Gender equality: Female representation in publicly-funded sports boardrooms reaches 30 per cent

Exclusive: The milestone also represents a victory for this newspaper’s campaign for greater equality in sport

Emily Dugan
Social Affairs Editor
Saturday 31 October 2015 22:35
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England celebrate their win over Germany during the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 3rd Place Play-off match earlier this summer
England celebrate their win over Germany during the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 3rd Place Play-off match earlier this summer

Equality in sport has come a step closer as female representation in the boardrooms of Britain’s publicly funded sports has reached an average of 30 per cent for the first time.

The landmark moment is revealed in a report to be published on 6 November by Women In Sport, shown exclusively to The Independent on Sunday. The milestone also represents a victory for this newspaper’s campaign for greater equality in sport.

The new average represents marked progress since the organisation’s first audit of women in sport leadership six years ago, when boards were only 21 per cent female. On executive teams, women now make up an average of 40 per cent, up from 21 per cent in 2009.

There are also signs of improvement in the profile of women’s sport. In 2007, Wimbledon awarded equal prize money to male and female competitors for the first time; women got the same billing in the Boat Race as men; and the Fifa Women’s World Cup achieved its greatest level of media coverage so far.

Chair of British Rowing Annamarie Phelps: ‘At European level, often I’m the only woman in the room’

Despite the progress, sports equality campaigners said many sports were lagging behind. There are still several whose governing bodies have no women at executive level – and others with only one woman appointed to a board full of men.

Ruth Holdaway, chief executive of Women in Sport, said of reaching the 30 per cent threshold: “This is a fantastic move in the right direction. It shows things are getting better. It’s been great to have the support of The Independent on Sunday. To have a newspaper saying ‘this is important’ and putting pressure on sport to make these changes is critical.”

However, she warned that the job was “by no means” finished. “When you look behind the figures you can see there are some national governing bodies lagging behind. There aren’t enough women coming through the pipeline within organisations which would make it easier for women to naturally move into these roles rather than being sought from outside.”

Of the 63 organisations surveyed, 26 have at least 30 per cent female representation on the board, but 29 still fail to meet the 25 per cent gender balance guidelines supported by government. The Minister for Sport, Tracey Crouch, said: “Sport is moving in the right direction on gender equality, however this report shows that there is still room for improvement. I want all sports governing bodies to have at least 25 per cent female representation on their boards and more women in positions of power. Gender should not be a barrier.”

There are many prominent sports whose leaders are overwhelmingly male. In British Cycling, for example, despite boasting some of the country’s most celebrated female athletes, only 13 per cent of those working at executive level are women, as are only 17 per cent of the board.

A spokesman for British Cycling said: “These figures should be viewed in the context of historical under-representation of women at all levels of cycling. We acknowledge this problem and, through our We Ride strategy, which aims to get a million more women riding bikes by 2020, are taking meaningful steps to address the imbalance in our own practices and throughout the sport.”

The England women’s cricket team were runners-up in the Women’s World Twenty20 last year. Yet the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) is still dominated by men, with women making up only 14 per cent of its board.

The picture is even bleaker for wrestling and boxing. Neither British Wrestling nor GB Boxing have any women working at executive level, and their boards have only 11 and 8 per cent women respectively.

The shadow minister for Sport, Clive Efford, said: “It is a pity that the achievements of sportswomen are not being reflected in representation levels on governing bodies and in boardrooms. This has to change especially if we are going to increase the overall levels of participation among women in sport.”

An ECB spokesman said: “We fully support and share the ambitions of Women in Sport to see more females take on leadership roles. Over the last decade, we have brought more women and girls into our grassroots game and recently introduced professional contracts for our leading women’s players.”

A spokesman for British Wrestling said: “British wrestling is a small sport with fewer than 1,200 members and three full-time employees, one of whom is female …. We take the issue of female representation on the board extremely seriously and will very shortly be seeking three new independent non-executive directors. We hope and expect to attract applications from women.”

A spokesperson for the British Amateur Boxing Association (Baba) said: “The Baba is a relatively small organisation with an executive team of only two. We recognise the benefits of diversity and as female boxing continues to grow, then we would hope and expect to see things evolve and change to reflect this.”

In British Cycling only 13 per cent of those working at executive level are women, as are only 17 per cent of the board

Lisa Wainwright, who is both chief executive of Volleyball England and acting chair of the Amateur Swimming Association, warned that behind the encouraging figures could be women like her working in senior roles for more than one sport.

“I think there needs to be a level just below the director role that we encourage women into,” she said. “We see a lot of women from outside sport coming in but not from inside sport as much. I think it’s unacceptable that there are still sports with no women in executive roles.”

Annamarie Phelps, chair of British Rowing, sees a good future for her sport

Having a gender imbalance encourages backward thinking. I was at the launch of This Girl Can recently when a very senior man working for one of Britain’s big three sports spoke to me. He asked: “So what do you do at rowing?” When I explained I was the chairman he looked at me quizzically and said: “Oh, so who’s the chairman of the men’s part of British rowing, then?”

There’s plenty of evidence that mixed-gender boards perform better, as women bring a different set of experiences and skills. More importantly they send out the message that we value diversity.

It’s great to see things improving. On the board of British Rowing we’re now at 33 per cent women, but we should be aiming at 50-50, particularly as roughly half our student membership are women and our talent programmes have more women than men.

Just because you’ve got a few women at the top doesn’t mean you’ve made things equal; there’s a big cultural shift that needs to be made. A huge number of women are in senior paid professional positions, but many are appointed from outside sport. I think the real problem is just above grass-roots level. If you look at the people coming from club level up to regional councils and committees that’s the critical bit of the pipeline that we need women to be coming through.

We’re pretty good in Great Britain compared with other nations, though. Within the rowing world at international level it looks different. We have 148 rowing federations across the world and when I go abroad to represent Britain I’m one of four women in the job. At European level there are just two and often I’m the only woman in the room.

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