While there are many cases of gender bias throughout the tennis industry, one of the most common problems occurs at conferences across the globe. Despite the progress women in the sport have made over the last few decades, tennis conference speaker lineups continuously feature a highly disproportionate male-to-female ratio.

The question is what do those “numbers” mean?  Is the problem of few women speakers because of a lack interest, lack of qualifications, or something else?   When questioned, conference organizers often respond with ‘We don’t know of any female speakers,’ or ‘There are no women willing and qualified to speak on this topic.’

To get to the bottom of this question, we interviewed Tom Newkirk. Mr. Newkirk is a civil rights attorney from Iowa and an expert in the identification and elimination of gender bias in athletics. He travels around the country educating coaches and universities on the biases and other barriers facing women and works on designing methods to reduce or remove those barriers. According to Newkirk, there is a much deeper problem contributing to the limited number of female speakers.

The first problem is structural. This means tennis remains a male-dominated sport with more males coaching and in leadership roles, thus creating fewer opportunities for female speakers.   However, the mere fact that more males happen to be in tennis or coaching roles is often converted into an excuse by people in positions of authority in the industry or at conferences. They believe it is not “their fault” that our world has more men who may be in leadership or coaching roles.  

It may not be their fault, but that view ignores that gender bias is what created this numerical imbalance in the first place. However, the challenge is to appreciate that the historical “sexism” that created a situation where more men happen to be leading or coaching in tennis than women, is also not remotely the full story. 

Newkirk points out that “there are multiple layers of gender bias that exist today, in the minds of us all, that continue to push women to the back and men to the front of the line both as coaches, as leaders and at conferences or speaking events. If your goal is to increase female representation and participation at conferences, and to do so for the right reasons, we need to understand these layers and how to break past them.”  

According to Newkirk the first layer of bias, is leadership bias.   “Coaching and leadership is still unconsciously viewed as a ‘man’s job.’  This creates a hidden assumption in tennis (and all other sports) that a men are more effective coaches.  This causes increased hiring of males and decreased hiring of females into the role of coach. This bias affects the hiring process at the high school and club level, it continues to college and extends into the professional level.  This bias translates into the subconsciously driven perception that men are leaders and otherwise better received as speakers or presenters at conferences. And, within your field, if you’re seen on stage you are also seen as a leader.”

A second layer is “creativity bias.  This bias causes the entirely invalid and subconsciously driven assumption that men are more creative and therefore more compelling speakers. This bias combines with the effects of leadership bias and causes organizers to reach out to males more often, to respond to male requests to speak more favorably and can even result in more positive reviews in speaker-quality surveys after the conference.  

A third layer of bias is connected to how women are socialized differently than their male counterparts.  This can cause women to be, or appear to be, less comfortable asking to speak at conferences. However, that socialized difference is also often used an excuse and fails to recognize why that difference in approach continues to exist.  It becomes an excuse because a conference organizer believes they are just responding to requests to speak (more often made by males) and may honestly believe they would respond just as favorably to female requests to speak. However, that is not the case.  While there are many women qualified and eager to speak, they are also at risk when they advocate for themselves.  

“Women are disincentivized to advocate for speaking positions because they experience backlash. When a male reaches out to us to advocate for leadership roles or speaking opportunities or higher pay, we respect him, even if we say no to his request.  However, when a woman does this we dislike her and sometimes openly resent her for doing so,” said Newkirk.  “Women have all experienced this in some way. Men (and other women) need to be aware that they can respond negatively to a female seeking to advocate for herself entirely subconsciously, but also understand how and why that negative response, or backlash, has a devastating impact.” 

“In simple terms, women learn that if they put their hand out  – advocate for themselves-  it may get slapped, so they don’t put their hand out as much.” Newkirk added.

A fourth layer of bias presents itself when we are considering whom to allow on stage or whom to select to speak.  When a female is recommended or takes a chance and asks to speak on her own, she will also have to overcome the barrier of how bias puts a higher burden on her to justify her qualifications. Even if a female reaches out, and gets past some of the other barriers, she still has to work harder to justify her presence. 

The double standard in qualifications might express itself in subtle ways.  One way to expose it is to think about what qualifications are required or exist for men and women on stage. The female will normally need to be a touch more well-known or have a touch more experience to be viewed as having similar qualifications to justify her presence on stage.  For example, we think people would listen to a Williams sister who is at the very highest level of tennis, but not to a woman who is not well known or who has never played professional tennis. Men, who may or may not have played professionally, can still get on the stage and speak.  

There are other biases causing problems beyond these four, but hopefully we can see how even one or two layers of gender bias create a cyclical problem. It is a cycle of women not viewed as leaders which creates fewer requests and fewer speaking opportunities. When women do reach out to speak, they get push-back, and may refrain from reaching out again.   When women are considered, they are held to a higher standard in their qualifications and regardless, may receive more negative reactions to their being on stage. 

All of this feeds on itself. It causes men to continue to be the headliners at conferences, which reinforces the idea that speakers should be male. As Newkirk says, “The layers of bias causes the lack of women on stage and the lack of women on stage causes even further exacerbation of the continued notion that men are leaders, men are mentors, men are the ones presenting, and women are secondary,” This bleeds into coaching and mentoring and again, tends to feed on itself.

So, how can we remedy this issue? According to Newkirk, a solution starts with creating awareness. “When you create awareness, women know that they need to find a way to advocate for themselves, to make connections, to fight the system a little differently,” he said.  However, awareness in women is only a small part of the problem. We need increased awareness in the males and conference organizers so that they are better prepared and more aware of how these biases affect this process.”

By understanding the biases and the barriers, both women and men are more equipped to attack the problem at its core. “If you understand that these biases exist in the system, that there are hurdles that women have to jump over, that these hurdles feed on themselves and set up an unfair barrier for a group simply because they happen to be women, it can create an awareness, an effort to look in the mirror, that can reduce our biases and create solutions.” Newkirk said.   

“You have to attack stereotypes at their source. That means you attack the myth that there are few qualified female speakers. Indeed, I have reached out to women in tennis and one key leader told me that she could find 100 women ready, willing and qualified to speak at conferences,” said Newkirk.    

We also take on the inaccurate assumption that it is the female’s fault for not asking to speak more often. You also recognize the long-term harm of always having one group (more males) on stage and how that contributes to the biases that make us think that women are not good leaders, coaches and mentors. All these efforts to raise awareness and to attack our hidden biases can then combine and begin to feed upon themselves, but this time in a very positive way.

“If we can raise awareness it can help us understand why it is important to require diversity in coaching, in leadership and at speaking events. Not diversity in the sense of one or two women, but diversity in the sense of close to 50 percent females on stage,” Newkirk explained. “Awareness also helps us appreciate why diversity matters, but not merely because of political correctness. Diversity in decision-making and leadership is a valid approach to reducing current and continuing effects of gender bias, particularly in athletics. Diversity is also vital because it makes for better presentations at conferences and furthers the long-term goals of the sport.”

Creating more diverse conference lineups is a necessary step for progressing our sport, and in order to do that, we must continue to spread awareness and fight the biases that inhibit women from generating that progress.  


About Tom Newkirk

Tom Newkirk is a lawyer at Newkirk Zwagerman Law Firm, P.L.C., which represents employees who have been denied equal employment, equal opportunity or who have been harassed at work based on their sex, skin color, age and other personal characteristics. He focuses primarily on discrimination law, specifically the representation of African Americans and women in their pursuit of an equitable share of the benefits of American society. Newkirk has also worked extensively on sports bias law suits, including multiple cases involving Title IX law. He holds degrees from Drake University and Drake Law School in Des Moines, Iowa and was admitted before the courts of the State of Iowa in 1989.

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