On Sept. 15, Michele Roberts will officially become the first woman to lead the NBA Players Association, or any major North American professional sports union for that matter. And while the NBA deserves attention for being forward-thinking — it also just named its first female full-time assistant coach and outscores all other professional leagues on diversity hiring — it's worth looking more closely at the context in which Roberts takes on the job.
Roberts has been hired into a particularly tough position, and research shows she's far from the first woman in that regard. Studies have found a preference for female leaders in settings where there are threats or a perceived need for change. The hypothesis is that male leaders are associated with stability, while female leaders are associated with shifting the status quo.
That appears to be the hope for Roberts. NBA players have not had an executive director since early 2013, when her predecessor was voted out after a review of his business practices. The players have also shown high levels of tension and distrust for the organization, and have had less bargaining success than their peers in other sports, according to a New York Times profile of Roberts. It quotes a labor relations expert as saying, "of all the players unions, the N.B.A.’s stands out as the most divided and the most in need of a fresh perspective."
This too jibes with research out there about women's leadership. One study found that when a group of people is divided, there's a greater tendency to seek collaborative leaders — a profile stereotypically associated with women. Their success rate appears to be higher, as well. Among countries with high ethnic strife, for example, the researchers found a correlation between higher GDP growth and the election of female leaders.
"When women are put into leadership positions," Columbia professor Katherine Phillips told me in December, "it immediately sends the signal that there's going to be change."
And of course, there is the well-studied phenomenon of the glass cliff: the concept that women are disproportionately put into leadership roles that have a much higher risk of failure, whether it's at the helm of problematic legal cases, hard-to-win political seats or hypothetical struggling businesses.
Roberts brings an impressive legal résumé — Public Defender Service, Shea & Gardner, Skadden, Arps — to the task of bargaining on the players' behalf. And those players who have come from meager backgrounds and succeeded at the highest level will surely identify with her life story. She was a child from the projects in the Bronx whose mother cleaned houses for a living, and she won a scholarship to boarding school that helped launch her to college at Wesleyan and law school at Berkeley.
Roberts also seems to have no shortage of grit, a necessary quality for anyone who will be in the negotiating chair. The Times profile recounts how Roberts, anticipating players' doubts that a woman could best negotiate with (and on behalf of) almost exclusively men, pitched herself as their leader: “My past is littered with the bones of men who were foolish enough to think I was someone they could sleep on.”
There's little question Michele Roberts was chosen on the caliber of her career and the strength of her merits. And she should be helped by the players' desire for change and eagerness for a leader whose "integrity was impeccable," in the words of the union's vice president, Roger Mason, Jr.
But let's not forget she is taking on this barrier-breaking role after a particularly rocky period for the union. Roberts will hold a precarious leadership position, and one in which the demands and expectations for reform are particularly strong. Here's hoping she succeeds.