One of the greatest teams I ever led was the store leadership team during my first holiday season at lululemon. After just a year in the retail business, I still knew almost nothing about it. I’d abandoned my career as an attorney and was struggling to cultivate my identity in a new organization. I still think about their courage and hustle and greatness as the primary fuel that propelled my career forward.
There were six of them. All women. A majority were college athletes, a particular brand of woman I’ve found to be relentless in their commitment to excellence, fearless in their pursuit of winning, and humbly dedicated to bettering themselves and the people around them.
All of us belonged to the Title IX generation. Before we were female business owners, and people leaders, we were young girls with big dreams and mostly male role models. We benefitted from legally mandated access and funding and had opportunities our mothers couldn’t have dreamed of. When I watch my mom race around the backyard and roll around the living room floor with her grandkids, I wonder what her life might have been like had she been exposed to team sports.
I played soccer, basketball, volleyball and swam for our country club swim team. I dabbled in softball and spent a season as a junior varsity cheer leader. I grew up during the 49ers dynasty in a family where bay area sports worship was our primary spiritual devotion. My heroes included Jerry Rice, Will Clark, Scotty Pippen and of course, my older brother. Women athletes were barely visible in national sports media coverage and advertising. I was already a teenager when the 1999 women’s national team won a historic world cup and changed the landscape of women’s sports forever.
I was never a gifted athlete but I loved the thrill and challenge of competition. I learned to love winning, especially as a team.
In my professional life, I still apply the wisdom of most of the important lessons I learned playing sports. My approach to leading teams of people at work mirrors my approach to my role as a team captain. On the soccer field, especially, I learned how to communicate and collaborate. I learned the importance of leveraging individual strengths to further our collective goals. I learned about conflict resolution, decision–making under pressure, failure and resilience. I learned that one of the best ways to motivate the work ethic of others is to demonstrate a fierce one of my own.
In our youth sports arenas, girls like me* felt the empowering freedom of equality. Our parents showed up on the sidelines of our games with dedication and enthusiasm equal to what they demonstrated with our male siblings. Our coaches gave up their precious weekday evenings and sometimes entire weekends to better our lives as athletes and young women. We were celebrated and encouraged and lifted up. We were both told directly, and given the space, time and platform to prove, we could do anything.
Off the field, however, our life-experience remained deeply and uniquely female. I can remember as early as the second grade feeling ridiculed and ostracized at school for being smart and outspoken in class. When I won a school-wide election to be student body President as a sixth grader, the celebration of victory was undercut by rumors that my parents had written my campaign speech and that my mom had used her influence at the school to rig the outcome of the election. As a seventh grader, my English teacher gave me a C minus on a book report because she said the writing was too advanced for my grade level and must have been plagiarized.
In high school, what had once felt like subtle, even inadvertent, gender discrimination, became overt, sexism, as our bodies were increasingly sexualized by male peers, teachers and administrators.
As a freshman, I navigated an argument with our “yard duty” at the close of a lunch period as she tried to send me home for a dress code violation. The violation? a less than two inch strap on my tank top. My defense? I couldn’t miss a test the next hour, in Algebra 2. I had more male teachers than I even want to recount who sexually harassed and objectified me and my female classmates. Most of them were revered, tenured educators. The type who received awards from district leadership and advocacy from our parents who lobbied to secure our place in their class.
In college, I navigated the confusing and complicated landscape of coed living spaces and openly sexist frat parties. Me and other young women are thrust into these environments that are both liberating and terrifying. There is little guidance and limited policy to govern gendered social dynamics that are complicated and often dangerous. Teenagers are basically left alone to define boundaries, establish behavior expectations, and police misconduct. College is where I first felt shamed for sexual expression, threatened by male sexuality and unequal in a social sphere that privileges unmitigated male freedom above female safety, and enabled a “boys will be boys” attitude at the expense of genuine gender equity. I had more than one female friend whose educational path was disrupted, or outright derailed, by an experience of sexual assault.
After graduation, the hyper-sexualized gender dynamics of college take a shower, put on slacks and dress shoes and occupy every interaction we have as young, female professionals.
In the first years of my career I had confrontations with male and female colleagues who challenged my wisdom and decision-making without explicitly invoking my gender. By that point, though, the tone and quality of their admonishment was familiar, identifiable and unmistakably connected to me being female.
Those years also included uncomfortable, sometimes scary encounters with men in the workplace who unapologetically sexualized and demeaned me. Men who were much older than me who would crowd the office door, hover over my desk chair or creepily accompany me to the employee parking lot. Men who were closer to my age whose advances felt less personally threatening but just as dangerous to my professional development and advancement.
All of this is to not even begin to count the daily, ordinary ways in which men undermined me, and the women around me, by interrupting, diminishing, and ignoring our presence, intelligence and contribution. It also excludes all of the male mediocrity, laziness and entitlement that we are constantly hustling to overcome, mitigate or ignore as to not distract from the pursuit of our highest aims.
I think what resonates most about the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team is that theirs is a relatable story of female excellence. Their dominance, chemistry, and teamwork are familiar to those of us who have felt the joy and fulfillment of collaborating with other extraordinary women to achieve greatness. Their struggle for equity is also familiar. They occupy a position as the definitive powerhouse of their sport, accomplishing unparalleled success and international glory, yet are forced to scrap, and scrape and hustle and fight to be paid and treated equally. All women** know what it feels like to have to be twice as good as our male counterparts just so we might be considered the same. We can equally relate to being unfairly criticized for demonstrating the type of confidence and assertiveness our male counterparts are praised and promoted for.
The U.S. Women’s National Soccer team also represents, and seems to understand, that equity means more than equal pay. Equity means dismantling a system that privileges men in every aspect, at every turn, of our lives. Equity means eradicating sexual violence against women, erasing sexual harassment in the workplace, ending rape culture and finally taking responsibility for all of the systems and ways our country devalues and diminishes women.
The imperfect history of Title IX reminds us that the fight is ongoing. It also demonstrates that law and policy designed to level the playing field and un-do the past harms of systemic inequity are both effective, and necessary, to achieve those results. My life is better for the opportunity afforded me by Title IX and the lessons and access that came with it. Now, it’s up to me and the other women of our generation to insist that it continues to get better, and act in ways that further that cause.
And I believe that we will win.
*with tremendous gratitude and appreciation for all that was afforded to me my Title IX access (and my parents and community!), I also recognize that much of it came as a result of my racial and economic privilege. Outcomes AND opportunities for low-income women and especially women of color are far worse than for women like me and while that is not the subject of my thoughts it is critical to both understanding and addressing issues of gender inequity.
**While I feel confident in speaking for all women in this context, I want to be clear that the experience of women of color, in particular, is unique and the challenges they face in the workplace, and beyond are more intense, by a long shot, than those I face as a white woman. Issues of ability, size, language and other intersections of identity are also critical to understanding how gender impacts experience.