carnegieXchange: School of Sport

Why is it that is 2019 we are still talking about gender balance across sport

We all know we need to recruit people on a skills basis and provide the diversity of thought and appropriate challenge to help sporting organisations innovate and stay ahead of the pack.


Annamarie Phelps

On the field of play sport is one of the most technologically advanced sectors, striving for the edge, the marginal gain, the spilt-second advantage – yet in the boardroom, across executive teams and in the recruitment of coaches sport often ignores the potential, the skills and the input of half, if not more, of the population. In its leadership and coaching teams much of sport is stuck in the nineteenth century, recruiting and appointing the ‘safe’ option. The people that look like us, speak like us and think like us.

If – and that is a big if – those at the top of sports organisations genuinely want to make leadership positions not just more accessible to women, but ensure they have more women in leadership positions, there needs to be a change of pace.

The answer is not to merely drop in women who have developed the skills to fit into the male-centric model of sports governance or survive the cut-and-thrust of a testosterone-fueled field of play: give them a bit of flexible working time, and add equal pay: we can’t solve problems with the same kind of thinking we used to create them and it is clearly not producing a sustainable pipeline of future talent from those in under-represented groups.

We need to ensure we allow women (and men) to be themselves, whatever combination of characteristics and background they have - whether black or white, Asian or Irish, Muslim or Catholic, lesbian, transsexual, disabled. All have something to offer and we need to celebrate diversity, acknowledge and understand the complexity of intersectionality, acknowledge the overlapping systems of disadvantage and discrimination that this can bring in our communities.

We need to seek out those that are under-represented and empower them to be the people they are, accepted and welcomed into a sporting family that can accommodate their needs and values. People who look different, who live differently and who think differently. People who will bring their views and questions to the board table and ask the ‘Why?’ and challenge the status quo.

The sporting world has changed since the first Olympic Games of the modern era; our global society and world politics have shifted in societal structures and expectations of what men and women contribute to family and national life.

In the future sport will be even more complex than now: part-entertainment, part-competition, a leisure pursuit, a corporate sector, an obsession, a medicine for physical and mental health, an antidote for obesity and a way to bring generations together.

Moving to an inclusive society that prioritises cohesive communities at all levels is the future. Sport is reflective of and a product of society. It requires us to move faster than the last 30 years and most importantly we need to avoid this linear way of working. - change needs to be on many levels, drawing from many experiences, trying many initiatives, talking differently to different people.

There is no simple answer. This is going to be difficult: very difficult.

But there is one simple assumption we must avoid at all costs: that it is those outside the system that need help to “fit in”. Women don't need to change, the diversity in thought that they bring, the ‘female traits’, the different perspectives and views, that they hold are exactly why we want them involved. So we need to make a shift in the groupthink of sport and sports clubs and organisations for #BalanceforBetter.

Annamarie Phelps CBE

Annamarie Phelps CBE is the Former Chairman of British Rowing, Vice Chair of the British Paralympic Association and remains Vice Chair of the British Olympic Association and Commonwealth Liaison for the International Federation for Rowing, FISA. In 2017 Annamarie was elected to the European Rowing Management Board. She is a former World Champion in Women’s Lightweight Coxless Fours and indoor rowing and represented Great Britain in the women’s eight at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996. She is currently leading the Cycling Independent Review and involved with the on-going DCMS Duty of Care Review.

Annamarie was Lead Safeguarding Officer for British Rowing for 11 years, and oversaw the anti-doping, governance and equality policies within the National Governing Body as Deputy Chairman from 2002-2013 and has championed safeguarding for adults at risk in sport on the Sport & Recreational Alliance Steering Group. She was the first female board member of The Boat Race Company Ltd, working with the sponsors and men’s clubs to bring the Women’s University Boat Race to the Tideway in 2015. Annamarie was the second women to be elected a Steward of the Henley Royal Regatta.

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