Women in the Game Panelists are Paving the Way for Women in Sports
Anne Doepner knows what it’s like to be the only woman in the room. For the first 13 years of her career working for the Minnesota Vikings, that was her day-to-day.
“I found myself in an underrepresented space as a woman working in a very heavily male-dominated corner of an already male-dominated business,” she said.
Doepner didn’t let this get to her. Rather, she became the change she wished to see at the organization, becoming the first director of inclusion and employee investment for an NFL team in September 2019.
Now she’s taking her work to the next level as she hopes to inspire the next generation of women in sports as a speaker at USA Basketball’s Women in the Game conference, which is being held March 31 alongside the NCAA Final Four in Minneapolis. Joining with sports psychologist Dr. Ashley Zapata, Minnesota Lynx/USA Basketball Women’s National Team head coach Cheryl Reeve, broadcast personality Ari Chambers and University of Minnesota's Dr. Nicole M. LaVoi, Doepner will speak to young women who hope to break into the sports industry.
Registration for the event is open through March 31.
“The conference is about encouraging girls and women in the field of sport,” Zapata said. “And we recognize that there are often significant barriers for girls and women to assert themselves in those spaces, to be taken seriously, to have the opportunities and doors open to them that they deserve.”
Doepner and Zapata aren’t just out to inspire through their words though, they also walk the walk in their everyday roles. In Doepner’s relatively new position at the Vikings, she “drives conversations” about diversity, equity and inclusion. As a woman in a male-dominated industry, she understands why it’s important to incorporate different perspectives and to be inclusive. With her at the helm, everyone else does too, no matter what their role may be.
“I’m proud to know that I’ve helped introduce a really important concept that I think is helping everyone be better at their jobs,” Doepner said. “Everyone is really understanding why this DEI lens is so critical.”
Zapata's work helps to create a more inclusive sports industry as well, just in a different way. Zapata works with athletes of all ages, including with the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Lynx and at the University of Minnesota, on both mental health and sports performance. When it comes to prioritizing mental health for athletes, her message is clear.
“Athletes are more than just athletes. We’ve come a long way with regards to the stigma around mental health,” Zapata said. “I think we still have a way to go, but I’m glad that those conversations are happening. I’m also hopeful that those conversations are shifting into actual, tangible steps.”
In addition to her actual work, her presence as a Black woman in a field largely dominated by white men is similarly impactful. As the daughter of parents with middle-to-high school educations, Zapata knows what it takes to reach the highest levels of her field and hopes that her story can help inspire other women of color to pursue it. She’s well aware of the tangible obstacles to becoming a psychologist (such as exam fees) and is keen on removing these barriers so the field can become more diverse.
Through their work, Doepner and Zapata have become a part of the long effort to create a more equitable sports industry. But as we approach the 50-year anniversary of Title IX this June, they know there's still so much to be done.
“We’re not there yet,” Zapata said. “We need to continue to see more women and women of color in positions of leadership who are developing policies and developing regulations and creating adherence to the things that are going to keep athletes safe, and also provide true equity — not just equity at face value or in name alone.”
Zapata hopes to help remedy this by telling her story and being a representative for what women can accomplish in the sports world. Young women, including high schoolers, college students and young professionals, will learn about the different fields in the sports industry, and ways to get started. It will also be a fun way to network with others who share a similar mindset.
“Being in a space like that, I know that I’m going to feel like I’m with my people, where we all get it,” Doepner said. “We all share a common goal and mission, and we support each other.”
But it’s also about inspiring women to follow in Doepner and Zapata’s paths by forging their own.
“This time of waiting for opportunities or waiting for doors to be opened is really a thing of the past,” Zapata said. “And I want girls and women to leave that conference knowing they have the power to create those opportunities versus waiting for someone to deem them worthy.”
Jessica Taylor Price is a sportswriter from Somerville, Mass. She is a freelance contributor to USAB.com on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.