New symposium focuses on preparing women for NFL jobs

Sarah Spain and Jane McManus explain why the NFL hosting a women's symposium is a smart move by the league.

The NFL will host approximately 40 women at the first leadership symposium of its kind in the days before the owners meetings in Boca Raton, Florida.

The league has held this forum before, for minority candidates in coaching and jobs on the pathway to general manager. This year's event is intended to provide a framework in those same areas for women who could become candidates for front-office jobs at the club level.

Each team picked one participant from within its facility to attend the event, which starts March 18.

During Super Bowl week, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced that the league would institute a Rooney Rule for women in management positions. For each open management-level job, the NFL will interview at least one woman. Human resources executive vice president Robert Gulliver said the program was already underway in the league office and would serve as an example to NFL teams, which aren't currently under the mandate.

"There's a great opportunity to apply the commissioner's announcement to the clubs as a best practice," Gulliver said. "Diversity is something that certainly makes us all better, and there's an opportunity for our clubs to look at this as a best practice when they have hiring needs for executive-level positions."

Currently, 25 percent of vice president-level executives in the NFL are women, according to a league spokesperson, while at the team level that number is 22.9 percent. Among NFL teams, one-third of the chief financial officers are women, Gulliver said.

The league wants to prepare women to move up the ranks in football operations. Jackie Davidson attended last year's symposium for the New York Jets and was later promoted to director of football operations for the team.

Tom Walko/Icon Sportswire

Dolphins executive vice president of football administration Dawn Aponte is among the speakers at the first NFL leadership symposium for women.

This year's list of speakers includes some of the most successful executives in the league, including Miami Dolphins executive vice president of football administration Dawn Aponte, Cincinnati Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn, San Diego Chargers executive vice president and CFO Jeanne Bonk and Detroit Lions senior vice president of administration and CFO Allison Maki.

The women attending will hear from employment and business experts on negotiating, networking and navigating tough environments. The event is being held in proximity to the owners meetings so the participants can network with owners and staffs.

Gulliver said the NFL is trying to stimulate diversity by hiring and promoting minority candidates and women, a problem that became evident two years ago when a poorly considered decision on Ray Rice's discipline after punching his partner forced a crisis of conscience.

Since then, the league has created a database to find diverse talent, hired recruiters to target talented women and minorities for future positions, and hired a number of executive vice presidents and vice presidents at the front-office level. The NFL currently has two female executive vice presidents and six vice presidents.

"I really do feel that we're in an interesting and exciting time of change right now," Gulliver said.

That extends beyond the front office. Gulliver said at the combine he met with the Bill Walsh Minority Fellows advisory panel and they discussed whether the name was still the right fit, since the group also created an opportunity for Jen Welter to become the first woman named a coach by an NFL team when the Arizona Cardinals gave her a training camp internship.

"We agreed unanimously to change the name of the advisory panel to the Bill Walsh Diversity Fellowship Program because it really is beyond just looking at racial diversity," Gulliver said. "We want to make sure we're looking at both race and gender when it comes to building out the pipeline of candidates for coaching positions."

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