When Alex Hill was a participant in the Class of 2020 for the annual NFL Women's Forum, the Forum shed a light on a time of few female coaches in the League – as it should have been, she said, given the lack of representation there was.
Three years later, she was part of a group of staff members from the Los Angeles Rams as Football Operations Coordinator and part of a presentation on football operations at last week's 2023 NFL Women's Forum – a sign of growth not only for the NFL itself, but potential career paths for women in this league.
"This year, being able to represent the Rams as football operations was really cool, and being able to give a presentation with (Rams Director of Football Operations) Sophie (Harlan) and let these girls understand, like, there's other things that you can do on the football side that's not just scouting, or coaching, or athletic training, those three big buckets," Hill said. "There's video, there's football operations, there's player engagement, and this year, the forum really encompassed a lot more paths or avenues on the football side for women and what they can be involved in. So just being a small piece of helping women understand – especially when they're coming from college football with a narrower environment of recruiting or coaching, the Forum opened their minds to many more avenues of working in sports. It was really cool to kind of talk to them and say like, 'Hey, this is like where I was at when I was at the forum.' And now being a different added piece this year was really cool."
The Rams were well represented at the event, whose programming spanned two days during the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. Besides Harlan and Hill, Manager of Football & Business Administration Kassandra Garcia also presented in a breakout session, and Office Administrator Roxana De Santiago was among its Class of 2023 participants. Director of Football Affairs Jacques McClendon also spent time speaking with participants, as did Chief Operating Officer Kevin Demoff.
The program returned to an in-person format this year for the first time since February 2020 and featured panel discussions, breakout sessions and networking activities with owners, executives, coaches, industry experts and hiring managers representing each of the league's 32 teams across two days of programming. According to NFL Senior Directory of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Sam Rapoport, it was the first time in the forum's history that all 32 clubs participated in the program.
As Hill mentioned, she and Harlan teamed up with women from the Houston Texans for a presentation on football operations and how operations teams are handled differently between clubs. Meanwhile, Garcia teamed up with Cleveland Browns Director of Football Administration Taylor Young for a breakout session primarily covering their respective area, salary cap 101, as well as their respective career paths.
While the information presented was important, also crucial was having the ability to make connections and share their experiences.
"(Last Thursday) morning, I had the opportunity to sit with three different groups during roundtables. Although we did present a bit, we both were really like, 'Hey, what do you guys want to know about us?'" Harlan said. "What do you want to know about operations in the NFL? What do you want to know about us personally? What do you want to know about how the Rams work? We can be as honest and open with you as we possibly can."
De Santiago called the forum a "very immersive experience." She said all of it is team executives, vice presidents and owners donating their time amidst their combine functions and duties, with those leaders taking the time to sit in on the programming and being there to answer questions and be available for participants to meet and connect with them after or in between breaks.
"I think the most powerful part was the connections that are made," De Santiago said. "In talking to Kassandra and Alex, both of them have participated in the forum in years past, and they still are very close with other women who were in their class, and a lot of these women have gone on to be very important people at other clubs as well. So being able to see them connect, it made me excited for what our class is going to do and being able to connect with these women going forward, and just following their paths and hopefully being able to help in their growth or just make those connections for them."
That also illustrates exactly what Harlan said is important to growing the number of women working in the NFL – making and maintaining those connections outside of the forum. For example, during a happy hour last Tuesday night, Harlan went for a little bit and spoke to a young woman who interviewed with another club earlier in the morning. Harlan and that person from another club had dinner Monday night, prior to the young woman's interview, and Harlan brought her up. The young woman later told Harlan how it meant so much to her that she said something positive about her in a room without even knowing her.
"It's dependent on the people in that room to continue that space," Harlan said. "There's doing it for two days, and there's continuing it for the rest of your career. I think that's really important, and not on the NFL or the teams to dictate, right? That's on the participants and the people in those rooms."
McClendon points to intentionality – more specifically, "aligned intentionality" – as a key way in identifying and leaning into where the holes are and finding ways to make those numbers better.
"When I look at a (head coach) Sean McVay, when I look at (general manager Les Snead), when I look at Kevin Demoff, these three are aligned that women make our building better, that under-represented communities make our building better," McClendon said. "Because at the end of the day, I think we have a unique organization where there's a lot of opportunities to grow, there's a lot of opportunities to lead, there's a lot of opportunity to be heard. And what I really love about our place is that we lean into imperfection, and we're always willing to have those tough conversations, tough audibles and those things that make us continue to be able to climb that path, because at the end of the day, it's never good enough, and so how do we continue to make sure that we're leaning into that and having those uncomfortable conversations and having those aligned leadership opportunities to be able to continue to move the needle forward?"
In terms of how they move that progress forward themselves, Garcia recalled what Browns assistant wide receivers coach Callie Brownson said in her panel discussion. Brownson mentioned how multiple years ago, they were just talking about having that opportunity to potential get a job in the NFL, whereas now, they are well past that – in other words, they are going from an external problem to an internal problem where the biggest challenge is confidently battling an internal monologue of imposter syndrome.
"It's incredible to see that that's the shift, where it's like, we're in the room, we have the opportunity, people aren't looking at us and specifically for us, right? Because, why not? It's just not uncommon," Garcia said. "And further, the clubs are taking us into more consideration. Like, (Browns general manager) Andrew Berry is talking about how they made an equipment window. It's really great to see that. So we know progress is moving, even in five years. Some would say not fast enough, but time goes by super fast. So I'm sure next forum, we'll be talking about something different because we can all dominate our internal monologue just fine. So if that's if that's the biggest hurdle, then it's only going to continue to exponentially grow."
For Hill, the truest measurement of progress will be when they get to the point where they no longer have "firsts" in terms of researching the stats of the women coaching or being in the league.
"I think when you stop having firsts is when you can say women and men are now becoming more equal in the NFL, because you're no longer looking out for women to take over or be in the same spot," Hill said. "We're all now in the same room as men, which is a huge step forward."