Women in Sport: A Game of Two Halves








Kathryn Nawrockyi, Director Opportunity Now discusses the fundamental attitude change needed in sport. 

The World Cup will kick off in just a few hours, but it’s been a game of two halves for women in sport recently – from Andy Murray appointing Amelie Mauresmo as his new coach, to the Richard Scudamore sexist email scandal. With Sports Minister Helen Grant’s announcement that funding could be cut for English football, cricket and rugby’s governing bodies unless they appoint more women, it’s become an increasingly pressing issue.

I recently attended the Women’s Sport Trust’s #BeAGameChanger event, which brought together sports professionals, business leaders and the media, challenging the audience to raise the profile of female role models, dramatically increase media coverage and change the funding landscape of women's sport for good. Currently women’s sport receives just 0.4% of commercial investment, and 7% of media coverage. With one hiding behind the other to justify why those numbers are not higher, it will take true game changers to shift the status quo.

It occurred to me that not only can business influence the sporting world through responsible investment and sponsorship, but that there is also much that sport can learn from business about how to accelerate change for women. 

For starters, sport needs to fix the leaks in the talent pipeline. UEFA recently launched a women’s leadership programme, but other high-profile women in football have spoken out about the need for more efforts in this area, including mentoring. It’s a start, but it’s not enough. Our annual benchmarking report highlights the most effective actions taken by employers to attract and retain female talent, ranging from instructing recruiters to provide diverse candidate slates, to training all employees in how to recognise and manage their unconscious bias, particularly when making hiring and promotion decisions.

Opportunity Now’s Project 28-40 report also found that many women wanted their organisations to get the basics right, with proper support from their line managers – who in turn need support from senior staff about how to manage diverse teams – and through better performance management and career development. Our Inclusive Leadership research shows how organisations can create change in their leadership culture and help managers to recognise their team’s diverse needs and make the best use of their talents.

But the most fundamental thing that’s needed is to change attitudes to women in sport. A survey by Women in Football earlier this year found that two-thirds of women had witnessed sexism in the football workplace, with some being told they would ‘never work in the game again’ if they reported it. Project 28-40 found that there can often be a culture of fear around reporting bullying and harassment, which is why it’s vital for managers to make it simple and straightforward to report, as well as dealing with perpetrators. By reinforcing that this is not OK, we will hopefully see a change in attitudes that will help women progress further in the sector.

The group that can play the biggest role in driving these changes is the senior leaders in sport, who are overwhelmingly male. The problem, however, is perception; Project 28-40 found that men do not see the barriers to women’s progression that women do. Senior leaders must take the lead on making the attraction and retention of women a core priority – for example, make the executive team formally accountable for increasing female progression. This will signal that they are serious about this issue and that the organisation values all its people, making it a better place to work for everyone.

If we’re ever going to get to the point where it’s not unusual for a woman to be in charge in sport, then we need the people in the sector’s top jobs to take responsibility for addressing the situation. Because until it takes action to tackle this issue, the industry will just keep on scoring own goals.