AISTS organised the Championing Women in Sport Breakfast session on the 10th of February 2017 at the Maison du Sport, in Lausanne. The panel discussion was initiated to bring together female professionals in the world of sports and to provide them with a platform to express their viewpoints and share their experiences.

The panel of champions boasted vast experience from athletes and administrators, current and retired, Olympians and female sports managers, and the room had 30 audience members – including 3 men. The discussions were preceded by coffee and croissants followed by an introduction to the panel.

Champions Panel Members

The main topic of discussion was surrounding the perception of women working, as athletes or administrators, in sports and how the same could be changed to bring about a sporting industry of equal opportunities and respect. Andrea Marcellini, former Women’s Cycling Coordinator at the UCI and Venue Manager at the most recent Olympic games, moderated the session. The distinguished panel featured Mara Abbott, USA road cyclist and Olympian, Nikki Symmons, highest capped Irish field hockey player, Anne-Sophie Thilo, Swiss sailor and Olympian, and Shelia Stephens Desbans, Development Director at World Rowing. 

Mara Abbott, the AISTS keynote speaker for the graduating class of 2016, spoke about her challenges in a very male dominated sport and the limited opportunities there is for female cyclists. Mara also spoke at the IOC headquarters the day before about her experience in Rio and also her race. Mara gave a blow by blow account of that day and although it didn’t pan out the way she wanted, she knows that she gave it her absolute best. Both Nikki Symmons (2014 Alumni and working at FIH) and Anne-Sophie Thilo (2015 Alumni and working at the IOC) both gave a different perspectives on their athletic experiences, as both have come from quite a gender equal sports – particularly Anne-Sophie competing at the Beijing Olympics in sailing mixed 470 Class. Shelia Stephens Desbans gave a great overview of life as a sports manager and a mother and explained the challenges she has overcome over her extensive career with World Rowing. 

Mara Abbott – USA Olympian
Nikki Symmons – Retired athlete and FIH Digital Manager

Andrea steered the session by putting forward questions to the panel pertaining to the challenges faced by women professionals in the field. The experiences shared by the panel brought to light the need for education during the formative years of children, both boys and girls, so as to foster sensitivity towards the predicaments of being a female professional in any field. It was encouraged by a very active audience who pitched in with their opinions. There were interesting discussions regarding how men in leadership positions could alter their perspectives and create a more welcoming environment for their female counterparts; and how it is equally important for women to believe in their potential and not undermine themselves professionally. Inevitably, there was an illuminating debate regarding the different connotations of the word “feminism”.

The session was very well received and in many ways, was truly enlightening. Although it’s a tiny step towards a greater goal, the consensus was that it was a step in the right direction. The AISTS will strive to hold similar sessions on a regular basis in the future, hoping to involve larger audiences (and more men), in the effort to lay down tangible goals and actions to encourage a more professionally equal sports industry.

Panel – Andrea Marcellini, Anne-Sophie Thilo, Nikki Symmons, Shelia Stephens Desbans & Mara Abbott (from right to left)

For more information on this event please contact the AISTS at