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Playing the game: grappling with race, gender and sport in America


Sport and equity are strong themes that run through Elena Simpkins’ life.

“I love sports. My dad played college and professional football and my mum is a huge college football fan. Sport has always been a huge part of my life,” she says.

Simpkins has a doctorate in sport management, and her interest has evolved beyond following the action on the field, to investigating the dynamics at play off the field.

Simpkins, who joined Flexability earlier this year as a consultant, produced her PhD dissertation on Black Women in Sport Leadership: An Exploration of the Sport Intersectional Model of Power (SIMP).

Simpkins says her PhD tackles what she feels isa glaring gap in research.

'I wanted to know why.'

“I noticed that in the existing research, when they talk about “women” they mean white women. And, when I looked at a lot of research around race, it was mostly about men –Black men. And so I did a project in which I looked at the breakdown of women within collegiate leadership roles, and noticed that all of the minimal progress that’s been made by women has been made by white women.

“You can count on two hands the number of women of color who are athletic directors or associate athletic directors.

“Consider the make-up of elite sports in America: there are a lot of Black and Brown student athletes, and depending on the sport, it is almost predominantly students of color who play.

“Yet the administration and leadership don’t reflect the student athlete population. I wanted to know why.”

Her dissertation argues that people need to think differently about this disparity.

'A lot of gender and race research comes from a deficit model'

“For a major part of my dissertation, I made the argument that a lot of gender and race research comes from a deficit model, which says that women of color or Black people don’t have certain qualities – that’s why they’re not leaders.

“My argument is that’s not true. These people are leaders within their own communities, but there are things within the organizational structures that prevent them from gaining access to these roles.”

She says this racial disparity between the players and the administrators is detrimental, because young Black athletes don’t see themselves growing into powerful administrative roles.

“Representation matters. Even for me, getting a doctorate didn’t seem like a realistic goal for me until I knew somebody who was going for a doctorate.

“My mentor helped me navigate this process. Being able to see someone who looks like you going through an experience makes it believable that you can achieve the same thing.

“As a student athlete, seeing a woman of color who is an athletic director makes it believable that once you’re done playing, that’s the next step for your career. Even if you don’t play, looking on from the sidelines and seeing a woman who’s a coach or referee makes it seem like an avenue you can pursue if that’s where your passion lies.”

She saw this need for diversity in sport leadership really come into focus when Black Lives Matter protests broke out in 2020, following the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor – two Black people – by police, in separate incidents.

'We were there to say: it’s okay if you want to go protest'

“When Breonna Taylor and George Floyd happened, the athletic department I worked with, took time to have a townhall for student athletes, because of myself and another Black woman.

“We were there to say: it’s okay if you want to go protest; this is how to do it safely, and here are other things you can do instead of protesting – here are organizations you can support, for instance. We compiled information to share. That may not have happened if we weren’t there to do it.”

Simpkins says her diversity journey probably began earlier than she realized.

“I grew up in a small village outside Chicago called Mount Prospect, Illinois. I was typically one of the only Black people in a class. At the time, I didn’t realize that what I experienced were microaggressions.

“We had an entire week in middle school where we learnt about the Holocaust. We had guest speakers who came in. But we never talked about slavery in the same way. People were asking about my hair and if they could touch it. Every time I did something different [[to the majority], it was a conversation.”

She came to recognize these microaggressions when she was older, and after she moved to a more diverse neighborhood in Washington, DC and joined Black student movements while in university.

'They’re willing to deal with the not-easy parts'

It was this interest, in issues around diversity, that led her to seek out work with companies like Flexability that work toward change.

“Flexability’s goals are near and dear to my heart: inclusion and diversity are important;making sure all people can go to places and feel like they belong there and are valued and are treated equitably are important.

“That was my driving force in joining Flexability – knowing that everyone involved with this company has similar sentiments. They understand that these are things that are important, and while they’re not going to be easy to change, they’re willing to deal with the not-easy parts.”

Simpkins also identifies with Flexability’s intersectional approach to diversity and inclusion – the idea that people are more than just their race, or gender or ability; they have multiple identities at the same time.

“I have fairly severe anxiety. When I was younger I didn’t know I was anxious. I just thought everybody didn’t do certain things because they were constantly thinking and worrying. I later learnt that people who met me thought that, because I was quiet, I was mean or arrogant.

“I was quiet because, on the inside, I was just trying to calm myself down or I was trying to work up the courage to say something. But because I’m a Black woman of size, then it’s automatically assumed I’m mean or angry.

“That has a lot to do with how we think about inclusion – we can’t just think about it as physical accessibility.

‘It has to be about how we think about deadlines and meetings for people who are severely depressed. If we’re constantly expecting people to do things like presentations, it could severely impact someone with anxiety.”

Get in touch with our team to talk about how to create a diverse, successful and productive workplace in your company or organisation. Or share your stories using the hashtag #MyAbility and tagging @getflexability on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.