A Conversation with Nathalie Cook: Six Years of Evolution at Canadian Women & Sport

Nathalie Cook has led the way for women in sport as the first Vice-President of multiple sport channels across the country.  She’ll be leaving her post as Chair of Canadian Women & Sport after serving her term for the past six years.  Before her departure, she sat down (over zoom) with former award-winning CBC journalist Teddy Katz to speak about her experiences and why she believes this is the decade for women in sports. 

This is an edited version of their conversation. 

Teddy Katz (TK) Sport is often described as an old boys’ network.  Getting involved in the early years of your career, how did that old boys’ network manifest itself for you? 

Nathalie Cook (NC) Early in my career, I got the chance to work for IMG as a talent manager for Olympians.   

IMG was most decidedly a boys’ club.  As a young married woman who got pregnant, working for an American company, I found out they didn’t have the same maternity leave.  I was a Canadian working in Canada where mat leave was ‘a thing’ so we had to discuss that. It was also clear that in this business culture, a lot of business got done on the golf course, and I wasn’t a golfer. At the end of my day, I went home to take care of my toddler, and at the end of their day, they went golfing.  

(TK) Six years ago, take me back to becoming Chair of Canadian Women & Sport.  What motivated you to want to get involved in that way? 

(NC) It’s an interesting question because early on I didn’t feel the need to be part of any group. But over time in my career, I realized my experience (as a female in a mostly male domain) was not unique to me, and in fact, things were actually not getting any better for women. Right around that time, Karin Lofstrom (former Executive Director) approached me about getting involved with Canadian Women & Sport.  

(TK) You are suggesting that you didn’t make a big thing about gender early in your career. And that switched.  What brought about that change? 

(NC) The switch came when I went to work at the Special Olympics which was the first time I ever had a female leader in my career. Before that, I thought I needed to be a little more of what would be perceived as masculine in my dealings.  If you showed emotion, then you’re a girl, right?  So, I was good at keeping my emotions in check.  No one saw me cry, no one saw me get upset. Then I realized that’s not who I am. I am an emotional person.  At Special Olympics, I upped my emotional IQ tenfold because I was shown that, you could be a compassionate leader.  You can thank people. This sounds so basic but I didn’t come from that world. Had I not done my time with Special Olympics, I would not be the leader I am today.  So, by the time Karen came calling for me, I was much more open. I also felt that I had something to give to the organization and its important work. 

(TK) When you say important work, what were things like six years ago, when you started as Chair for Canadian Women & Sport? 

(NC) We were not really on the radar. Women’s sport just seemed to be this little blip that came up one day a year on International Women’s Day. People seemed to value women in sport, but in its place. That’s always what you’d hear; that somehow by women having their place in sports it would take the place away from someone else, namely the men. 

At the time, I remember sitting with our editorial team, my first week at TSN and just hearing some of the descriptive (and limiting) language that wasn’t even intentional, just ingrained in our coverage and the discussions. This can be attributed to not having diversity at the table when the table is nothing but a bunch of white guys who watch sports all day.  So, I’m talking about my own experience at TSN. We kind of went through that whole process of just ‘words matter’, ‘language matters’, ‘the choices, you make matter’. And here’s why. Because there’s a whole generation of young women who aren’t seeing themselves reflected at all.   

You were asking what drove me to become Chair? I guess I couldn’t really complain about these things if I wasn’t trying to be part of the solution. So that drove me. 

(TK) What are some of the ways that this male bias could be observed? 

(NC) One of the things that always stands out to me is just around descriptors. Often the female athlete will be described in relation to her male coach, male boyfriend, male husband, male partner, whereas the men are always described like they got there by themselves. The women had a whole team behind them, but the men just magically appeared, and were superstars. Also, the imagery we use, we tend to use beauty shots of female athletes as opposed to action shots. 

(TK) What were your biggest goals then early on as Chair? 

(NC) One of the priorities for me when I came into the organization on the Marketing Committee was that we had to be able to better articulate what it is that we did, because, to the outside world, it wasn’t clear. We were very insular.  

We were an organization that was about equity in sport, specifically within the sport system. The biggest shift we made was we focused more on the societal benefits and the greater good.  We had all these amazing facts that if we support women in sport, and the higher level of competition they achieve, the more likely they are to have success in other areas of their life. Gender equity builds better people and better sport.  I don’t think we had done a good job in the past of telling that story. 

Another big switch in the organization is we were female led and it was as if only women have the solution. We realized we need men to be a part of this conversation. They’re the ones holding the reins on these things. If we don’t bring them on board and have them be champions with us, we’re in this little echo chamber. 

(TK) You also received a couple million dollars of government funding. Tell me a little bit about that? 

(NC) A lot of things aligned at the right time. Let’s be honest, we knew that a Trudeau government was certainly going to be more favorable to gender equity. If you had told me at the time, to what degree I’m not sure, I would have believed you. One of our goals was to be viewed as ‘the voice’ for Canadian women in sport. And I think the recognition we got from the feds to say, ‘Yes, we see you as that leader. And we want you to be a partner in some of these executions we need to do and we will fund you accordingly’.  

(TK) Aside from funding, what are some of the bigger challenges that remain from your point of view? 

(NC) We’ve only seen the tippy, tippy tip of the impact of COVID 19 right now. The grassroots sport ecosystem that has been decimated. I do think we are going to see a dip in women’s participation again as a result. This is something we have to address because we know particularly with women, that if we don’t get them involved at a young age, they’re not likely to ‘ladder up’, right? It’s hard to get a 13-year-old all of a sudden interested in sport if she’s never played, which is why it’s important for networks like TSN to showcase women in sports. 

© Denise Militzer / Canadian Women & Sport

(TK) Can you tell us about Canadian Women & Sport’s strategic plan for 2021 to 2024.  What are the biggest goals or priorities that you have there? 

(NC) We’re dedicated to an inclusive ecosystem and want to ensure women who haven’t been able to access sport can in the future. The current board has also been very vocal to say, we don’t have to be timid anymore like we sometimes were in the past. We have the data, we are backed in research, science and what we’re saying is not a random Twitter person spouting off.  We have to call people out on things when they’re not meeting their commitments or doing the bare minimum. I think you’ll see a lot more of this advocacy, because if we keep throwing women back into the same systems that are problematic, we are not helping.  

(TK) All levels of government in Canada committed to gender equity on boards for amateur sport by 2024 and gender equity in sport at every level by 2035.  2024 is not that far off. Is that goal for boards reasonable in your in your mind?  

(NC) Yes, I do think it’s reasonable and we will want to bring people along willingly as partners in this. We will also have to be flexible at times because some of the structures of boards don’t allow for change as quickly as others. We can do it through education and by explaining to them why in the end, they’ll actually be a better organization by having this diversity around the table.  

(TK) Could this be ‘the decade of women in sport’?  It seems to me that COVID has opened up doors that probably you’ve been trying to break through for years. Suddenly, we’re seeing women’s sport on television in different ways and people talking about these issues? 

(NC) I love ‘the decade of the women’. I’m going to use that. Yes, let’s make it that. Because if not now, when?  We need to show why supporting women’s sport is a sustainable growth opportunity for partners and look at these issues in new ways. 

(TK) In the past year, there has been a lot of discussion around who can access sport and who can’t or doesn’t feel welcome?   You often have been working for gender equity, primarily, but how much do you acknowledge that you can’t win unless all women are part of that conversation? 

(NC) Whatever inequities I may have suffered in my life, they don’t compare to the inequities suffered by some of my Muslim or BIPOC colleagues. I think intersectionality, which was not part of my vernacular two years ago, is a critical component to Canadian Women in Sport now.  We have a better understanding now of how our different experiences as women are not the same. 

The lack of representation in the media is a good example.  We talk a lot about how only 4% of sports on TV are women’s sports. I think we have to be very careful in seeing that a lot of the measurements traditionally have been done on linear television. What do TSN, Sportsnet, CBC, CTV, show? And that’s not the world of sport anymore. Sport is consumed on so many different platforms in so many different ways. We show the WNBA, the NCAA March Madness on TV. The numbers for women’s sport are not the same. So how do we grow that?  By recognizing unique audiences and opportunities, we can fill that space for example, women’s tennis and women’s curling where women’s curling will often beat men’s curling on our network.  

I think media companies have to be much smarter and more strategic about where and how we program our women’s sport content.  We sometimes ask how do we make women’s sport work in the current ecosystem run by men for men?  I think the question is, why are we doing that?  Why don’t we create our own ecosystem? 

(TK) TSN recently had an all-female crew with their NBA broadcast. How did you feel seeing that? And were you involved in any way with that? 

(NC) I was involved. I’ll be honest with you, when the team first talked about it, I was not a proponent of it.  We spent a lot of time with our diversity and inclusion groups and MLSE and our production team to say if we’re going to do this, it can’t just be a one-off. I’m very proud of how it turned out. Three of the five women work full-time on our network, so, we didn’t parachute talent in. We had a week full of activities.  It wasn’t just the one show, and it was a proof of concept for all the people who didn’t think it would work. 

(TK) You’re the first female Vice-President in TSN’s history, if I’m not mistaken. you’re one of the first women worldwide to lead multiple sport networks. What is the significance of that? 

(NC) I’m still the only female Vice-President.  We need to fix that. A big part of my mandate is to ensure that we’re building that pipeline within TSN, which takes time. It’s not lost on me that there are women in my company now who believe they can do this, because they’ve seen me.  

(TK) One final question. What can people do to be better allies when it comes to gender equity and sport?  

(NC) Just speak up. Being in a meeting and hearing a colleague say something derogatory, or offside or just wrong, and having it not be me who has to point it out and having a fellow male colleague be like, ‘Hey, hold up. We don’t talk like that. That’s not right.’  

(TK) It’s been great catching up with you once again and hearing your insights.  Thanks so much Nathalie and congratulations. 

(NC) I very much enjoyed our chat.  I cannot believe how quickly the six years went by.  

About the Author 

Teddy Katz was an award winning journalist at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation where he worked as a national sports reporter covering the world’s top sports events for close to two decades. Teddy now runs his own communications company, Think Redefined Inc. where he assists national and international organizations with their storytelling and thought leadership.