It’s one thing to talk the talk, but the 49ers are walking the walk as pioneers in hiring women into prominent positions.
Making it all the way to Super Bowl LIV meant more for the 49ers than proving that coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch were on the right path. It also meant that an NFL organization could be successful with several women in key roles.
Lynch supported that belief as a participant on a featured panel at the "Women’s Careers in Football Forum" in Indianapolis during last week's NFL Scouting Combine. He sat alongside Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel and Washington coach Ron Rivera in a discussion moderated by NBC Sports broadcaster Mike Tirico.
Nearly 40 women candidates asked questions and gained knowledge of how to further careers in the NFL, networking with the panel participants and several women who work for various teams.
“I take a lot of pride being in this room,” Lynch said at the time. “I think one of the things drew me in -- I’m working for an organization that has represented inclusion throughout history.”
Many people within the 49ers organization have been part of the NFL's Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship, which can open doors for minority candidates. The Pro Football Hall of Fame coach was long revered for giving equal opportunities to qualified candidates, and current 49ers assistant Katie Sowers was one of those who benefitted from Walsh’s philosophy.
Sowers made a name for herself as the first woman to coach in a Super Bowl, becoming one of the most visible women working for the 49ers. San Francisco hasn’t stopped there, employing several other women behind the scenes.
From pro personnel analyst/scout Salli Clavelle to chief administrative officer and general counsel Hannah Gordon, the 49ers have women in all branches of the organization.
Lynch emphasized that while the Walsh fellowship might get someone’s foot in the door, how long they stay is never a given. Everyone in the building has had to earn the right to stay through hard work, man or woman. Clavelle is a perfect example of taking advantage of the opportunity.
She was hired in 2018 after competing with two other women and three men for a job as a scouting assistant. After one season, Clavelle had proven how valuable she was to the scouting department. At the same time, five-year 49ers scout A.J. Highsmith left to take a role as an area scout for the Buffalo Bills. Clavelle was his natural replacement.
“She’s got the mentality to be successful in anything she does,” Highsmith told NBC Sports Bay Area. “Her success is a testament to her work ethic, tenacity and passion for football, not just because she is a woman.
“If you need something done Salli is the person to go to. She has a way, especially with young men, of gaining their respect. Just watch her at a pro day or when she has to lead a group. It’s very impressive.”
Gordon, who holds one of the most prestigious roles in the 49ers organization, is ecstatic about NFL teams hiring more minorities. She also sees more room for improvement, as the lack of diversity in head-coaching positions indicates there still is work to be done.
After the 49ers’ appearance in Super Bowl LIV, Gordon saw that the organization was in the spotlight and vowed to take advantage of that by continuing to set the example in regards to diverse hiring. Other teams have taken notice.
“I got two calls in the last week from teams asking for a copy of our diversity hiring policy,” Gordon told NBC Sports Bay Area. “They said, 'Hey, we’re starting a fellowship like yours, can we see how you structured it?' ”
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What is most impressive to Gordon is how her fellow women have performed since becoming part of the 49ers franchise. Their hard work, dedication and achievements are proof that the best person for the job can be a female and or a minority.
“It all builds on itself,” Gordon said. “You have to be successful. Katie and Salli are such bada--es. They are so good that when people see that they are successful, then they feel comfortable hiring the next one. ‘Oh, Salli was successful, so I trust the next one will be too.’ ”
The 49ers have hired so many women to their coaching and training staff that they needed to add more lockers to their women's locker room. Gordon, Clavelle and Sowers hope that room keeps growing.