Meet the Match

A Ukrainian Sports Leader Wants to Break the Glass Ceiling

For Olga Aksyonova, the power of sport was exemplified in one moment from the 1994 Winter Olympics. It was the first time Ukraine participated independently in the Games after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Olga was a12-year-old girl then, watching excitedly as Oksana Baiul won the gold medal in women’s figure skating.

“At the time, many people still only knew Ukraine because of the Chernobyl disaster or some other not great things,” Olga says. “But when Oksana and she stood there crying it was such a powerful moment. It gave Ukrainians something to be proud of. The ceremony was 30 minutes late because they couldn’t find the national anthem—no one expected Oksana to win!”

Born in Kyiv, Olga lived with her grandparents in Moscow until the age of 5, when she moved back home to begin schooling. It was around that time she found ballet, one of her life’s greatest passions. Even as a married woman with two daughters and a demanding job as the head of development for the Ukraine Athletics Federation, she still makes time to take adult classes at the her daughters’ studio.

Although she was a top ballerina, Olga faced the difficult decision as a teenager to choose between dropping out of regular school to pursue ballet or attend traditional university. Following the advice of her parents—her biggest role models—she chose the second option.

At 16, Olga enrolled at Kyiv National University, where she completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees in international law. In 2003, she added another master’s degree in Ukrainian law. For a long time, Olga wanted to become a lawyer. After graduation, however, she chose a different path, working for eight years on gender projects for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Then, by chance, she made her way into the sports world.

“I wanted to try something new after spending so many years with the UNDP, so I went to a headhunting agency and the day after got a call from Ukraine Athletics,” Olga says. “The day of my first interview they offered me the job. I didn’t think it would happen so fast!”

Olga’s transition into sports was sparked by a desire to help people. Throughout her life, she knew she didn’t want to work for a “paycheck at the end of the month,” but to actually make the world a healthier, unprejudiced, and more equal place.

In Olga’s view, Ukraine does not have the blatant gender inequality seen in more traditional patriarchal societies. In top positions, salaries are comparable for men and women. However, the great majority of these positions are held by men. As of 2014, women made up only 12 percent of parliament. Two years ago, in the Global Gender Gap Report, Ukraine was ranked 105th of 142 countries in women’s political empowerment.

Olga compares the situation for women like herself to having a glass ceiling above their heads.

“When you look up you think you can see everything and climb every step up the ladder,” Olga says. “But then as you climb you hit your head against the glass and you realize there’s nowhere else to go.”

Although she doesn’t see the same disparity within athletics, where four of five department heads are women, she is concerned for the transition of female athletes into post-athletic careers. On top of helping female athletes adapt, Olga wants to run a national campaign promoting women at top-level positions in sport.

Throughout her career, Olga has proven more than capable of pushing for gender equality and social change. Now she needs the tools to continue this work in sports. To help her accomplish these goals, she will be mentored by America East executives Amy Huchthausen and Shonna Brown—two women with the wisdom and experience that will greatly benefit Olga. A member of the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators (NACWAA) Board of Directors, Amy is in her fifth year as commissioner at America East, where she has consistently grown the conference’s exposure on television and as one of the leaders in respect and diversity in college sports, as well as student-athlete development. Shonna, executive associate commissioner for the conference, oversees America East’s business practices and has a long, successful career in sports administration.

The mentors will play a key role in assisting Olga with her biggest needs—communications and public speaking skills and strategy, fundraising, and sponsorship—and there is no doubt this trio will come up with a dynamic plan to increase female representation in sports in Ukraine.

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