Athletes Are Inspiring Women to Self-Advocate in the Workplace

Women running at a track meet

Athletes Are Inspiring Women to Self-Advocate in the Workplace

High-profile athletes are taking the helm in the public discourse on what previously were considered “taboo topics,” and in the process, they are bolstering the fight for gender equality. 

In the aftermath of the 2021 Olympics, we saw mental health at the forefront of the global conversation as athletes like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles openly discussed their mental health. We also saw Allyson Felix, the most decorated U.S. Olympic track athlete of all time, fund a grant to provide childcare for Olympians and Paralympians during the Tokyo Olympics. The brave actions of these women have inspired women in the workplace. As we normalize the conversation around issues that are often pushed aside like mental health and the necessity of caregiving benefits, we amplify the voices of women and mothers in the workplace around the world. 

Here’s what we can learn from this pivotal moment when public-facing athletes are taking on the status quo and challenging existing systems that don’t work for women. 


Lead with vulnerability

In a recent interview with The Cut, Simone Biles said, “I should have quit way before Tokyo.” She was referring to her withdrawal from the 2021 summer Olympic games on the fifth day of competition after discovering that she had the “twisties,” a phenomenon where the body and mind disconnect, and she couldn’t see the map of the floor in order to land. Biles has been transparent about the mental health struggles an anxiety that resulted from the sexual abuse from former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, which she shared publicly in 2018. At the 2021, her post-traumatic anxiety compounded, causing her to remove herself from competition.

In her candid interviews with the press following the games, Biles openly shared why she dropped out of the competition. She demonstrated the power of vulnerability on a public stage. She rewrote the narrative that has flagged those who share their emotions at work and disparaged the notion that she is some superhero whose only purpose is to win medals. 


Prioritize mental and physical well-being

Women in sports face a number of inequalities. According to a recent study called “The Coverage Gap” conducted by The Female Quotient and DAZN, a global broadcaster and media company dedicated to improving the visibility of female athletes, women’s sports only receive 4 percent of media coverage in the U.S. When they do receive coverage from the media, the focus is often on their roles as mothers, wives and girlfriends, instead of their expertise and ability in their sport.

This not so great relationship history with the media, marked by mediocre, sparse and biased coverage, was put on full display earlier this summer when Naomi Osaka stepped away from a press conference, and subsequently the French Open, to tend to her ailing mental health. Instead of being met with support, Osaka was labeled as an “arrogant, spoiled brat” by news commentator Piers Morgan and the Telegraph’s sports columnist, Oliver Brown, criticized her “diva behavior.” 

Osaka set a precedent for women and girls to not only speak out about mental health but to prioritize it. According to the World Health Organization, while both men and women experience mental illness at a similar rate, conditions such as depression and anxiety are more common in women. Women also face unique pressures such as “gender-based violence, socioeconomic disadvantage, low income and income inequality, low or subordinate social status and rank and unremitting responsibility for the care of others.” 

Whether it is reprioritizing your responsibilities to make more time for rest, utilizing healthcare benefits to begin therapy, or taking time away, mental health should be a priority for women in the workplace.


Ask for change and then demand it

In 2018, Allyson Felix, the most decorated U.S. Olympic athlete of all time set out to pursue her dream of motherhood, but she knew in her industry having a baby was “the kiss of death.” In sports, mothers often receive pay cuts from sponsors while pregnant and afterwards. In 2017, Felix was in the process of renewing her contract with then-sponsor, Nike, and after having her daughter in 2018, they offered her 70 percent less than what she was making before. 

Felix left Nike after being unable to reach an agreement with maternity protections and signed with Athleta, a women-focused apparel company. Her public outcry for change and fair treatment of female athletes had a domino effect. In August 2019, Nike announced a new policy guaranteeing a pregnant athlete’s pay with bonuses that cannot be cut throughout the 18-month period surrounding pregnancy. In addition, Felix, along with sponsor Athleta, launched The Power of She Fund: Child Care Grants, a childcare fund that donated $200,000 to childcare costs for nine mom-athletes competing and participating in the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo. 

Women everywhere can be inspired by Felix’s approach. Ask for what you want and need, and if they can’t oblige, move on to a company, sponsor or partner that can. 


Join a network

At The Female Quotient we believe in the power of the pack and how collectively our impact becomes greater. For women, joining an existing support network or building their own, both personally and professionally, is the key to progress. We see this exemplified by the U.S. Women’s Soccer team and their years-long push for equal pay. More than 28 current and former players joined together in the lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation, and in 2021, they secured a proposed identical contract to the men’s team. 

There is power when women join forces in allyship—creating awareness and demanding change for mental health, childcare,  equal pay and overall workplace equity. 

Join the discussion. How have you been inspired by high-profile female athletes? Have they given you courage in the workplace?

Photo via Nicolas Hoizey 
Written by

Stephanie, who affectionately goes by Stevie, is the content strategist for The Female Quotient. Her passion for storytelling has sustained her career in magazines and online content for the past decade as an editor, reporter and writer. She has lived a number of lives from an event assistant to a creative writing teacher in juvenile halls to the former Online Managing Editor at Darling Magazine.