Child care pilot program the latest creative solution in serving elite female athletes

By Shira Springer

Over the weekend, as the country’s top track and field athletes earned medals at the USATF Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Ore., another kind of achievement took place at a local hotel. Athletes, coaches and staff participating in the multiday competition enjoyed access to free child care inside a ballroom-turned-playroom. The professionally staffed child care was part of a pilot program slated to continue at other select track and field events this year. It was also a sign of progress for women’s sports.

To make the program possible, the nonprofit organization &Mother partnered with the activewear company Athleta. Both &Mother and Athleta want to create a sports landscape where female athletes find more opportunities and fewer systemic barriers. For professional athletes, those barriers often force them to choose between a career and family. Why? Because they’re typically not guaranteed the support needed for elite-level training. Sometimes the support needed is financial. Sometimes it is child care. Sometimes it is both.

“Child care represents an invisible barrier that directly impacts the opportunities women have available to them in their careers,” said &Mother co-founder Molly Dickens. “In sports, there’s a false narrative that motherhood is a career killer. If you peel back the layers, you see that child care, the difficulty accessing it, feeds the false narrative. We started this pilot at the national championships to explore what child care could look like in a nontraditional workplace.” 

Ideally, the child care pilot does more than that. It should prompt conversations about the unique challenges female athletes face and promote gender equity in sports and beyond. Also, it should highlight the need to support female athletes in a more holistic way. That holistic approach demands more thoughtful, intentional and creative initiatives by companies eager to enter the women’s sports space. 

It’s not enough to take a sponsorship model or a support system or a contract structure designed for men’s sports, recycle it for women, and expect a good fit. That doesn’t translate into progress or equity. Instead, women’s sports needs new and different solutions, including initiatives that address traditionally ignored issues such as child care. 

Speaking about the importance of child care, Olympic middle distance runner and &Mother co-founder Alysia Montaño said, “For women, it makes an impact on the trajectory of her career and how she sees herself fitting back in to professional athletics.”

Montaño famously competed in the 2014 national championships while eight months pregnant. In 2019, the New York Times published an op-ed from Montaño. The piece exposed the lack of sponsor support for women who wanted to start families while professional athletes. In 2020, she co-founded &Mother to help women pursue careers and motherhood. The &Mother board of directors includes Allyson Felix, the most decorated American track and field athlete in Olympic history. In another New York Times op-ed, Felix called out Nike for its hypocrisy, specifically the way the company publicly championed equality and empowerment, but privately asked her to take a pay cut after her daughter’s birth.

The words of Montaño, Felix and other professional runners prompted public criticism, a congressional inquiry and new maternity policies at Nike and other athletic apparel companies. Athleta now sponsors Felix.

Today, the efforts of &Mother and Athleta represent an important, emerging shift in how companies can support female athletes. Or, at least, how they should. The sponsors in sync with the current women’s sports movement, the ones genuinely interested in the sustainable success of female athletes and women’s sports, understand that financial support works best in combination with advocacy.

The growth of women’s sports requires systemic and cultural change. It also requires sponsors who think more expansively about how they can help and how they can challenge traditional business practices. Sometimes a little push, a visual, a revealing op-ed from a professional athlete helps sponsors broaden their perspective and understand the inadequacy of the status quo. 

“The year before I had my daughter, I was thinking about how I could move along my career path and how I could have a family,” said Montaño. “Sponsors weren’t thinking about how women would return to their careers. There was no structure to help them. That’s why I ran [in the national championships] at eight months pregnant. I wanted people to see what it looks like for someone on my career path to have a family.”

Pregnant professional athletes and their nontraditional careers put the need for change in the sharpest relief. Shortly after &Mother launched in 2020, its push for progress and equity involved sponsor contract language. The nonprofit created model contract provisions. The sponsor will not terminate a contract or reduce compensation during pregnancy, postpartum recovery or parental leave. Any other approach should be firmly part of the past.

“We started with contract language because, when we did the research, we saw there were no standard protections for pregnancy, postpartum recovery or parental leave,” said Dickens. “It was another barrier that created financial instability, vulnerability, and the potential for discrimination. It was another opportunity for creative solutions that emphasized supporting the whole athlete.”

The work being done by &Mother, Athleta, professional female athletes and others committed to systemic and cultural change represents important advances in women’s sports. But to sustain the momentum requires more effort, more collaboration, and more creativity from sponsors. If companies invest the time, energy and careful consideration necessary, the meaningful, impactful ways to support female athletes appear limitless. Hopefully, the same can soon be said for the opportunities and choices available for those athletes.

Shira Springer writes about the intersection of sports and culture and teaches leadership communication at MIT Sloan.

Questions about OPED guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at

SBJ Morning Buzzcast: August 18, 2022

The NWSL adds to its C-suite; CA regents ponder next step against UCLA; Bally Sports + sets national launch; the W's strong viewership season and podcast suggestions

SBJ Unpacks: USL Soccer

SBJ's Alex Silverman is joined by USL Chief Operating Officer Justin Papadakis to discuss the state of the organization and its ambitious growth plans.

SBJ I Factor: Jed York

SBJ I Factor: Jed York, presented by Allied Sports SBJ I Factor presented by Allied Sports features an interview with San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York. York is in his 17th year with the organization and his 12th as CEO. He is a two-time SBJ Forty Under 40 honoree as a member of the classes of 2012 and 2013. York talks with SBJ’s Abe Madkour about what he learned from growing up in the sports business, working in multiple departments at the team, the challenges of building Levi’s Stadium, and how his leadership style has evolved through the years. SBJ I Factor is a monthly podcast offering interviews with sports executives who have been recipients of one of the magazine’s awards, such as Forty Under 40, Game Changers and others.

Shareable URL copied to clipboard!

Sorry, something went wrong with the copy but here is the link for you.