No token hires: Putting women in top jobs in men's sports is about winning

·5 min read
The B.C. Lions were the first CFL team to hire a female coach, in defensive assistant Tanya Walter, left. (Lyndsay Duncombe/CBC - image credit)
The B.C. Lions were the first CFL team to hire a female coach, in defensive assistant Tanya Walter, left. (Lyndsay Duncombe/CBC - image credit)

When Cammi Granato was young, she had a fantasy: she and her hockey-mad brothers would win the lottery and buy a hockey team and manage it together.

This plan, they figured, was the only way Granato, as a girl, would be able to contribute.

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Tony and Don Granato went on to have careers in the NHL, and now, their sister is one of two women recently hired as assistant general managers of the Vancouver Canucks.

"I didn't think I was going to see that come so quickly — in my lifetime," said Granato, now 51.

Vancouver Canucks
Vancouver Canucks

But there was no lottery win necessary to get here — Cammi Granato has simply had an impressive and diverse hockey career, built in spite of the barriers and exhaustion that came with being the first woman in almost every job she took.

Granato, who may be most recognizable to Canadians as the former captain of Team USA, where she played for 15 years, comes to Vancouver after three years scouting for the Seattle Kraken. The other new assistant general manager, Emilie Castonguay, was the first female certified agent in the league, negotiating big deals with top players.

Jim Rutherford, president of hockey operations for the Canucks, says these are not token hires. It's about winning — something the team, which missed this year's playoffs, needs to do.

"My goal was to bring different people, who took different roads in the hockey world — to bring different ideas, different voices," said Rutherford.

High-profile hires

Women's voices are increasingly being heard at the top levels of professional sport. The B.C. Lions, for example, were the first CFL team to hire a female coach, in defensive assistant Tanya Walter. The NFL had a dozen female coaching staff in the 2021/22 season.

And a woman, Kim Ng, is the general manager of baseball's Florida Marlins.

WATCH | Despite the challenges, women are making gains in pro sports: 

In terms of gender-diverse hiring, the Institute for Ethics and Diversity in Sports ranks the National Basketball Association highest among the four main male professional leagues.


The trend started with the hiring of Becky Hammond as an assistant coach with the San Antonio spurs back in 2014, which made her first female coach in any of the big four pro leagues.

For the women in these roles, it's been a long road and many still face barriers and discrimination their male colleagues don't.

Looking back on earlier parts of her career, Tanya Walter recalled resistance from some male coaches.

"I had coaches flat-out refuse to shake my hand when I started coaching," she said.

'Male coaches are never asked that'

This is Walter's first season with the B.C. Lions.

Growing up in Forestburg, Alta., her favourite sport wasn't football but basketball. She says she was often told she was too aggressive on the court. That aggression worked well on the football field, though.

She began playing with the Edmonton Storm of the Western Women's Canadian Football League, making it to Team Alberta and Team Canada. The latter won a silver medal at the International Federation of American Football's World Championships in 2017.

Despite those qualifications, Walter says, she still faces criticism from B.C. Lions fans who say she doesn't belong.

"A lot of people are like, 'She doesn't have the experience. She didn't play in the CFL,'" said Walter. "And the reality is, not every coach has played in the CFL, and male coaches are never asked that. Look at what I've actually done before you say I don't know what I'm doing — judge me on the job."

Lyndsay Duncombe/CBC
Lyndsay Duncombe/CBC

Some fans may be skeptical, but the players aren't. Lions defensive back Austin Joyner respects Walter's qualifications and skill.

"She's had to work harder than men do to achieve the same thing," he said.

Building resilience

The fact that women have had to overcome many roadblocks to get to top positions in sport may be precisely why they are valuable, said Ann Pegoraro, the co-director of the National Research Network for Gender Equity in Canadian Sport and a professor of sports management at the University of Guelph.

Adversity leads to resilience, she explains.

"When something happens on the job, they're not going to fold up and go home. They're going to be able to handle it, because they've been handling this their entire lives," Pegoraro said.

Michael Reaves/Getty Images
Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Those experiences also mean that women often look at risk differently than men, said Pegoraro, weighing alternatives in a way men may not. "One mistake for women is a lot more costly than it is for men."

Pegoraro says a male coach who loses games and gets fired is likely to have an extensive network to help him land a new, high-paying gig. Women don't have that support — at least not yet.

She said that sports clubs need a balance of decision-making styles, which will lead to better outcomes on the field and in the front office.

'The way that these teams are going to draft [players], the way that they're going to craft their business models is going to change because they have diverse voices in their organizations."

That's what the Vancouver Canucks are counting on.

"I absolutely think that if you keep hiring the same minds, you're not going to get growth," said Granato.

She may not have won the lottery she dreamt of as a girl, but, who knows, she may yet win a Stanley Cup.