How to empower girls? Give them more airtime, believe in them, says WWE's Stephanie McMahon at SXSW
Anna Blue, co-executive director of the United Nations Foundation's Girl Up program, says that a partnership with the WWE didn't make sense when she first considered it.
Professional wrestling has long been male-dominated, and although the WWE has had female wrestlers for decades, it wasn't until the past 10 years that women were treated more seriously, thanks in part to the leadership to Stephanie McMahon and her husband, Paul "Triple H" Levesque, who are on several panels about girls' empowerment at SXSW this year. McMahon and Levesque, who created the first all-women's pay-per-view last year, have consciously pushed for more airtime for women during WWE's weekly "Raw" and "Smackdown" shows.
That's far more camera time for female athletes than you'll find on ESPN.
"Only five percent of sports media coverage is about women's sports," Blue said at a panel on Saturday morning at The Female Quotient Girls' Lounge at the Palm Door on Sabine Street, where she, McMahon and others talked about the best strategies for empowering women, no matter their age. "Women are missing from really important places," Blue said, and if they are missing from sports coverage, they are missing elsewhere. "You can talk about the importance of women in the media, but until you do it, it's just talk."
Blue said that as an organization dedicated to stopping child marriage and genital mutilation, tackling gender in sports didn't seem like a high priority, but when she and McMahon started talking about the trickle down effect of representation in media, the partnership made sense to promote Girl Up, leadership training programs at campuses throughout the country, including the University of Texas.
"We are demonstrating to all these girls that you can be anything you want to be, but if you don't see women in that role, you might not think that way," says McMahon, chief brand officer of the WWE. "There's a huge opportunity in women and sports, but we don't hear enough about it. When is the WNBA season? When are their playoffs? Why aren't we seeing highlights from women's sports on SportsCenter? Until that happens, we're not going to see change.
Other takeaways from the panel:
• You have to recognize your own bias, including the language about how we talk about ourselves, said Shelley Zalis, CEO of The Female Quotient, who was on the panel. "I'm not quiet, I'm thoughtful," says. "I'm not bossy, I'm the boss."
• Women's self-confidence starts forming at age 5, so you have to start early.
• Get away from labels. From "skinny" or "fat" to "millennial" or even "empowered," labels only keep people, no matter their gender, in a box.
• Connect with others, wherever you can. From social interactions in environments where women are typically welcomed to the places where you don't always see as many women.
• "Go where you want, and don't ask for permission," Anya Alvarez, LPGS golfer and founder of Major League Girls, said.
• Lean into your strongest self. Several panelists mentioned a quote from "Sex and the City's" Carrie Bradshaw: "Trying to be a man is a waste of a woman." Typically feminine traits, such as empathy, are good leadership skills, Zalis said. "We lose leaders to caregiving when caregiving itself is a leadership skill," she said. "Lead like a girl."
One of the highlights of the panel was a performance after it was over from the McKinley Clover Steppers, known as T.O.C., a group of seven young women from New York City who perform all over the country to speak out against gun violence.
Alisa M. Pratt, director of the step group and the after-school program that works with about 150 youth, said that the group has performed in front of Beyonce, Whoopi Goldberg and a crowd of 20,000 at the Barclay Center. The group started six years ago, Pratt says, but two years ago, Goldberg saw them at an event in California, which led to a $20,000 investment from Allstate that kickstarted their travels around the country to perform and speak out against gun violence.
The steppers have experienced violence first hand, including one young woman whose cousins was shot 17 times while standing in front of her. "They were with me when they were 11 and now they are young women and emerging leaders," Pratt says. "I tell them, 'We've got to voice our opinions. We've got to make this stop'."