February 7, 2024

Writing the next page: Roughriders celebrating National Girls and Women in Sports Day

For the Saskatchewan Roughriders, 50-50 isn’t simply the theme of a monetary prize draw or the score of an especially wide-open game.

The matching numbers describe the male-female ratio in the Canadian Football League team’s business office.

The gender equity exemplifies the extent to which the Club — and sport in general — has progressed from the days, not especially long ago, when the environment was male-centric.

“I think you have to celebrate progress,” says Arielle Zerr, who has been the Roughriders’ Director of Communications since 2019. “It has been such a journey.”

That journey, that progress, is being recognized on National Girls and Women in Sports Day.

Today, the Roughriders are welcoming to Mosaic Stadium females from across the sporting spectrum to honour what has been accomplished and examine what more can and should be done.

“We want to ensure that we’re being those ambassadors to make sure that girls are in sport as well, because that’s really important,” says Kim Gallagher, the Roughriders’ Director of Talent Management and People Operations.

“The more girls who are in sport, the more girls will have that bug to want to be in sports.”

With the objective of creating that momentum, the Roughriders have invited all the females in the organization to today’s event, which will also include representatives from the Saskatchewan Rattlers, Saskatchewan Rush, Regina Riot, Saskatoon Valkyries and Football Saskatchewan.

“We’re getting together and doing some breakout groups to really start to think about ‘what are some challenges?’ and ‘how can we work through them?’ and ‘what are ways to grow our professional platform?’ ” Gallagher says.

“We want to really build a network of female professionals in sport. That can be from both sides of the ball, per se.”

Or both sides of the puck, considering the wealth of experience Jacqueline Hurlbert acquired in the hockey industry before joining the Roughriders in 2021.

“For the Saskatchewan Roughrider organization, I think it’s a day of true celebration,” says Hurlbert, the Director of Marketing and Fan Engagement.

“The work is never done, but I think this Club has done so much in terms of inclusivity and in terms of having women at the table. It really has opened a space where no one needs to feel like their voice isn’t heard.

“When we look at bringing together other women from across professional sports teams, it makes it pretty impactful to hear what the challenges are and what the obstacles are from other organizations. It’s also an opportunity to rally together to help find solutions for those challenges.”

Zerr faced some of those challenges over five years as a broadcast journalist before being introduced to the inner workings of the sports industry.

“I come from the sports media side of things, so I think it’s a celebration of what women bring to sport and their importance in moving sport forward,” she says.

“We’re celebrating the attitudes that have changed because women have come into sport. The allowing of women into sport changed perspectives in sport in a lot of different ways.

“I think we’re celebrating the contributions that you can both tangibly measure and intangibly measure when you bring smart, talented women into sports organizations.

“I think it’s also a day to acknowledge that there are still a lot of glass ceilings that exist in sport. As women in sport, I think we celebrate when all of them are broken, but what’s next?

“There are still lots of areas where women aren’t in sport, so you celebrate the progress that has happened and you acknowledge the difficulties that amazing women have gone through to get to this point.

“I also understand that now that I’m in this role, I bear the responsibility of the next step of progress.”

The progress to date is noted and appreciated by Gallagher, who is in her 14th season with the Roughriders.

“On the business side, it has been a natural evolution,” she says. “On the football side is where I see a really cool evolution.

“In my role, with human resources, you would think you would want human resources and football as far apart as possible, because football has its own rules, people would think.

“But early in my career, I was very lucky to build really good trust with, in particular, our General Manager and Head Coach at that time — Brendan Taman and Corey Chamblin.

“They really started to let me in and helped me understand the ‘why?’ and how things were done.”

Those insights have proven to be invaluable for Gallagher as she prepares contracts for the assistant coaches, for example, after negotiations are initiated by the GM and/or Head Coach.

“When we were going through some coaching changes, Brendan suggested that we work with a lawyer who is a professional in contract-building,” Gallagher recalls.

“I got to be on those calls and I was able to understand, ‘Why do we put certain clauses in the contracts? Why are they built this way? Why do we need this?’

“So rather than me being the person who administratively typed up the contracts for them, Brendan brought me in to understand the ‘why?’ behind the contract.

“As I fast forward 10 years in my career, as we have new Head Coaches, I can advise them, ‘This is a clause that works really well,’ and, ‘This is why we’ve done this,’ and, ‘This is what has worked well in the past.’

“That was a big evolution that I saw, where I’m trusted as a subject-matter expert now on some of the contract matters because I was brought into the ‘why?’ That was because Brendan trusted me to be in that room.”

The same level of trust exists between, to cite one example, Zerr and the current GM/Vice-President of Football Operations, Jeremy O’Day. Zerr and O’Day both assumed their current roles in 2019.

“I think it can get really awkward talking about men when you’re talking about the accomplishments of women in sports or in any industry, but you have to have the right people in leadership as allies in order for women to be accepted in roles and male-dominated cultures,” Zerr points out.

“I knew that I had the talent and that I had the skill and that I would be able to do this job at a high level, but it didn’t matter if there weren’t people like (President-CEO) Craig Reynolds and Jeremy O’Day who saw it and were willing to accept that a woman could do the role and were comfortable with a woman doing the role.

“I don’t want to make it about men, but men play a huge role as allies in allowing women into male-dominated spaces like sports and football. If they don’t accept it, if they don’t accept you, then you don’t have that position.

“When those positions of leadership accept women and respect women and work with women, they set a standard for everyone else.

“I’m fortunate enough to be in a place where women are valued and respected and part of the conversation at the table.

“I’m treated so well by the people here. That trickles down, so nothing less than that is expected from everyone in the organization, from the top down.”

Those sentiments are echoed by Hurlbert, who quickly reached the top of the organizational structure in junior hockey.

In 2012, at age 22, she became the first female GM in the history of the Alberta-based Heritage Junior Hockey League when she was hired by the Cochrane Generals.

“Starting in hockey, I went from where I was rarely ever seen as one of many females,” Hurlbert says. “I was literally the only female in the room a lot of the times.

“It progressed to the point where sometimes we have only one male in the room and it’s full of females. That is progress. That is inclusivity, especially in an industry that is primarily male-driven.”

Hurlbert spent nearly five years with the Generals, a junior B team, before joining the junior A Canmore Eagles. She worked in the areas of sales, marketing, business operations and community relations for four years with the Alberta Junior Hockey League team.

She then joined the Nanaimo Clippers of the British Columbia Hockey League and spent eight months on Vancouver Island before being hired by the Roughriders three years ago this June.

“I think that I have been very privileged in my opportunities in sports,” she says. “While I’ve had barriers and challenges of working through things, the majority of the time I have received respect back.

“I’ve been championed by individuals and, while it may have taken longer than some male counterparts to gain that understanding, I hope that the next females who fill those positions have an easier time doing so.

“That’s maybe the biggest weight on females now in leadership positions. We have to know the weight that it takes to create a space for the next generation so there is a seat at the table. Hopefully, one day, there are seats at higher tables.

“I think that’s the biggest growth opportunity for all sports organizations — having female representation from top down, starting at the executive leadership level and going all the way down.

“I think that shows true representation and we’re starting to see that in many sporting teams. I’m hopeful for what that means for the future.”

Zerr shares that hope, while also concurring with Hurlbert’s comment about the figurative weight females can carry while working for sports organizations.

“When you’re a woman in sport, there’s the immense pressure you feel not to mess it up,” Zerr says.

“If a man does something in sport, there’s no one who’s going to say, ‘I had a bad experience with a guy, so I’m not going to ever hire a man again for that role,’ but that can’t happen when you’re a woman in a non-traditional role in sports.

“If they decide that it was a pain to work with a woman or if they had a problem that was legitimate, even, with a woman working in that role, they might be jeopardizing the next woman who is coming along in that organization — maybe not even in that capacity, but in any future capacity.

“I think about that all the time. It’s something I talk about with other women in sport. It’s something I talk about with women who are thinking about going into sport or thinking about going into sports journalism.

“The pressure to be perfect and the pressure not to make big mistakes is even higher.”

And it can be daunting.

“When you’re the first, or among the few, there’s people looking to say, ‘I told you so,’ ” Zerr says.

“There are going to be people who are looking to say, ‘We told you a woman GM could never win a championship,’ or, ‘We told you that women can’t judge talent,’ or, ‘We told you that it was a problem to let women in the locker room.’

“There are always going to be people who say things like that, so the pressure to not give people a reason to say it is really high.

“When we mark National Girls and Women in Sports Day, I think it’s just that acknowledgement of how privileged we are to be in this position, but the pressure comes as well.

“(Roughriders quarterback) Trevor Harris has said, ‘Pressure is a privilege,’ and it is, but it’s still a pressure, and I don’t ever live without that thought far from my mind.”

One front-of-mind issue for Gallagher pertains to expanding roles and opportunities for women.

“One of the big goals is not just have female numbers within the organizations, but females being able to hold any role within an organization,” she says.

“It’s not just, ‘Females can be your accountant, your administrative assistant or your H.R.’ No. We want to get it so that all females know that they can have any single role within an organization. We have a way to go but, little by little, we’ll leverage any program out there. I think it’s a big thing to realize that and take some positivity out of it.

“As opposed to complaining about history, how are we going to write the next page?”