted the child psychology field in unprecedented ways, but it inspired me to enter industries and positions I would have never thought possible.

As the first Black woman in the C-suite at the NHL, I often think of my grandmother who challenged gender and racial norms and pressed ahead no matter the headwinds. Like many of my peers—both male and female—I’ve experienced loneliness in leadership, imposter syndrome and moments of doubt.

But my grandmother always said, “If not you, then who?”

It’s stuck with me—and I have stuck with it—long enough to see the tectonic plates of women in the workplace shift dramatically.

According to McKinsey & Company’s Women in the Workplace 2023 study, the number of women in the C-suite is the highest it has ever been.

Inside the NHL, there are women who influence and guide their team’s on- and off-ice business operations including female owners, presidents, CFOs, CMOs and CEOs. The growing number of women in positions of power and influence is promising. In the front office across the U.S. and Canada, one in three employees are women, which is approaching female fandom ratios: Four out of 10 NHL fans are female.

At every NHL club, women work in hockey operations, including six female assistant general managers, the highest position held by a woman in this department. When women are exposed to female role models, they are more likely to believe in the idea that women are well-suited for leadership roles. Over the last five years, the NHL officiating department has been intentionally developing elite female talent through its NHL officiating mentorship program, the Officials’ Exposure Combine, and participation at NHL Rookie Tournaments. The 2024 tournament featured seven female officials, the most to-date.

Behind the bench and on the ice this season, 24 women—the most ever—participated in NHL club training camps, development camps and preseason games. That includes women who are part of the NHL Coaches Association’s Female Coaches Program, which first launched on International Women’s Day in 2020, and continues to open doors for women to gain, and share, valuable coaching experience at the highest level of the game.

Mentorship programs like these are vital to ensure the pipeline of talent remains competitive, giving women access to learn, contribute and grow.

And when it comes to the intersection between gender and race, demographic trends show the younger generation is more diverse than ever before in North America, with the traditional minority becoming the majority by 2045. Gen-Z will make up more than a quarter of our workforce by 2025, and we are not as far away as we may think from this cohort entering leadership positions.

Research shows gender and ethnic diversity on executive teams positively contribute to an organization’s bottom line. Moreover, recent research shows that not having gender or ethnic diversity negatively impacts financial performance.

Despite the good news, for women next in line for C-suite positions, growth is slow. Over the last few years, high turnover of women in management positions has been documented (dubbed “the Great Breakup”) and attributed to burnout and culture, as well as an ambition to lead. In historically male-dominated industries and organizations, we need to create an environment that encourages female leadership.

The future business of men’s hockey will thrive when it invests in women, and women of color, at all levels.

This will require all of us within the game today to be intentional about the culture and opportunities we create for women. Women supporting women, and men as allies and promoters.

Men tend to occupy positions of power and influence that can reform the institutional structures, not just in hockey, but in all sports, and society at large.

So how can men show up with intentionality to support their female colleagues?

Pay close attention to the experience of female colleagues. Listen to them. Look at how policies and practices may impact their experience in a way that does not impact your own. Offer mentorship opportunities for colleagues who seek professional development. Remind others that supporting women is not just about checking a box, but about doing what’s right for the success of the organization. Stand up against sexism and gender disparities that occur in the workplace.

Women have been an integral part of men’s hockey for decades. It was 70 years ago the Stanley Cup immortalized Marguerite Norris, the 25-year-old president of the Detroit Red Wings, the first-ever female team president in NHL history and the first woman to have her name engraved on the greatest trophy in all of sports.

It was a little over 50 years ago when you could turn on your television and see, for the first time, a woman covering a major team sport: on Hockey Night in Canada. And soon after, a first among all professional North American sports leagues, women were allowed inside an NHL locker room.

There are examples of women throughout the NHL’s 100-plus year history who blazed a trail to success, leaving the path behind a little easier for the next generation.

But without intentional efforts to support the pipeline of female talent that is coming next, the path gets lost. We carry the weight of the next generation knowing that they are looking to us as role models, using our successes and failures as benchmarks.

What is needed is brave leadership at all levels—from the organization, from the employees and from all genders—to continue to push boundaries whether it’s unknown, uncomfortable, inconvenient, or simply difficult. This is essential.

Because if not you, then who?

Kimberly B. Davis serves as the NHL’s senior executive vice president for social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs. She has been recognized as No. 1 on Sportsnet’s list of the 25 Most Powerful Women in Sports, in Sports Illustrated’s Most Powerful Women in Sports and in Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business.

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