Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

MLB Hires First Female GM: A Look at Victories and Barriers Ahead for Women in Sport

Posted on 20 November 2020 by Mitchell Marshall

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In another leap towards true equality, Kim Ng has been appointed general manager (GM) of Major League Baseball team, the Miami Marlins – becoming not only the first female GM in any of the four major American sports leagues, but also the first Asian-American to rise to such a prominent role in baseball.

This is the latest in a series of breakthroughs for women stepping into key operational, business, and coaching roles in prominent sports organisations across the world. However, the industry still has a long way to go. 

Ng began her career with the Chicago White Sox as an intern nearly 30 years ago, and gradually built up an impressive CV. Before her move to Miami, Ng spent nine years as MLB’s senior vice president of baseball operations. Prior to that she worked as assistant General Manager for the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers, notching three World Series championships.

“This challenge is one I don’t take lightly. When I got into this business, it seemed unlikely a woman would lead a Major League team, but I am dogged in the pursuit of my goals.” Ng said in a statement. 

Ng’s progression shows that barriers are coming down for women in sports business that is traditionally dominated by men.  From America’s biggest leagues to football here in the United Kingdom, sport has enjoyed some successes when it comes to equality, but also some serious shortcomings. 

In Football

Women’s football is growing exponentially and providing leadership opportunities for female professionals, but is still dominated in a coaching and operations capacity by men. But important baby steps are being taken; down on the south coast, Lewes FC became the first club in the UK to implement a policy of equal pay for their male and female players.

Maggie Murphy, GM of  Lewes FC, who play in the Championship (second tier of women’s football), believes that Ng’s appointment will have a real impact.

“There are certainly women doing incredible jobs often behind the scenes. The key thing in this is how prominent and visible that particular role is. That’s what’s unusual and what makes it exciting and has broken a couple of barriers,” she told the Sports Gazette. “I think the key to a lot of this [for women] is normalising participation in sport at a start. Whether its participating in women’s sport or men’s sport. Just being visible.”

Maggie Murphy- Courtesy Lewes FC

In men’s football some women have cracked the top levels of the game on the business side, including Susan Whelan the CEO of Leicester City and West Ham’s Vice Chairwoman Karren Brady. However, no female has a prominent position leading team selection, tactics, or negotiating transfers equivalent to general manager in Major League Baseball. 

The FA has cited a shortage in the pipeline, but the proportion of women in football goes down the higher in an organisation you go. According to a study at Durham University: “Around 27% of workers in men’s professional club football are women, the proportion of women drops to 14% in the top pay quartile – and falls even further to just 7% in the boardroom.”

 Ng has been on the radar for a GM position for years, but had to become qualified beyond any reasonable doubt to get the position.  Murphy believes men are given much more leeway to be fail and society still has a long way to go in valuing women in sport. 

“The disrespect they are given is just representative of a major cultural shift that has to happen.”

Women Coaching Men

On the tactical side a handful of women have become head coaches in the lower tiers of Europe; the most successful being Corinne Diacre, who coached Clermont Foot in France’s Ligue 2 for three seasons.

In England the highest ranking female coach of a men’s side is Natasha Orchard-Smith who is the boss at ninth tier club Arlesey Town. There are a total of two female coaches at Premier League academies; as of 2017 men held 91% of coaching positions in women’s football. 

If this seems inexplicable it is. When asked about those figures Murphy described the problem. “It’s completely nuts, I think the culture can be so toxic towards the idea that a female coach could be the best coach in the world, but she has to have such thick skin to want to coach in the ninth tier English football.” 

“There are plenty of dinosaurs out there that will reason away why women should not coach a men’s team. We’ve heard all those arguments before.”- Maggie Murphy

As well as being a champion of equal pay, Lewes FC is 100% fan owned and also provides equal marketing, training facilities and pitch time to their men and women’s squads. Murphy says their real goal is to create an enabling environment where players will thrive regardless of gender. They want to prove that equality in sport is a sensible conversation away. 

American Sports

In the 2016 season, the National Football League (NFL) marked the first ever hire of a full time female coach. Recently in September, during a Cleveland Browns versus Washington football team fixture, women coaches were working on both the sidelines and as on field officials. So, while the NFL has had a plethora of women as executives over the years, the opportunity to be a General Manager, which is the true face of a team’s operations, has never been bestowed upon a woman.

The National Basketball Association (NBA) has eight full-time female assistant coaches but one in particular, Becky Hammon, has been coined as most likely to get a head coaching position. Hired in 2014, she currently works under legend Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs. That being said, ten teams fired head coaches this season and Hammon was not seriously considered for any of those jobs. 

The highest ranking woman in any NBA front office is former WNBA player Swin Cash, who is the New Orleans Pelicans vice president of basketball operations/team development. Beyond Cash, Michelle Roberts is the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association. 

Also, in 2019 the Indiana Pacers hired Kelly Krauskopf as the NBA’s first female assistant GM. So while progress is being made Cash said it best to Yahoo Sports: “You can’t just be happy being the first in the door. You have to make sure you’re not the last.”

Ng will surely be a trailblazer rather than an anomaly, and lead the way for other women to follow.