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Women in sport: how do we balance the boardrooms?

Debbie Jevans, CEO of England Rugby 2015
Monday, 15 September 2014

LawinSport recently published a great piece about successful sports lawyers with the header, “Successful sports lawyers, it just so happens they are all women”.1

The world of sports law is fortunate to have a notable female presence, particularly in sports governing bodies (‘SGBs’) and other in-house roles. But this kind of critical mass is not yet found at senior management level in SGBs or even in the composition of SGB boards. It is the latter that this article is primarily concerned with.

Having taken up 2 board positions in the sporting sector (Goalball UK,2 a disability sport, and the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation (‘WSFF’)3), I wanted to explore why more women are not sitting on SGB boards in the UK, and offer some practical suggestions for change.

Current female representation on SGB boards

I should start by explaining that the problem, unsurprisingly, is not special to sport. When it comes to gender representation, the board make-up of SGBs is not significantly different from the board make-up of FTSE 100 companies. According to recent figures, 21.6% of FTSE 100 board members are female.4 For national SGBs, the figure is 27%.5 Stating the obvious, this means that when you count all board members, just over a quarter are female.

The positive news is that 27% represents a 4% increase from 2013.6 Less positive is the distribution of this 27%. Research by the WSFF into SGB board composition demonstrates that some sports fall well below this level. For example, tennis is enjoyed by countless women up and down the country. Women’s tennis has had well-publicised success in the form of Heather Watson and Laura Robinson. However, the LTA’s board is 9% female.7

The global position is worse, despite the 2012 Olympics securing the highest participation levels by women (44.2%).8 The Gender Balance in Global Sport Report, launched in July 2014 by ‘Women on Boards’, revealed that across the organisations comprising the top level of governance in sport, the number of women on governing bodies is less than 20%.9 The international federations of tennis, boxing and cricket (to name a few) have no female representation on their boards.

Returning to the comparison between FTSE 100 companies and national SGBs, the government has recognised the gender imbalance in both worlds. It operates a target that all boards (i.e. each one) should be 25% female. For FTSE 100 companies this should happen by 201510 and by 2017 for Sport England funded sports.11 In both worlds, the message is the same. Progress is being made but it is too slow and inconsistent. There is a heavy bias towards females being non-executive directors rather than occupying top managerial posts or (in the sporting arena) being performance directors.

This kind of gender imbalance is bad for sport, bad for sport as a business, and bad for governance. At its simplest, diverse boards make better decisions. As Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson has written, if decision makers are “pale, male and stale”, they are less able to run sport in a way that is appealing to a diverse participation base. It also represents untapped potential for women to develop their careers through learning new skills as a board member.

What are the solutions?

But knowing all this does not get more women into interviews for board roles, nevermind into board meetings. As far as I know, there is no research into the numbers of women applying for these roles. But as a female sports lawyer, a non-executive director and a regular attendee at sports networking events, I suspect the pool of applicants is really no more than a small puddle.

No matter how great the will, a SGB can’t recruit women if women aren’t applying. Getting more well-qualified women on boards starts with receiving more outstanding CVs. That is why the suggestions below target mainly the application process.

1. Widen the pool

There is a strong case for widening the search for SGB board members, which means reaching out to women who are not already surrounded by sport. To sit as an effective board member, there is no reason why you need to have a day job in sport or frankly even love sport.

An independent board member is there to provide a creative contribution to the board by providing objective criticism (according to the Institute of Directors). Professional skills and judgment are important, not the ability to converse about the football transfer market or cycle a stage of the Etape du Tour. Despite this, board positions are primarily advertised on SGBs’ own websites or the UK Sport site. Clearly, these have a niche audience.

An obvious solution is to advertise positions outside of the sports sector. For example, SGBs should communicate openings to organisations such as ‘Women on Boards,’ which supports women to obtain roles on boards of all kinds. This may attract high quality applicants since capable women (and men) may see a SGB board as a stepping stone towards other board roles outside of the sporting world. Having a wider pool of applicants available may also help SGBs achieve the right skills mix on boards (as well as gender mix).

2. Explain what being on a board means

This sounds simplistic. But, I have spoken to enough women about board roles to know there is both misapprehension and misunderstanding about what being on a board means, and the skills it requires. I have heard talented, professional, bright women say “I don’t have the skills” and ask “what could I bring to a board?

Of course, such comments may expose a wider problem of females under-valuing or not recognising their capabilities. But, the important point is that there is no magic formula for being an effective board member.

There is no pre-determined list of requirements. Different SGBs need to plug different skills gaps at different times. An applicant with skills in marketing, accounting, business, law, fundraising or management (to name a few) has the skills to sit on a board. It is that simple.

3. Showcasing

More should be done to publicise and showcase success stories (as the recent LawinSport piece did so well).

While the WSFF research demonstrates a disappointing gender disparity, the figures do show there are women on SGB boards and in senior roles. Sara Sutcliffe and Lara Hayward (who featured in the LawinSport article) are good examples. There are numerous other positive examples of women sitting on boards, contributing to sports governance at the same time as learning new skills, networking and enhancing their C.V.s.

A well-structured and accessible mentoring scheme would be valuable for women who want to take their first step. The Australian Sports Commission (‘ASC’) has identified the promotion of women in leadership roles in sport as a key priority.12 It maintains a ‘women in sport leadership’ register that provides a free service for qualified women and sporting organisations to connect.

Something similar could be introduced in the UK. Finally, the popular media also has a role in showcasing success stories, thus simultaneously widening the pool of potential applicants.

4. And lastly, think harder about funding being tied to gender-based targets

The Olympic Charter supports equality between men and women in sport at all levels and in all structures.13 But, when it comes to board representation, years of slow progress shows that equality in this sphere is not being achieved through voluntary measures.

The ASC has introduced a set of Mandatory Sports Governance Principles, which include a 40% target for female board representation. Non-compliance with these principles carries funding implications. However, the ASC system has its own weaknesses. The principles are in fact only mandatory for the top state-funded sports; for other sports, the ‘Gender Balance’ principle remains phrased in non-mandatory language (each SGB “should seek to achieve a target of 40 per cent female”).14

As discussed above, part of the problem may be that not enough women put themselves in the running for influential positions in sport. Board appointments must be merit based and that is why SGBs need to work harder to find and recruit quality female candidates.

But if carrots fail to lead to change that is more than incremental (as they have in the UK), there is a case for introducing sticks. The risk of public funding being cut is a genuine stick, as anyone on a SGB board knows.

Sport England’s 25% target by 2017 is one of its key governance criteria and SGBs should have a robust action plan to demonstrate their determination to achieve this. And at the end of 2017, Sport England needs to carefully scrutinise any SGB that has not reached that 25%.

There must be close examination of the reasons for falling short. And if those reasons are simply not good enough then an SGB should know there is a genuine stick (meaning the risk of enforced financial consequences) in the background. This strikes me as the most direct route to change.


Many SGBs are taking active steps to increase female participation in sport.15 The success of the UK’s elite female athletes has been a catalyst for more media exposure. These are positives, although the level of sports media coverage remains very low.16 It is also clear that gender imbalance in SGB governing structures is now firmly on the agenda and there is some recognition that balanced boards make good business sense. But aims and targets must be translated into reality, and as this piece demonstrates, pragmatic and realistic plans are needed to effect change.


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