International Women's Day - In the office...

 Our Vice President of Events, Maria Gigante, has been working in the NFL for 27 years. She started out as receptionist in the New York office, before moving on to work in almost every area of the NFL, including making her way up to Vice President. 

So, what is it about the sport that's made her stay so long?

The reason why I've been in the NFL so long is that I haven't had a year that's been the same. I think especially with the games we stage in London and the position we're in now in the UK, each year you work with new NFL teams and everything changes.

Have you seen more women working in the NFL in the time you've been involved?

There are very strong women in the NFL that I look up to and admire that are great in their positions. I never got held back because I was a woman and I always felt there were opportunities for me.

Who are those strong female role models that you look up to?

Sara Levinson was the president of NFL Properties when I started, and everyone was up in arms that there was going to be a woman coming in as President! She was great, she was down to earth. She had to make tough changes and while she was an aggressive and strong leader, she was also a sensitive woman and gave great advice. I remember when I was an assistant and first met her, she didn't have to talk to me, but she saw I had been troubled with something, came over and took me out for coffee. She showed me that you can be powerful and be a force, but you can still have that vulnerability and a motherly touch. That's something I feel is unique to a woman and it's what we bring to companies.

I would also say Dawn Aponte who is currently the NFL's Chief Football Administrative Officer. I met her when she was with the Miami Dolphins. She's an attorney by trade and gets involved in player salary negotiations, so a tough business. She's a mum of four and her husband stays at home and is raising the kids while she goes out to work, which is like my situation. I have two boys, but they primarily live with their dad in the US because I took the opportunity to come out here. Dawn's always been supportive of that decision. She's always made me feel good about being a mum but also having a career.

How important is it to have women in those senior roles?

I think it's important. There are a lot of men in the NFL and you have to accept that. It takes a lot to come in and be a woman and to be strong in this company because of the stereotype of it being a male-dominated world. I never felt like I didn't have an opportunity. I work in football and I run games and I've never had an issue walking into a team and having them respect what I say or listen to me. I think it's a great opportunity for any female to come into the business.

What has been your career highlight?

I accompanied the former presidents George Bush Senior and Bill Clinton after Hurricane Katrina. The NFL relocated the New Orleans Saints game to New Jersey, and they played at the Metlife Stadium. It was a massive fundraiser for the victims. I was able to work with those two former presidents. It was amazing for me to be given that opportunity as a woman, to take care of two former presidents and to be with secret service and to take them around the stadium. It was an amazing experience.

What do your family think about your job?

My kids were with me when I found out that I got promoted to Vice President. My little guy went into school the next day and said, 'my mum got promoted to vice president of the NFL' and his teacher didn't believe him. Apparently, she said 'I'm sure she works for the NFL, but I don't think she's a vice president.' I came to school about a month later to read to my son's class and he asked me to bring my business card to show his teacher. I really didn't believe his story, but brought the card anyway. When I gave his teacher my card, she was so surprised. I don't think people realise that there are equal opportunities for woman at the League and you can get there if you work hard.

Those situations give me perspective about why I do it and that I'm not doing it for the wrong reasons. I know my sons are having a good experience growing up and learning that you can be a strong woman and be a mum and have a career and you can still have a good relationship whilst living away. So, I hope I'm setting a good example.

What's your proudest moment with NFL UK?

It was probably our first game at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium last year. That was a true labour of love. Seeing it being built from the ground up and knowing the NFLUK office especially had such a big role in making it successful. So that was a real proud moment. And of course, the first game at Wembley in 2007. That was amazing and I still remember that day.

Have you ever broken a barrier in the sport?

Around 10-15 years ago when I was living in the US, we used to do pre-season games in Japan. I had a lot of trouble at the beginning in dealing with the Japanese promoter because they wouldn't meet with me. They kept trying to go above me and meet with my boss (who was a man). He was very supportive and just kept putting me in front of them. One day I walked into the meeting room and they let me sit in the head chair, instead of my boss. I knew at that point that I had earned their respect. So, for me, that was a mini victory that I was respected, as a woman, running the games to a very traditional society that wouldn't have allowed that.

What advice would you give to women wanting to reach senior jobs within the NFL?

Be true to yourself and don't get discouraged. Don't look for excuses for things not to work. It's a very tough corporate environment, whether you're a man or a woman. I've always felt you get rewarded for good work, so don't be intimidated. You have to have confidence in yourself or no one else will. There are opportunities here so don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

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