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Chairing to Advocate Change: Leading the UK Policy Forum Event for Women and girls in sport.

On Thursday 25th January, I had the privilege of chairing the UK Policy Forum in London focused on issues around women’s sport, including funding, improving and retaining participation, and improving diversity within sports leadership.

These events are reasonably popular now and, certainly, the issues discussed were very topical and timely. In attendance were a mixture of academics, policy makers, and representatives of national sport governing bodies and organisations.

The first part of the morning centred upon a discussion of initiatives run throughout the UK to address the barriers to sport and exercise for different groups of women. Statistics such as young girls dropping out of sport or physical activity from the ages of 7, or that almost 50% of young girls in the UK live in poverty made it very real as to the challenges that face us as researchers, advocates, policy makers towards increasing the participation, visibility, and improving the experiences of sport.

The second part of the event moved away to focus on how can we commercially build on the success of our women’s teams in a variety of sports from football (Manchester City’s head of women’s football spoke on this issue), to netball, to basketball, and to cricket (the BBC editorial lead for women’s sport discussed the various sports and platforms that they use to promote women).

There were also frank discussions about who leads our sport and the importance of diversity in sports governance, given the understanding that having a more balanced representation on our boards and amongst our decision makers is good governance. Increasingly it is recognised that diversity in our occupations is crucial, not just in sport. Recent news stories from the film and television industry about who has power in our professions has brought these issues very much to the centre of our attention. From the more extreme and harrowing cases of abuse and harassment, to issues such as equal pay, equity and equality matters; not just for women as one homogenous group but for different groups of women, and for different groups of men.

We are also increasingly aware of the role that men play in raising awareness of and improving gender equality. Having a fair and equitable place of work is beneficial to all, for individuals and for the organisation itself. As we discussed at the Policy event, changes are required to the structure, to our processes, and to the culture of our organisations. It is a change of mindset, a cultural shift and an examination of ‘how we get things done around here’ in our organisations that will underpin work to support a more diverse workforce and participant base. This is not only a morality issue but also it makes good business sense because of the strong links to improved productivity and job performance, increased job satisfaction, and improved employee well-being.

Having a fairer place to work, focused on developing people as well products or profit, committed to change and where our leaders are accountable for that change, where we are surrounded by different faces, life experiences, skills, abilities and ideas, is beneficial for everyone in the organisation, not just particular groups of women. So, while it is important that we discuss who plays our sport(s) and how we can get different social groups participating more, it is equally important to balance that with a discussion of who leads our sport(s), who has the power within our sport organisations, and who are the decision makers. Participants, players and athletes all need to see themselves reflected back in our sport leadership; if we can see it, we can be it.

We ended the event yesterday by asking what the delegates gained from the day and what they would be taking back into their organisations. Often there is a sense of feeling overwhelmed by the size of the task when it comes to issues of equality and diversity. However, in Sport England’s new governance code, governing bodies now have a mandate for change even if there is not the appetite for change. We discussed with the delegates how work can begin the morning they return to the office.

I am aware that often at these types of events that we are ‘preaching to the converted’ so delegates were encourage to go back into their organisations and have the conversations about some of the topics, issues, and ideas for change. Change is a journey and everyone needs to be on that journey within an organisation. Crucially that includes our sports leaders who should be driving, supporting, and sponsoring moves to make our places of work more fair and equitable. Therefore, delegates were encouraged to go back to work and start these discussions. Conversations create relationships, which create change. So start the conversation...

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Dr Leanne Norman

Leanne is a Reader within the Carnegie School of Sport. Her research utilises a critical sociological lens to examine the culture of coaching to address gender equality and provide evidence for the need to diversify the coaching workforce.

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