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Maria Taylor is only 32 years old and has already achieved a lot: she played college basketball and volleyball at the University of Georgia, worked as an analyst and host on the SEC Network and is now one of the six hosts of ESPN’s College Gameday — one of the most coveted positions in all of sports coverage.
But Taylor is quick to acknowledge it hasn’t been easy. After all, she’s often the only woman in the room. But she’s optimistic the landscape can change if women learn to speak up for themselves and others.
Taylor recently spoke to Know Your Value at the University of Georgia vs. Notre Dame football game on Saturday and shared some of her best career advice for women who want to follow in her footsteps.
Taylor went from freelancing for ESPN in 2011 to hosting in just over three years. Throughout those early years in her career, she learned to seize opportunity. “The very first game I ever did on TV was a women’s volleyball match, and that’s how I got in — women’s volleyball and basketball,” said Taylor.
In the beginning of her career, she was a bit reticent.
“I remember when I used to go to coaches’ meetings and stuff like that and I would never say anything — I would just sit in a corner and sometimes coaches wouldn’t even shake my hand,” recounted Taylor. “They would go around and talk to everyone else — and of course it’s a room full of men — and I learned to think, ‘You know what, if they’re not gonna shake my hand, I’m just going to stand up and shake theirs.’”
That lesson paid off. Since that first game, Taylor learned how necessary it is, especially as a woman, to speak up in rooms on and off the TV screen. “I’ve learned to recognize that I’m in certain rooms for a reason, and I’ve learned — if I have an opinion or something I want to say — to say those things and not feel afraid about it.”
The best career advice she’s received came from another woman who’s been a trailblazer in television: Robin Roberts. “She said ‘every day you go to work — if you are working on the smallest game of the week or the largest, act like it’s the best day — like you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Remember that in every phase of your career, that you’re in that moment for a reason and you should be excited about it.’”
Taylor relishes that advice, especially because she believes that women helping other women is critical to breaking barriers in the workforce. “I think it’s so important as a woman, and especially as a minority, to lift as you climb,” explained Taylor. “So having people shadow you or mentoring people — that’s important to me.”
Taylor believes that this is one way in which women can work together to narrow the gender gap in television. Currently, there are very few women in sports coverage — and those women often have titles that are inferior to their male counterparts even if they have the same amount of experience, she said.
“I think the problem that we’re still running into is the box that women are put into,” said Taylor during the ESPN College GameDay weekend, which was built by Home Depot. “There are men who don’t necessarily play, but they can still somehow be insiders, or they can still somehow be analysts, and so women should be able to break that wall down.”
That’s why is particularly important, according to Taylor that women — even in the beginning of their careers — avoid being pigeonholed by letting those around them know they’re open to multiple opportunities. Equally important is simply being prepared.
“The best thing that you can do to break down any of the barriers that women face in sports is to be over prepared — know your value, but also know the subject matter that you’re covering,” said Taylor. “That way, when a guy comes to you with a question about a certain team or a player, you don’t pause — you are confident in yourself and your knowledge base.”
Finally, Taylor wants young women who may be considering a career in sports coverage to know one very important thing: this job is yours for the taking.
“People are looking for women to play a big role in sports right now,” says Taylor. “It’s for the taking: if you really want this job or you want to work in sports, there’s room for you.”