University of Chicago men’s soccer head coach Julianne Sitch has proved that she can compete with the best her entire athletic career. She broke records while playing at DePaul University (Ill.), won a national championship with Sky Blue FC of the Women’s Professional Soccer league during her playing career and is the first female head coach to lead an NCAA men’s team to a national championship. Her resume should speak for itself — yet, Sitch said people still question her ability to hold her own at the Women in Sports panel hosted by Emory Athletics’ Eagle Edge program at the Emory Student Center on Jan. 30.
“I also have had some people that I unfortunately had to work with that told me that females weren’t qualified to coach or to be in the sport,” Sitch said. “I’ve had people now with my current job that have asked me multiple times, unfortunately, about, ‘Do you get the respect from your guys? Do your guys listen to you? Are you able to control the room?’”
Sitch, along with Director of Player Engagement for the Atlanta Hawks Ericka Hill and founder and CEO of LPS Consulting LaTonya Story, spoke to Emory University female student-athletes about the challenges they have faced achieving success in a male-dominated sports industry. Hill, who has worked for the Miami Heat and Atlanta Braves and is now in her fifth year with the Hawks, noted that she struggled to stand up to the “slight biases” perpetuated by her male colleagues at the beginning of her career.
“When you get in a meeting with your male counterparts, they look to you to take the notes,” Hill said. “It shapes how they look at you. It’s just small things like this, I think. When there’s birthdays at the office or when there’s celebrations, they always look to the woman to go buy the cupcakes and go decorate everybody’s desk and things like that.”
Although today Story can boast that her company’s clients include NBA, NFL, Olympic and WNBA athletes, representing mostly male athletes has not been without challenges. After carving out a niche for herself representing “blue-collar” athletes at a smaller firm, Story did everything in her power to be more “assertive” in going after her clients and do everything in her power to promote them once they hired her.
“I really just did everything I could for them,” Story said. “I was very intentional about trying to position my clients in the best possible light. Even though [one client] wasn’t a quarterback or a receiver or a running back, I tried to make the most I could of that position and then he started to grow and grow.”
Even accomplished sports industry professionals such as Hill, Sitch and Story do not harbor elusive innate talents that automatically open doors. Hill recalled that she lived on a $15,000 annual salary at her first job with the Heat, and, at one point, Sitch worked seven jobs simultaneously to stay afloat while pocketing just a few hundred dollars playing the odd professional game. Even Story, who knew little about the intricacies of entrepreneurship when she first founded her company, had to delegate responsibilities as her business grew. All three women said that working hard and staying consistent contributed greatly to their current success.
“I was not the best soccer player,” Sitch said. “I was fit. I could work hard. I would outwork anyone on any day. That was my biggest strength. I would run fitness in my street with my dad standing there with a stopwatch timing me. Anything I could do to put myself in the best situation to give myself the best opportunity to go after my dreams.”
While believing in oneself is crucial, Hill said relying on others for assistance and insight is equally important for maneuvering up the professional ladder. Hill emphasized that while it can take effort to foster connections and form meaningful relationships with others, having a broad professional network is an invaluable asset when seeking new opportunities in the sports industry.
“Every job that I’ve had has been because of someone I knew,” Hill said. “Just being very intentional about networking and meeting people and staying in touch with them, and not just always asking for things but being a resource back to them as well. It’s a give-and-take relationship.”
Story devoted much time and energy into nurturing female relationships within the sports industry during her development of The Sports Power Brunch. Founded in 2019, the annual event brings together female sports professionals in an effort to empower them and celebrate their successes. Within her own business, Story has surrounded herself with women who contribute positively to the workplace environment, as she views those caring inter-female relationships as being crucial to motivating young ambitious women to remain in the business.
“Sometimes when you get in a [leadership] role, you notice that sometimes women can be mean and nasty,” Story said. “Sometimes it turns younger women off from wanting to get in the business or for them to even excel. There are so many people who I know personally who’ve left the business altogether because someone who was in leadership just had a nasty attitude or wasn’t nurturing.”
In a similar vein, Sitch noted that the more vocal women are in their support for one another, the more likely men are to back female colleagues.
“In general, I think women need to continue to lift women up and advocate for each other versus breaking us down,” Sitch said. “I also think one thing that needs to continue to improve too is men advocating for women as well, and advocating for us or when we are qualified or more than qualified or overqualified than some other people, then they should be advocating for us. I think if we advocate for each other, I think it will continue to improve and help men advocate for us as well.”
When asked what career advice they would offer the collegiate student-athletes in attendance, all three women spoke about the importance of building a community of reliable and driven people. As Hill said, however, improving one’s own professional habits — following through on commitments, independent problem-solving and staying passionate about one’s work — is what makes candidates stand out to employers.
“Being dependable [is important],” Hill said. “That makes a big difference to people when they see that you’re dedicated to what you’re doing. Also being persistent, not taking no for an answer. Just being persistent and not being so easy to just give up and say, “It didn’t go my way. I didn’t get what I wanted. Let me just give up.’”
Claire Fenton (she/her) (24C) is a Pittsburgh native majoring in quantitive sciences and linguistics. Outside of the Wheel, she is the treasurer of Emory Data Science Club and Girls Who Code. When she’s not training for half marathons, you can find her watching the Penguins dominate the Philadelphia Flyers and reading Agatha Christie novels.
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