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women and sports leadership

Sony Ericsson WTA Tour CEO Stacey Allaster addresses the media before the final of the Sony Ericsson WTA Championships at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex on November 1, 2009 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

While women have made strides in attaining positions of power and influence in almost every other aspect of the business world, their presence in the executive suites of professional sports remains an anomaly.

And it's not for lack of trying.

"I think we need to create the opportunities for women so that they feel that they can aspire to these positions," Stacey Allaster, a Canadian who is chairman and chief executive officer of Women's Tennis Association, said in a recent interview.

Allaster, 47, a native of Welland, Ont., is considered one of the most successful women executives in sports.

The former head of Tennis Canada said she felt the added pressures of being a female as she worked her way up the corporate ladder in tennis.

"I think aspiring to any leadership position has its challenges," she said. "There's no straight pathway. but I do believe I was held to a higher standard because I was a female."

According to the most recent survey by Fortune Magazine, 14.4 per cent of executive officer positions in Fortune 500 companies within the United States were held by women.

In the professional sports world studies have indicated that only about two per cent of women hold key management positions in the NHL, NFL, MLB and the NBA.

"There are some who have attained very senior positions, but it's still few and far between," said Sue Rodin, the founder and national president of WISE - Women in Sports & Events -- the leading voice and resource for professional women in the sports world.

Rodin said any notion that there just are not enough qualified women out there to work in the front offices of major sports leagues is not true.

"There's been a cultural mindset, much like it used to be in male dominated industries like banking or financial services, were it's mostly men you see at the helm," she said. "So with sports, it will take some time. Some progress has been made but we're not at any sort of tipping point that's for darn sure.

"I don't think it's a matter of talent. It's a matter of opportunity and having women be part of the consideration process for these high profile jobs that come up."

Hayley Wickenheiser is one of Canada's most recognizable female athletes, a four-time Olympic athlete in hockey who also represented Canada in women's softball in 2000.

Now 32 and having just played for Canada's silver medal-winning team at the world hockey championship, Wickenheiser said landing a front-office management job with an NHL team is one of her future aspirations.

Wickenheiser understands it will be a tough goal to achieve just because of her gender.

"There's breaking into the old boys club for one and fighting the notion that a team would somehow be viewed as being weaker just because they hired a woman," she said. "And then there's the dynamic of a woman being around all those male professional athletes.

"I think those are just some of the questions that enter into realm rather than just thinking about hiring the best person for the job."

Wickenheiser said she has encountered plenty of capable women who would not be out of place in the executive suite of any professional sports organization.

She said Mel Davidson, the former coach of Canada's Olympic hockey team who is now the head scout, women's national team programs, for Hockey Canada, could run an NHL team.

Wickenheiser said it doesn't hold true that sweeping changes would be made across the sporting landscape if women were calling the shots.

For example, Wickenheiser doesn't think fighting in hockey would be banned if women were running the NHL.

"It's a little bit naive to say that just because women were put in positions of power in sports that the game is going to become less masculine or less physical," she said. "I think when you're in those positions, the first goal is to try to make the game better."

Her sentiment was echoed by Ann Pegoraro, the director of the School of Sports Administration at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont.

"I think there's a lot of female sports fans that love the fighting in hockey as much as the male sports fan," she said. "There's a huge female sports base for mixed martial arts. So I think there's an aspect of the female sports population that enjoys that aspect of the game."

While the NBA, MLB and NBA can boast to having several senior female executives at the management level on their teams, the NHL seems to be lagging behind.

The NHL did recently hire former WNBA executive Val Ackerman to a consultant's position - to help develop a strategy to assist the long-term health of women's hockey.

Maple Leaf Sport & Entertainment president Richard Peddie said he could not say why women have not made greater strides in the NHL.

"Is there still a glass ceiling, I guess," he said. "They have babies and they choose to make a life decision and, depending on how many children they have, that takes them out of the market place for a while and does set them back.

"That's the reality of it."

Brenda Andress, the executive director of the Canadian Women's Hockey League, said women's time is coming in professional sports.

"We have the skills and we definitely know what we're doing," she said.

She added, with a laugh: "There are a lot of powerful females out there in the world of sports and it's just a matter of time until we take over."

Here is a list of some of the leading women power brokers in sports

1. Stacey Allaster. The Canadian-born 47-year-old has been hailed by Forbes Magazine as "one of the most powerful women" in sports. As the chairman and CEO of Women's Tennis Association, Allaster was instrumental in achieving equal prize money for women tennis players at all four Grand Slam events.

2. Kim Ng. After nine seasons as vice-president and assistant general manager for the Los Angeles Dodgers it is widely accepted that Ng will eventually wind up as baseball's first female general manager. That feeling was only bolstered in March when Ng resigned from the Dodgers to accept the job of senior VP for baseball operations at MLB.

3. Jean Afterman. A vice-president and assistant general manager with the New York Yankees, Afterman was first hired by the team in 2001 and she quickly established her credentials in the baseball world. It was Afterman who led the charge that resulted in the signing of Japanese slugger Hideki Matsui in 2003.

4. Amy Trask. A chief executive with the Oakland Raiders of the National Football League, Trask is responsible for everything from sponsorships to TV contracts to representing the team at league meetings. Sports Illustrated once referred to her as "the most powerful woman in the NFL." Who knew NFL renegade owner Al Davis was such a trailblazer.

5. Heidi Uberroth. Yes, pedigree does have its perks. Yet, as the president of international business operations for the NBA, nobody is suggesting Uberroth isn't deserving of the job. Her chief responsibility is to try to grow the game abroad which is of critical value to a league where about 10 per cent of $300-million in revenues comes from overseas.