Empowering Female Sports Leaders

05 Oct 2018

By: Sport Industry Group

Ruth Holdaway, CEO of Women in Sport, has authored an exclusive opinion piece for Sport Industry Group, in which she argues that tackling a culture of everyday sexism throughout the sport industry is the only way to achieve sustainable change at boardroom level.

Her comments come ahead of Women in Sport's Empower conference on October 18th, and follow the announcement of the Sport Industry NextGen Leaders for 2019, with a record 43% of those selected being women.


On October 18th, Women in Sport is hosting an event to celebrate 100 years since some women were first given the vote in the UK.  It has me reflecting.  Women were ‘given’ the vote – as if this fundamental human right was something to be bestowed upon us!  But of course, this is exactly what happened – those in power, those with decision making authority in 1918, did indeed bestow upon some women the right to vote, (it wasn’t until 1928 that ALL women over the age of 21 could vote).  And those in power were men.

We’ve come a long way since then, but in the grand scheme of things 100 years is not a long time, it’s hard to believe that someone influential and a role model in my life, my Granny, was one of the first women in the UK to cast a vote.

For there to be equality we must have equality in the places that power lies. This means that whilst efforts to get more women and girls playing sport are essential to bridge the 1.5m gap between men and women playing sport regularly once a week, without a shift in the gender power balance in sport we will never achieve full equality.

This is why Women in Sport has, for many years, undertaken research to bring transparency to the number of women in leadership roles in sports’ national governing bodies.  More recently we have also attempted to unearth and understand the culture shift that is needed in sport to create an environment where more women want to be leaders and are able to thrive.

On International Women’s Day 2017 Women in Sport published an audit of women on boards and in the senior teams of our National Governing Bodies. The results were disappointing, with the percentage of women holding power on the board remaining static at an average of 30 per cent, and a decline in the percentage of women in leadership teams. In almost half of the governing bodies, the numbers of women on the board fell below the new Sport Governance Code requirement for a minimum 30% gender diversity. 

When it comes to equality in sport, incremental change just won’t cut it. One hundred years since women have had the right to vote in the UK society is changing, but there are still areas of society where gender inequality persists; this is not a club that sport should be proud to be part of. 

Our Beyond 30% research, published this year, saw us asking middle managers about their experiences of the sport sector culture and their ability, or perceived ability, to progress.  Speaking to both women and men gave us the opportunity to investigate similarities of experience and differences.  And sadly, the differences are stark.  40% of women, compared with 9% of men, feel their gender has disadvantaged them in the sport workplace. 38% of women report having been discriminated against because they are female and 30% said they had experienced inappropriate behaviour from the opposite sex in the workplace. No, this is not a club any of us wants to be in, surely.

It’s time to speed up the pace of change.  It is vital that we now address the cultural norms which have become barriers to women’s progression in our sector.  We need to do things like de-couple the emphasis on sporting success from someone’s ability to be a leader in sport – when women haven’t had the chance to play sport to the same levels or with the same resources as men, the pool of women you are recruiting from is limited if you expect sporting success to be a criterion.  And we need total transparency and open recruitment and promotion processes.  We learned in our research that networking and contacts made while playing sport are often important for progression – but if the women don’t have the chance to play sport alongside the men who currently hold power they are immediately at a disadvantage.

Within wider society it’s taken major movements to drive change - #MeToo has shaken up the film industry for example.  In the UK, the #EveryDaySexism movement continues to challenge the inequality women experience in all areas of society.  Its founder, Laura Bates, is joining a host of other trailblazers, record breakers and campaigners from within and outside of sport at our Empower Conference on October 18th.  We’ll be meeting with delegates from across the national and international sports and gender equality sectors to discuss how we can create a fairer future for women in sport.  If you, man or woman, are ready to help us drive the change that is needed in sport, at every level, please do join us.