OP ED: Ruth Holdaway - What's Next?

08 Mar 2019

By: Sport Industry Group

In an opinion piece marking International Women’s Day, departing Women in Sport CEO Ruth Holdaway reflects on the progress achieved during her time with the organisation, while also setting out the challenges that women in sport still face...


This International Women’s Day I’m preparing for an international adventure of my own.  In May I will leave Women in Sport, after five and a half wonderful (and challenging!) years, for a new role as CEO of Tennis Victoria, in Australia.  I will now have to practice what I preach.  No more demands for more women in leadership roles in sport – I’m upping the numbers myself as the first female CEO of Tennis Victoria.

I’m also reflecting, of course, on whether I have shifted the dial, to use the vernacular, when it comes to creating gender balance in sport’s leadership more broadly.

It’s impossible to know for sure, but putting the issue of leadership aside for a moment, one thing I can be sure of is that my successor will enter a very different women’s sport landscape than the one I entered in 2013.

There has been unquestionable progress, and the drivers for this are many and varied:

·       Brilliant female athletes breaking though in increasing numbers, despite still not being funded to anything like the levels of their male colleagues.

·       A ‘perfect storm’ with women leading sport at the national policy level: a moment when we had a female Secretary of State, Sports Minister and CEOs of both Sport England and UK Sport.

·       Unsung heroes, like Lisa Parfitt at Synergy Sponsorship and Sally Horrocks now of Y-Sport previously the FA, quietly and effectively promoting and selling the women’s game to sponsors.  By helping brands understand women’s sport as a smart investment they’ve raised the profile, and the value, of women’s sport.

·       Leaders in their own field, like Clare Balding and Helena Morrisey, using their influence to achieve ‘firsts’ like a women’s Boat Race to rival the excitement and thrill of the men’s, on the tideway, on BBC 1, on the same day. 

I could go on...

And then there is the biggie!  In 2015 women across the UK laughed and cried when, for what felt like the first time ever, they saw themselves, their everyday normal selves, finally represented playing sport on the telly – as This Girl Can was launched.  One of the most successful behaviour change campaigns ever delivered, 2.8 million women who recognised the campaign have done some or more activity as a result, while 1.6 million say they’ve started exercising. It’s so great to see Women in Sport’s 35 years of research and insight supporting and enabling initiatives like this.

But I started with women leading sport – and it is here that I am proud to have been part of something I believe history will reflect as a tectonic shift.

Sport has been brave.  It has been bold.  It is now a requirement that any organisation in receipt of public funds from Sport England or UK Sport must have a minimum of 30% of either gender on the board.  Government may not want to describe this as a ‘quota’ – but I will, because it is, or it will be if Government and the funding bodies are true to their word and reduce funding to organisations who do not meet this standard within the next year or so. 

This change certainly doesn’t have the Pizzazz of something like the This Girl Can campaign – but I believe it will be just as transformational.  The evidence is clear, with more diverse boards will come not only fairness but better decision making.

I’m proud of Women in Sport’s audits, bringing transparency to the pitiful number of female leaders in the sector.  I’m proud of Women in Sport’s surveys and focus groups bringing the issues to life.  And I’m proud of Women in Sport’s focused campaign.

And it’s good to be proud – but if you’re not careful, pride comes before a fall – something I’d very much like to avoid!  So, I readily admit there is more, much more, to do.

Thanks to the ongoing support and funding of Comic Relief, now in its 4th year, Women in Sport is moving into a new phase of this work.  In 2018, 40% of the women we surveyed told us that they feel undervalued in the sport workplace because of their gender.  Nearly half the women we spoke to!  How can this be accepted?  It has to change. 

Women in Sport’s emphasis will now be the culture of the sport workplace.  Identifying good practice from within and outside the sport sector, testing its impact and providing practical support, the Charity will work to enable women to thrive, influence and lead in sport.  By definition, with greater diversity comes greater difference and perspectives, which can slow down or influence decision making in ways that is challenging for organisations to adapt to.  Preparing all leaders to engage women and embrace diversity is critical – and Women in Sport will now address this challenge and support the sector to change. 

I will watch with interest from a tennis court on the other side of the world – and I’ll be doing my bit as a female leader deep in the grassroots of sport myself.  So, allow me to leave you with one challenge – what could you do to support Women in Sport to drive the culture change needed for not only gender diversity, but for women to thrive?  Do feel free to start with a donation here.  Thank you.