Wambach: How HR leaders can change the game

Anyone who follows sports knows that Abby Wambach has seen triumphs. As a two-time Olympic gold medalist, FIFA Women’s World Cup champion and member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame, she has also seen her share of setbacks. She has been benched when she thought she should play the first half of important games. She saw losses in her high school state tournaments and also retired from professional sports with no idea how to pay her mortgage.

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In her keynote address Tuesday at the HR Tech Conference, Wambach recalled how she had to face critical challenges in her life on the pitch and off. As a mother who co-parents with her wife, she has been rebuffed by other parents on the sidelines of her beloved sport. Wambach addressed those challenges and more during her keynote, during which she also spoke about the importance of equality and inclusion in the workplace and the important work that HR does to make equality a reality.

Abby Wambach presents during her keynote address at HR Tech on Tuesday.

“One of the things I believe deeply is that human resources professionals are a safe haven for people. You deal with a lot of stuff, some that is very hard but is necessary. Not many people can do this,” she told the HR Tech Conference audience. 

The following interview is based on the keynote Q&A and a one-on-one interview with the Olympian and soccer icon. 

HRE: What do you think is the single most influential action a woman can take to ensure equal pay for equal work? 

Abby Wambach: People ask, why are women dropping out of the workforce since COVID started? It’s because they don’t get paid the same amount as their husbands. You can jump through all the hoops in your industries by rationalizing this, justifying that. But the truth of the matter is that women don’t deserve to be paid less than men.

By the way, there is a cost and it’s not just the money. It’s not just freedom. The cost also happens for men because of the symbolism going into the workplace. Let’s just hypothetically say that I’m a man at work. I’m making a dollar over here, and there’s a woman [who is] making 80 cents over there. And then over here, there’s a Black woman and she’s making less. And over here, there’s a Latino woman and she’s making less. There is a price that these men pay by believing that they deserve that extra 20 cents.

HRE: How do you strive to influence your organization and community when you don’t have a lot of authority? 

Wambach: Here’s the thing. We’re all leaders of our own lives, right? We have to at least acknowledge that as a fact. If you don’t see yourself as a leader in your business world, you have to first start to be able to see yourself as a leader in your own personal life. To be a parent is one of the most interesting things, and one of the things that my wife has been trying to get me to understand about myself is this idea of authority and kids. I was parented by an authoritarian mom. So I don’t want to do that. 

There’s a belief system inside of me that you only grow through adversity. I was talking about this with my wife that some of the struggles in my life really formed me into the person that I am today. She just said, ‘Honey, could you ever consider having had a childhood that was one of acceptance and love, and maybe that would have made things better?’

What I would say is focus on yourself, focus on being the leader of your own life and make some good decisions. Because if you start doing that, then you’ll get a little bit of confidence. Then you can talk about your own personal experiences with your colleagues. One of the greatest ways that my wife leads our family through non-authoritarian procedures is she just works on herself. She makes it look cool and I want to try that. That’s the basics of leadership: you cannot be a good leader unless you’re taking care of yourself first and, dare I say, walking the walk.

HRE: Many companies have diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. Are they making real strides or are they checking off a box that they feel that they are compelled to do?

Wambach: I think both. There are probably some companies out there that have pure intentions, and I also think that there are probably some companies out there that [are saying] we’re getting this done correctly. I’m just glad that it’s happening. As a person who’s marginalized in a few ways, knowing that companies are putting effort into this is so imperative, but some of my bigger concerns are what the DEI approaches are because so much of it is focused on entry-level positions. All the research shows that the biggest problems are the executive and middle manager parts of the structures and infrastructure of business.

This is a long, long game. This is not going to happen overnight. Women sit in 5% of CEO positions in this country. Five percent. That’s so few women at the top position. My hope is that that DEI keeps evolving, but that we get more women in leadership positions and more people of color in leadership positions, because, and then in the end, that is when things really will change.

HRE: With the Great Resignation, people are leaving jobs and looking at work-life balance. As somebody who’s been mentored and coached their entire life, how do you get into that mindset to accept new advice? 

Wambach: As an athlete, feedback was like, ‘How am I doing, coach? What can I do to be getting better?’ Just asking more questions. Those who are surviving and, dare I say, thriving through this pandemic are those who are amenable to growth and really honor wanting to get better. At least one year into the pandemic, I want to be better in some ways. I’m going to be better and I’m now training for a marathon. 

HRE: You’re basically running your own corporation with these corporate talks and being an author. Do you ever wish you had your own HR department?

Wambach: (Laughs) That’s hilarious. No. Dealing with people is hard. I don’t envy HR departments. They’re miracle workers. 

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