When Sam Rapoport joined the National Football League in 2003 as a marketing intern, the Canada native says there were rarely any images of female representation throughout the league.
"If you looked at female coaches, scouts or female officials, there were basically zeros across the board," Rapoport, who now serves as the NFL's senior director of diversity, equity and inclusion, tells CNBC Make It. "Now, when you look at the landscape of the NFL this season, we have 12 female coaches and over 12 female scouts. We have two female officials and we have female presidents. We have females at almost every level, except for that top head coach and GM spot, which will come soon."
Rapoport emphasizes that this year's headcount of 12 female coaches is a record high for the league, but makes note that a lot more progress needs to be done to diversify the coaching staff on all 32 NFL teams.
The growth that she's seen so far, which includes women reaching an all-time high of 38.2% of league office roles in 2020, is largely due to the NFL's Women's Careers in Football Forum (WCFF), a two-day event that started in 2017 under Rapoport's leadership. The forum, which takes place every year in February during the NFL combine, includes presentations, breakout sessions and panel discussions with league coaches, general managers and executives.
The goal of the event is to link highly qualified women with decision makers in football so they can have equal access to jobs and opportunities. So far in 2021 alone, 44 women who've previously participated in the WCFF program have landed a football operations role at the professional or collegiate level, the highest number ever for the WCFF program in a single year, according to the NFL. Of the participants who've secured a position this year, 83% are women of color.
"You have to be very intentional and very purposeful to make sure that it's not just white women who benefit from this type of diversity initiative," says Venessa Hutchinson, who serves as the NFL's senior manager of football programming. Since joining the league in 2018, Rapoport says that Hutchinson has played a pivotal role in ensuring that the WCFF program is successful and inclusive of all women. Since the forum's inception, WCFF participants have secured 181 career opportunities in football at the professional, collegiate or high school level, with 100 of those opportunities being in the NFL, the league reports.
"We know through our studies that if you just host a gender diversity program, that white women will be the beneficiaries of that program without question," says Rapoport. "So we were incredibly intentional about ensuring equity within this program and 50% of our participants must be women of color."
Hutchinson explains that the invite-only event consists of 40 women each year. To find the women, she says that she, Rapoport and their team do extensive LinkedIn searches on women who are working in football, whether at the high school or college level. And, she says, they rely on recommendations from NFL scouts who may have met women at different college programs over the years. After coming up with a list of candidates who they want to know more about, Rapoport and Hutchinson then set up meetings with the women before narrowing down their list to the final 40 who get to attend the forum. While the event focuses on all football operating positions, Rapoport says that an extra focus is placed on coaching and women with a coaching background because that has "historically been male-dominated." Last year, just eight women served as coaches during the NFL season.
"We want the women to get in a room with people who are decision makers and let them introduce themselves and just have access to folks they wouldn't necessarily have access to," says Hutchinson. "A big thing we found is that people who are getting their start in the league got their job because they played college football with someone who knows someone who knows someone and it's just such a close bro network. Women don't really have that and so this forum is an attempt to really bridge that gap."
Though this year's event was held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic, Hutchinson says she's proud of the intimate access that participants still had to NFL coaches and executives. This year, speakers included NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and wife Jane Skinner Goodell, NFL Chief Football Administrative Officer Dawn Aponte, three NFL club owners, seven NFL head coaches and seven NFL general managers. Since the forum started in 2017, the NFL reports that leaders from 31 of its 32 teams have participated in the program, with 21 teams hiring women from the event.
"It's really become a thing that coaches want to be part of because they all know the value and they know that you're going to be behind the eight ball if you have no women on your staff in 2021," says Rapoport. She explains that participating in the forum is optional for NFL club leaders, but some coaches and executives have gladly agreed to be involved each year.
"We have general managers and coaches like Ron Rivera, Andrew Berry, Kevin Stefanski and Bruce Arians who are behind this and want to see this as much as anyone," she adds.
Earlier this year, Rivera, Washington Football Team's head coach, hired former WCFF participant Jennifer King as the team's assistant running back coach, making her the NFL's first Black female assistant coach. Additionally, Rivera hired former WCFF participant Natalie Dorantes as the team's coordinator of football programs this year, making her the first Latina to hold that role in NFL history.
These historic hires come at a time when Maral Javadifar and Lori Locust, coaches on Arians' Tampa Bay Buccaneers team, made history as the first female coaches to win a Super Bowl in February.
"You know, the face of the NFL is changing and the look of the NFL is changing," says Rapoport. "And there's no question that there is no slowing down this train. Progress will continue."