Women make up 40% of all participants in sports—yet somehow receive only 4% of sports media coverage. It has a damning ripple effect: Without airtime, female athletes lose out on sponsors, fans, and coin.
This lack of coverage also tees up a shortage of role models for girls in sports—and if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. Girls drop out of sports at two times the rate of boys, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation, but not for lack of passion or skill; women’s and girls’ sports programs are underfunded and often underpromoted.
To give female athletes more leverage—and to give girls in sports more role models—a woman-led team at Adidas launched a global initiative called She Breaks Barriers. The campaign aims to provide better access to sports for women and girls, remove gender stereotypes, and create greater visibility for female athletes at all levels.
Step one: Create real, tangible change—not just #empowering ads. In January, Adidas hosted a workshop at the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University to pinpoint barriers preventing women from getting into sports and brainstorm how to overcome them. In March the brand hosted town halls in New York and Los Angeles to address a lack of mentoring and safe transportation for girls in sports. They’ve also partnered with Girls on the Run to provide gear and sponsor 5K runs; with Starlings Volleyball to sponsor to summer volleyball camps; and with Jen Welter (the first female coach in the NFL) to create the first women’s football cleats.
And finally, Adidas is fighting to change the balance of sports media coverage, committing to equal representation of female athletes in the brand’s own content and announcing a partnership to stream girls’ games live on Twitter.
Glamour spoke with Nicole Vollebregt, the woman behind She Breaks Barriers and senior vice president of global purpose at Adidas, about how her team is working to level the playing field for women in sports.
Glamour: Tell me about the genesis of the She Breaks Barriers campaign—why did this feel like the right moment?
Nicole Vollebregt: We recognize that we alone cannot remove all the barriers that female athletes face, so we created an open source dialogue through social media to ask athletes about the challenges and barriers that they face using the hashtag #CreatorsUnite. Last year we made a concerted effort to focus on taking action, and we started by creating an open letter from Adidas to Adidas and asked ourselves and consumers how we could get better.
NV: The responses we received helped shape the tangible ideas behind She Breaks Barriers—our global commitment to inspire and enable the next generation of female athletes, creators, and leaders. Since then we have been actively addressing some of these challenges and barriers through our athletes, with our TV and social campaigns, and in communities.
There’s a lot of talk happening on the subject of equality in sports right now. What does that mean to you? What do we need to see to make that happen?
NV: We believe that through sports, we have the power to change lives. For us, it’s about providing better access, removing gender stereotypes, and creating visibility.
By inspiring and empowering girls to play sports, providing equal access, and increasing visibility in the media, there are several stereotypes that we can help break down. Things like: Don’t throw like a girl; sports are for boys; sports are not something that girls do; if I play sports I’m going to become [too] muscular; I don’t have role models around me.
Sports provide life lessons—they teach you how to win and how to lose, they help you concentrate, they instill the art of perseverance and resilience, and they give you the confidence to succeed in life.
On top of the scientifically proven physical and mental health benefits, research shows that women in leadership positions have played sports, so it’s also about building leaders of the future—whether on the field or in the boardroom. Through research we’ve found that females who play sports have two times more confidence, and globally 96% of female C-suite executives participated in sports as teenagers.
Why is advocating for equal airtime for women's sports so important?
NV: You need to see her to be her. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, only 4% of sports media coverage in the U.S. is dedicated to women’s sports. Girls need and want role models that they can see around them, and in the media, so they can aspire to be them.
We believe a lack of visible role models means fewer girls being inspired to start, and stay in, sports, and we want to empower girls to make sure they can gain confidence, develop leadership skills, and reach their full potential and be successful both on and off the field.
We can make a tangible difference with our actions and programs like @StripeLive—the first-ever globally livestreamed series of girls’ sports on Twitter.
What does that mean for Adidas’s own portrayal of sports?
NV: The first step in change is looking at how we approach content creation and our own channels. We are committed to ensuring that we have equal gender representation across our owned social channels and will be moving toward having more gender-neutral campaigns.
What has been your biggest victory?
NV: We are really excited about the launch of @StripeLive. The six-event series kicked off at the Windy City volleyball tournament in Chicago in April. The first livestream received over 3.7 million video views, and our features of the teams leading up to it received over 7 million video views. The stream was viewed by over 2 million females aged 13 to 24 in the United States. For context, that’s more total viewers than an entire episode of Riverdale reaches on the CW.
When it comes to advocating for women in sports, what do you hope your legacy is?
NV: From a brand standpoint, I’d like to see a significant shift in mind-set and an increase in girls’ playing sports and staying in sports as a result of our actions and She Breaks Barriers. I hope that I’ll be seen as a role model by demonstrating that after being a female leader in both Germany and the U.S. for 22 years, you can have a long and successful career in sports.
And as a parent, I would hope that my five-year-old daughter sees that she can do anything and that she never runs into a barrier.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This year has made one thing clear: Women are showing up, stepping up, and taking what they deserve. From politics to pop culture, women aren't just leveling the playing field—they're owning it. As we ramp up to our annual Women of the Year summit, we will be highlighting women across industries who do the work every day. Whether it's the CEO of a multinational retail corporation, a James Beard Award–winning chef, or the World Cup champions, here are the women you need to know right now. First up: 10 profiles of women who are making their mark on the world of sports, where female athletes and businesswomen are fighting it out for championships, equal pay, and culture-shifting change. Spoiler alert: They're winning.
See all of the Glamour Women of the Year All Year: Sports.
Originally Appeared on Glamour