Macaela MacKenzie is a journalist who covers women’s equality. She is a former senior editor at Glamour magazine, where she notably covered the famous soccer saga of the U.S. Women’s National Team fighting for equal pay while competing their way to the World Cup, back in 2019. Her work has also been featured in Elle, Bustle, SELF, Marie Claire, and Women’s Health, among many other publications.
Below, Macaela shares 5 key insights from her new book, Money, Power, Respect: How Women in Sports Are Shaping the Future of Feminism. Listen to the audio version—read by Macaela herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Sports reflect our attitudes about women.
One of the first things I learned when I started profiling women athletes was that you don’t have to be a diehard sports fan to understand the value of women’s sports. Both as a business and a pillar of our culture, sports tell us a lot about the way a given society values women.
Take the Olympics, for example. When the modern Games began in 1896, women were not allowed to compete on the basis that they would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and indecent,” as said by Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the International Olympic Committee. As he saw it, the greatest sporting stage in the world was about showcasing male excellence with “female applause as a reward.”
Women have since made huge strides into these male-dominated arenas. At the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, U.S. women outperformed their male counterparts, bringing home 60 percent of the country’s total medal haul. But they’re routinely met with sexist attitudes and often forced to play by a different set of rules. When the Women’s World Cup started in 1991, the matches were 80 minutes instead of the men’s regulation 90 minutes because organizers were afraid that the women athletes couldn’t handle another 10 minutes of exertion. It wasn’t until the most recent Summer Games in Tokyo that women were allowed to swim the 1500m, because for years it was thought to be too grueling for women to undertake. (Katie Ledecky of Team USA, for the record, dominated at the inaugural race.)
2. The way we talk about women in sports matters.
Lindsay Vonn is one of the greatest athletes in history. She won 82 World Cup titles, making her the winningest woman to ever strap on skis. Her record was recently broken by Mikaela Shiffrin, who clenched her 88th World Cup victory in 2023, becoming the most decorated skier (male or female) in history. But throughout Vonn’s career, media coverage of her was dominated by comments on her looks, debates about her body, and claims that her success was due to her ex-husband, who was her coach while they were married. An article published by Bleacher Report declared that Vonn’s impending divorce would quote “ruin” her career—it didn’t.
“Research shows that women athletes presented in a sexualized way are taken less seriously.”
Even more insidious is the way the media sexualizes women in sports. This kind of coverage of female athletes devalues women. Research shows that women athletes presented in a sexualized way are taken less seriously, which ultimately harms them at the negotiating table.
It doesn’t stop in sports. One analysis published in the prestigious journal PLoS One in 2019 found that “sexualized women are viewed as lacking in both mental and moral capacity. As a result, they are seen as less competent and less human.” This is why it’s so exciting and encouraging to see women in sports taking control of their narratives and ownership of their images.
3. Teamwork is everything—especially off the court.
If there’s one thing to know about women athletes, it’s this: they get things done. They have accomplished historic equal pay deals, influenced elections, and successfully negotiated labor contracts that can be used as a model for paid leave in other industries. Women athletes have accomplished some of the most important social justice work in modern history.
The not-so-secret secret behind these wins is that women in sports know how to organize. From Billie Jean King banding together the Original 9 in the 1970s to launch the first women’s tennis tour (laying the foundations for Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams to become the highest-paid women in sports) to the women of the U.S. Women’s National Hockey Team standing together to fight for equal pay in 2017, women athletes have given us some of the best examples of collective bargaining.
One of my favorite stories is about the U.S. Women’s National Hockey Team. When negotiations between players and U.S.A. Hockey over a living wage broke down, the federation tried to replace the senior team with more junior players, reaching out to college and even high school athletes to undermine the professionals who dared to ask for fair pay. In a stunning show of solidarity, the junior players turned them down. “This was the pinnacle of our sport,” Kendall Coyne Schofield, U.S. Women’s National Hockey Team captain told me. “For some players, this was their first opportunity [to play for Team USA] and could have been their last.”
“Women athletes have accomplished some of the most important social justice work in modern history.”
Women athletes have used collective power not just to help themselves, but to champion social justice causes. Take the women of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). When Atlanta Dream owner and then-U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler wrote an open letter condemning the WNBA’s support of Black Lives Matter in 2020, the entire league supported her opponent, Democratic Senator Rafael Warnock, in the upcoming election. He won the seat, in an underdog upset credited largely by political analysts to the women of the WNBA.
Women in sports teach us to never underestimate the power of the collective voice.
4. Women make stronger leaders.
The numbers don’t lie: Companies with more women in executive positions and on boards make more money. Research shows that the presence of women in leadership roles leads to increased profits, revenue growth, and share price. One analysis found that during the economic turmoil of the pandemic, companies with the highest gender diversity had a combined income growth of $58 billion, while companies with lower gender diversity saw a combined loss of $283 billion.
Having more women in leadership won’t magically solve the world’s problems, but there is evidence that it can meaningfully narrow the gender gap. When women have access to power, they’re more likely to share it. Investor Cindy Eckert calls it underdog unification. “It’s my experience that most people who have played the game on an uneven playing field and managed to succeed become highly motivated to turn around and level it,” she says.
This is one of the most important reasons to support women’s sports, which serve as an undeniable leadership pipeline. Nearly all C-suite women—94 percent—share a stunning commonality: they all played sports.
“In sports, we [learn to] physically overcome by sheer grit,” Lindsey Vonn told me. It’s one of the only places you can learn that skill—where you can fail safely, train harder, and learn to persist. “Most of the time,” Vonn says, “the most successful people aren’t the people with the most talent or the most skill. They are the people that refuse to give up and will outwork everybody.”
5. Women’s sports are good business.
The fight for gender equity in sports is ultimately an investment issue. Those who oppose equal pay for women in sports argue that women shouldn’t make as much money because they don’t generate as much revenue. In many cases, they’re right—they’re just not telling the whole story.
In 2021 the college basketball tournament-turned-cultural sensation known as March Madness made headlines for all the wrong reasons. While players on men’s teams were given luxurious amenities at their tournament bubble, the experience in the women’s bubble was embarrassingly cheap. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the weight room. While the men enjoyed an expansive hotel ballroom decked out with state-of-the-art equipment, a photo of the women’s weight room—which consisted of a single rack of dumbbells and some yoga mats—went viral.
“The independent report found that the NCAA was potentially leaving $100 million in revenue on the table by treating the women’s game as a second-class product.”
Weightgate is emblematic of the investment problem in women’s sports—and a particularly apt metaphor. If you take two otherwise equally qualified athletes and give one access to a state-of-the-art training facility, the best nutrition and performance coaches, and every recovery tool on the market, then you could logically expect to see a better output than the athlete given scarcely more than a set of 10-pound weights. Across the board, the investment gap in sports is huge. Women’s sports are given meager resources and opportunities to grow and then judged against standards set by an industry that has benefited from decades of growth and billions in investment.
An independent report commissioned after the March Madness debacle of 2021 unearthed a profound truth about the investment gap in sports: bias often prevents investment in women even when it means leaving money on the table. For years, the women’s college basketball tournament was blocked from using the lucrative “March Madness” moniker—a move that would have cost organizers nothing while helping to grow the women’s audience and ultimately increase the NCAA’s profits. The independent report found that the NCAA was potentially leaving $100 million in revenue on the table by treating the women’s game as a second-class product.
The 2022 tournament proved to be a powerful case study for investing in women’s sports. Women’s basketball was finally brought under the lucrative March Madness branding and ESPN aired all women’s Final Four and championship games across all its networks. The results were historic—triple-digit viewership gains, a sold-out championship game, and millions of dollars in earned social media value. Invest in women and see real results. One of the most powerful ways you can support women’s equality is by supporting women’s sports.
To listen to the audio version read by author Macaela MacKenzie, download the Next Big Idea App today: