BEREA, Ohio — It's no secret the National Football League is a male-dominated industry. With only 38.2% of NFL League Office level positions filled by women, and just eight women in assistant coaching positions last season, there is a lack of representation for females in the NFL.
While the league works to rectify the disparity -- and has seen an increase in diversity over the past few years -- there are several women in the Browns organization actively working now to make their team, and the league as a whole, a more welcoming place for women to work.
On Wednesday evening, right after the team held its final practice session open to fans, the Browns set up a "Women in Sports Chalk Talk" featuring four prominent women in the organization, moderated by Browns Senior Media Broadcaster Nathan Zegura.
Chief of Staff Callie Brownson, Player Personnel Coordinator Megan Rock, Performance Dietitian Katy Meassick and Vice President of Community Relations Jenner Tekancic joined in on the talk in front of Ohio High School Athletic Association leaders and local school athletic leaders.
The four women discussed their positions with the organization and how they got there, and while they all had different journeys, all four found common ground in one area specifically—being made to feel like they didn't belong in football as they pursued their goals.
'I was going to coach high school, and that's as good as it was going to get'
Brownson, who before being hired by the Browns had a successful career playing safety for the D.C. Divas of the Women's Football Alliance, said that she was constantly told no along the way.
"As I grew up, I always loved the game. I tried to play in high school, but was told no, that girls couldn't play in the county I was in. Kind of took that one off the chin, but I never stopped loving the game the way that I did," Brownson said.
In college, and after making the Divas roster, Brownson began contemplating her future, knowing that she couldn't play in the WFA forever but determined to continue her career in football in some capacity.
Brownson took a job coaching softball and during that time was offered a role coaching high school football.
"For me, that was kind of the ceiling. I was going to coach high school football, and that was as good as it was going to get," Brownson said.
After attending a forum for women in football, much like the chalk talk she was part of on Wednesday, Brownson connected with people in the NFL and landed a scouting job with the New York Jets. That opportunity solidified her path into the league, where she's now thriving on the Browns, working directly with head coach Kevin Stefanski and also being presented opportunities for growth and development along the way—even becoming the first woman to serve as an interim positions coach, making her the highest-ranking female coach in NFL history.
But coaching, while in need of more representation of women, isn't the only area in which the Browns and the league are seeing a surge of inclusivity.
'It's okay to ask questions'
Rock, who works directly with general manager Andrew Berry dealing with logistics during free agency and the draft, said she wasn't sure if she belonged on the football side of operations, not having a deep football background and wondering how welcoming the men would be.
"That was actually my biggest fear of going to the football side, in general, was that people wouldn't take me seriously because I never played, I don't know how to analyze film," Rock said. "But what I found is that the guys upstairs are so incredible and that it's okay to not know and it's okay to ask questions."
'Never give up that aspiration'
For Meassick, who makes sure the players are eating right and maintaining ideal and healthy weights for their positions, she always knew she wanted a career in football, having come from a football family. But along the way she had been made to feel as though that wasn't an option for her.
"I wanted to be an athletic trainer in the NFL, and a lot of time I was told 'no, the athletic training room is connected to the locker room, that doesn't allow for women,' and I just kind of shot my shot," Meassick said.
In an industry that is relatively new, Meassick paved the way for full-time dietitians in the league in a time when the position was not all that common.
"You kind of trailblaze and continue to push and really never give up that aspiration because you never know what will happen," Meassick said.
Meassick and Brownson both recalled where the sport was just a few years ago, noting the stark changes already as women fight to become more prominent in the NFL and in other football organizations.
"We were changing in bathrooms. We didn't have lockers," Meassick said. "There were just many things along those lines that many people just didn't know what to do."
"There were no female locker rooms," Brownson said. "After a game, you're sweaty and you want to change—you either flew back like that or changed on the bus before the team got there. It's the struggle, but, really, a part of this phase that we're in now where you're starting to see more women getting involved and those decisions are changing and that's coming into mind, like the NFL now, you have a female locker room. Those things are changing, which is ultimately changing the culture, which is what it's all about."
'It doesn't matter if you're male or female, you hire the best'
Tekancic was the longest-tenured woman in the Browns organization in the chalk talk, having worked for the team for the past 23 years. The growth that the league has seen with women in sports is something that excites her and makes her hopeful for the future.
"It's awesome to see the different roles that are opening up for females, the opportunities that everyone's getting, because I truly believe that it doesn't matter if you're male or female, you hire the best," Tekancic said. "When you think of football, people just think of the team that's on the field and the coaches that are involved, but they don't realize the whole body of work and the whole group of individuals that come together as one to make sure that we're as successful as we possibly can be."
Like her colleagues on the talk, Tekancic was made to feel like a career in sports was something she shouldn't pursue.
"When I first started, going into college, when someone asked me what I was doing, I'm like 'Oh, I'm going to go into the sport industry, and the response that I usually got was, 'You're a female, what kind of job are you going to get?'" Tekancic recalled.
'The sky is the limit'
All four women used the doubters to push them further into their careers, but now they hope that they can create a future for girls and young women that can help alleviate those hurdles and roadblocks—making sure the next generation feels as though they do belong.
"I think, honestly, the sky is the limit, and I think more and more women are becoming aware of these opportunities. These panel discussions are certainly helping. It's become a focus now to help women and women helping women," Rock said. "I hope that I can be one of those women who finds the girl coming out of college and I can help her and I can mentor her and help her grow."
The audience from Wednesday's discussion with Rock, Brownson, Meassick and Tekancic will take their stories and lessons and impart them on their students and athletes, providing the next generation of women in sports with a new view on what they can achieve and, hopefully, encourage them to continue to the trend of representation and inclusivity across the NFL and all of sports.
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