A new report this week by Women in Sport has shown that the number of women getting top jobs at UK sporting bodies is down by 6% since 2014 and that around half of the 68 Sport England and UK Sport-funded national governing bodies have fewer than 30% of non-executive director roles filled by women. In today’s blog post, Dr Leanne Norman, Senior Research Fellow in the Carnegie School of Sport at Leeds Beckett, gives her views on what needs to be done to go ‘Beyond 30%’.

Dr Leanne Norman

Yesterday saw the release of the ‘Beyond 30%’ report by the charity and gender equality in sport advocates, Women in Sport. This particular report was the seventh annual audit on the numbers of women in sport leadership roles but one that represented a turn from the previous reports. The organisation recognised that just having women sitting on a board doesn’t represent, necessarily, equality and that most sporting national governing bodies ‘get the message’ and are no longer working to just have the token woman round the table.

The sport sector now clearly understands its responsibility to the public that funds it; its responsibility to be representative of that public, and that gender diversity at leadership level is good for business. Rather, the focus of the ‘Beyond 30%’ report and the key message was that we cannot make the drive to gender equality a measurable outcome, a tick box exercise whereby when we have achieved that all desirable 30% (every publicly funded governing body of sport must have a minimum of 30% of one gender on their board), we lay down our tools, dust off our hands and say ‘equality achieved, job done’ in a similar fashion that FIFA did recently when it disbanded its anti-racism task force (on the grounds it has ‘fulfilled its mission).

The purpose of the ‘Beyond 30%’ report was to address gender equality in the way it should always have been approached in sport and by National Governing Bodies (NGBs): through the creation of a sustainable, conducive, positive, diverse, and inclusive organisational culture that not only addresses the lack of gender representation at leadership levels, but benefits all, all groups of men and women, at all levels of a sporting organisation.

One major part of the report is the inclusion of a ‘checklist for change’: strategies to create sustainable changes that tackle the insidious, often trivialised and taken-for-granted aspects of a workplace’s culture that scaffold inequalities amongst its workforce. Such practices and processes, the ones that are so ingrained in what we do, how we behave, how we relate, what language we use, the way we are promoted and rewarded, the stories we tell in the workplace, are the reasons why some people get ahead faster and more favourable treatment than others.

Leeds Beckett netball team game

It’s the intangible, it’s the things we stop noticing after we have worked for somewhere for so long, it is the culture of where we work that advances and rewards some, and why some people just don’t seem to ‘fit in’ or get allocated to certain roles or perceived in certain ways. Processes like the way and where we advertise jobs, how we decide who is elected to boards, or how we expect our employees to work (e.g. do we support flexible working? Do we expect that people will manage their time fairly and not have to take work home?) often discriminate against those whose faces don’t fit, who do not have a historical place in the organisation, or those excluded from informal, yet powerful networks.

These are some of the reasons why many women do not join, or progress, or even just stay in particular organisations. We know this from our programme of research being led here in the School of Sport at the University to do with women as sport coaches. We know that many women, particularly those who do not fit the bill of White, middle-classed, able-bodied, or heterosexual, do not remain or progress into the elite levels of sport coaching and leadership. And I often ask the question: Why would they want to in the current climate of some sporting NGBs?

Coaching is a rewarding profession and our coaches represent some of our most engaged and motivated professionals even compared to other UK professions. We know that too from our research. However, it can also be a difficult role, one that is combined with another (paid) job just to pay the bills, one that often involves a lot of travelling and being away, one that is often lonely and isolating in difficult circumstances. The incentive is the intrinsic value of seeing others develop rather than external recognition and reward by those who employ our coaches.

These issues affect all our coaches, not just certain groups of women, and the culture of our sporting organisations affect all those within it, our coaching workforce, our governing body staff, all the way down to our ‘customers’ – our athletes and participants. We also know from the research that gender equality at work is good for everyone. It makes for a happier workforce if we have fairness, justice and diversity in the office. Productivity is higher and faster, wellbeing is higher, turnover is less, attrition is less, we can access new and different information, we can reach new customers. In essence, we can predict the success of an organisation through how equal it is.

From reading yesterday’s ‘Beyond 30%’ report, it is clear that some sporting NGBs still have a lot of work to do towards making its workplace a good place to be for all its employees, including women. Let’s hope the proverbial kick up the funding backside, a powerful tool that Sport England can yield,  will provide the first prompt to this movement to realise that (gender) equality can give us all that winning edge.