Q&A with Sheryl Sandberg, NBA commissioner Adam Silver on gender equality

Amin Elhassan explains why he believes Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon has the best chance to the first female head coach in NBA history.

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Commissioner Adam Silver not only believes there will someday be a female head coach in the NBA -- he wants to make it happen soon.

With Becky Hammon choosing to remain with the San Antonio Spurs as an assistant, turning down the University of Florida's women's head coaching job, as sources confirmed to ESPN's Michael C. Wright, Silver would love nothing more than to see the NBA have a female head coach in the league in the near future. He also wants to see more women officiating in the NBA, starting as soon as next season.

Gender equality has become a focus for Silver after teaming up with Facebook chief operating officer and LeanIn.org founder Sheryl Sandberg three years ago. On Tuesday, the NBA and LeanIn.org launched a gender equality public awareness campaign with a PSA and videos featuring Toronto's Kyle Lowry, New Orleans' Jrue Holiday and Phoenix's Devin Booker, highlighting the role that men play in achieving gender equality. The campaign also encourages fans and other players to share personal stories on social media using #LeanInTogether.

In a Q&A with ESPN, Silver, Sandberg and Kathleen Behrens, NBA president of social responsibility and player programs, discussed recruiting more women for front-office, coaching and officiating jobs in the NBA.


ESPN: How is the NBA helping LeanIn.org with gender equality in this third campaign?

Sheryl Sandberg: We are so lucky to have the NBA supporting us. So "Lean In," at its core, is about gender equality in a world where women and men get the opportunities to do what they are great at, whether it is at home or at work, and not be held to narrow gender stereotypes. That means women taking more leadership roles, women playing professional sports like in the WNBA; it means men doing their share to be equal partners in their homes and raise their daughters to want leadership roles.

We know that the only way to achieve equality is if both men and women want to achieve equality. We also know that equality is not just the right thing to do for men, it is a good thing to do.

If you are a man, whether you are a CEO like Adam or the most junior entry-level position, you are going to perform better because you work better with half the population. And if you are a husband to a woman and you do more of the childcare, it helps [make] your marriage stronger, you have more sex, your divorce rate is lower. And as a father, children with more active fathers at every income level do better in school, better professionally, higher emotional involvement, higher levels of happiness.

It is just a win-win across the board. So we want to reach men and make the case that equality is something important for them.

Our dream was to work with the NBA because the NBA is where men and women all over the world look up to these men -- not as athletes but as role models. The NBA, under Adam's leadership, has such a strong track record of supporting the right things that matter. They are the only league running the WNBA for women. So when we think about trying to reach men with our core message, there was no better partner. Three years ago, I called Adam with, "I have an idea for you!"

Adam Silver: She did, in fact, call me three years ago. We had already gotten to know each other through a Facebook relationship that the NBA had, and I was very familiar with the campaign. But I frankly hadn't thought about the applicability to the NBA or even directly to men.

We at the NBA, part of our very core principles of this league are equality, respect for others, inclusion, diversity. So this fits right into our missions, yet it was a new approach, and one where we thought we could help dramatically amplify the message that Sheryl and her organization have already begun.

Now, it's been successful beyond any of -- at least my initial expectations, which is why we are now in our third iteration of it.

It is also not lost on us that sometimes people least expect [this message] to come from male professional athletes, where there is a certain macho-ism that goes with the stereotype with these young men. You see it in these most recent set of spots with Devin Booker with his sister, Jrue Holiday talking about his wife, Lauren, Kyle Lowry talking about his relationship with his wife and kids. The opportunity for our fans is to see is how they, in fact, are truly leaning in, in a very caring and compassionate way.

Our expectation is, it won't just be our fans, but dozens of other players around the league will follow the examples of these three players and will be posting messages of their own, most likely shot with smartphones at home, in a very authentic way, demonstrating to the public that these same core values of equality, inclusion, diversity and respect are just as important in their homes.

Jerod Harris/Getty Images

Sheryl Sandberg hopes women get the opportunity to do what they are great at and not be held to gender stereotypes.

ESPN: Where do you think we are in 2017 as far as gender equality?

Kathleen Behrens: I would say that it is a pivotal time, primarily because there has been progress, but there is still much to be done. 

SS: I think it's never been a more important time for equality because in many ways we are stuck. When I published "Lean In" four years ago, there were 19 women running countries. Today it is 11. Women have been basically at less than 6 percent of Fortune 500 jobs, and their equivalents, all over the world for 12 years.

Those trends are either going to stay flat or go down unless we have a serious intervention. And I think we really suffer from the tyranny of low expectation. I remember in 2012, when women won 20 percent of the seats in the U.S. Senate, all the headlines screamed out: "Women take over the Senate! Women take over the Senate!" You are like, "Wait a second!" Fifty percent of the population having 20 percent of the seats is not a takeover; it's a gap.

Our aspirations are really for women to be in half the leadership roles and men to be doing half the work of parenting.

Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

NBA commissioner Adam Silver would love nothing more than to see Spurs assistant Becky Hammon, above, coaching in the league.

ESPN: WFAN radio host Mike Francesa recently was adamant saying that a woman wouldn't be able to head coach a professional men's team, and that someone like Hammon has no shot at being a head coach at the NBA level. How far away do you think the NBA is from having its first female head coach?

AS: First of all, let me say that I disagree that there will not be a woman head coach in the NBA. It is hard to say exactly when. There are three women currently in the pipeline [Hammon, Sacramento assistant coach Nancy Lieberman and Clippers video coordinator Natalie Nakase].

There are obvious physical difference between men and women, and those differences are why we have a men's league and a women's league. But on the other hand, when it comes to coaching, when there is absolutely no physical requirement, when it is not a function of how high you can jump or how strong you are, there is no physical litmus test to being a head coach in the league. There is absolutely no reason why a woman will not ascend to be a head coach in this league. We are very focused in on it.

Through our relationship with Sheryl, I would say it has been a personal evolution for me, that because of our involvement with "Lean In," I have become much more aware of issues that impact women in our workplace. For example, childcare issues in the workplace. Through direct conversations I have had with female colleagues at the NBA, we have changed our maternal leave policy, we have become more flexible in terms of work hours to allow women and men, mothers and fathers, to do things during the day so they can step out and do things they need to do for their children. 

It is just a question of ensuring that we have more women in the pipeline, that is one of the critically important issues. Long before people asked about women being head coaches, people said, would it be possible for someone who hadn't played in the NBA to be a head coach? So we have broken another barrier there.

I do think there are things that the league can and should be doing to accelerate the move toward a woman being a head coach in the league. We have begun a training program here in the league office so we can bring in women who have been around the game of basketball -- some of them are former players or some just have a passion for the game. They begin becoming part of the network of team personnel. So that when these assistant coaching jobs become available, they are in the pipeline and in a position to potentially get those jobs. 

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

According to Adam Silver, the NBA has become more aware of the issues that are necessary for women to be successful.

ESPN: You mentioned you wanted to see more women officiating the game. Do you think we'll see that next season?

AS: I do. We have and have had female officials, but they are not well represented in the ranks of our officials. There is no physical reason why women can't officiate in the NBA. I think it is more a function of the fact that they haven't been in the pipeline to become NBA officials.

We recently announced that we are going to be increasing the pool of officials by 25 percent, and it would be my goal, as we look to increase that pool of officials, that we recruit equally from pools of potential women as we do from men.

If you look at college basketball as one potential pool for referees, there are roughly 32,000 Division I, II and III players right now, and they are split roughly equally. So there are about 16,000 women at any given time who are playing college basketball. What an incredible pool of women to recruit from to be future officials in the NBA.

Another pool of applicants is women moving out of the military as potential recruits for the WNBA and officiating. So we will be looking very hard at dramatically increasing the representation of women in our officiating ranks.

ESPN: Sheryl, what would it mean to have a female head coach in the NBA?

SS: It's every woman who runs for office, whether she runs for president or runs for the local school board, it's every woman who becomes a CFO or a CEO of a company, it is every woman who coaches a team -- and not just at the NBA level, at the high school and college level. And so yes, it matters. Every single time. Every single one.

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