How can sport increase female representation at boardroom level?
by Women in sport: Addressing the disparity
The name Lydia Nsekera will not be a memorable one for most football fans. In fact she is unlikely to have drifted in or out of the consciousness of many outside of Fifa’s Zurich headquarters.
But in 2013, Nsekera from Barundi made history when she became the world governing body’s first female to be elected to their executive committee. It had taken over 100 years for such a position to be offered to a woman. The beautiful game has long been seen as a male dominated industry with a deeply entrenched culture of machoism. But females in decision making roles are rare across the sports industry. The central lesson sport can learn from other businesses are clear: decades of research show that gender diversification at boardroom level make companies more profitable. Gender-diverse boards benefit not only from improved financial performance, but also better governance, increased innovation, and more opportunities for other women within affected companies. Women are also likelier to appeal to female customers.
Lacking female representation
According to a 2011 Catalyst study of Fortune 500 companies, businesses containing higher numbers of female board members significantly outperform those with no female directors. The report showed that nearly 52% of managerial or professional positions were held by women. Yet a CNN Money analysis highlighted how just 14.2% of the top leadership positions in the S&P 500 are held by women. Only 24 female CEOs were identified amongst the 500 companies. The situation is similar across many sports. For example, there are no women on the 14-member board of the International Tennis Federation. Paula Dunn became the first female head coach at British Athletics in 2012. It was not until April 2014 that British Cycling appointed two female non-executive directors. Just one out of 12 board members at the FA is female - Heather Rabbatts, who, in 2012, became the organisation’s first woman to fill such a role for over 150 years, although other women occupy senior roles. The Rugby Football Union (RFU) appointed its second female director recently, while the England Cricket Board (ECB) also has two.
Pipeline of talent
After Sepp Blatter controversially admitted football remains a macho sport in 2013, Moya Dodd, vice-president of the Asian Football Confederation told the Guardian: “I think the lack of women in positions in governance is partly attributable to the fact that there is not the same supply pipeline of ex-players in such volumes and with such longevity in the game…women weren’t able to play the game in so many parts of the world for decades.” Dodd was part of Australia’s 1988 team in Fifa Women’s Invitation Tournament – the predecessor to the Women’s World Cup. “It’s an evolving thing where you get women emerging and graduating from the playing side of the game and into the board rooms. And that’s still a work in progress” she said. This situation has similarly hindered progression in corporate businesses. One of the most significant barriers to entry in decision making roles for women lie in the lack of female talent behind a CEO. Without a pipeline of talent, the numbers of women in leadership roles are unlikely to significant increase. When CNN Money analysed executive positions of chief financial officers, chief operating officers and other key roles at major companies, they found women in just 16.5% of these four positions beneath CEO level in the S&P 500.
While highlighting the financial rewards of gender diversity in the boardroom remains an important way of framing the debate, the threat of sanction may be the most effective solution. In June 2014, the then minister for sports and tourism Helen Grant told Britain’s sports governing bodies that at least a quarter of their board members must be female by 2017 if they are not to risk losing funding (while many governing bodies do not rely on Government money to operate they still receive significant sums to develop sport at grassroots level.) Soon after Grant’s warning, a damning insight from Women on Boards highlighted the difficulty of meeting such a target. Their report, which analysed 600 bodies and 128 National Olympic Committees, revealed the latter had failed to hit a target set prior to the Sydney Olympic Games which stated that at least 20% of all board members must be female by 2005. The federations had only 15% female board representation, while the NOCs fared only slightly better at 16.5%. Federations representing Paralympic sports were the most diverse, with almost 10% more board positions occupied by women. Yet targets are not being met in other countries and problems are not just related to governing bodies. Boardrooms within clubs are also failing to include sufficient numbers of women. In Australia, a target of 40% female representation on sports boards was set in 2012.Three years later, figures showed that the majority of the nation's top 15 funded sports failed to meet this aim. The Australian Football League (AFL), which is the country’s best funded organisation, has only one club in its 18-team competition that hits the 40% mark for female directors. Of the 150 AFL club director roles, only 25 are occupied by women. Such a lack of progress in this area has forced some to believe that quotas will be the only resolution. England Rugby chief Debbie Jevans told the Guardian last year:“…Across the boards of business and sport there isn't the right percentage of females…if you look at a number of sports where often women are as successful as men, they're not represented. Why is that?" She added: “I'm not a quota fan because I think it's a cop out, but…we do maybe need to do that to force businesses and federations – at the same time demonstrating how they're changing their culture and what that career pathway is for women and demonstrating that there aren't any glass ceilings. The two need to work in hand in hand."
Indeed evidence from the world of business suggests legal quotas may be required. European corporate companies, particularly in Scandinavia (according to a 2015 Catalyst report, 29.9 percent of Finnish board seats are occupied by women), have the highest female representation. In 2003, just 9% of Norwegian board members were women. But with the introduction of a quota system, the numbers gradually increased. The law, which was intended to affect around 500 companies, was met with fierce lobbying from businesses opposed to the changes. Around a fifth even changed their corporate governance structure to effectively bypass the law. Yet today over 40% of all board members in Norway are female. It will likely be a similar story in Germany. By 2016, it will become a legal requirement for 30% of non-executive supervisory board seats at 114 German listed companies to be held by women.
There are other causes for optimism. Through voluntary efforts to increase female board representation on the UK's 100 largest listed companies, the proportion increased from 12.5% last year to 15.6% this year, and it is hoped figures will reach 30% within four years. But if this upward trend is not maintained, quotas may be necessary. However, sport continues to be a heavily male dominated industry with no significant change on the horizon. Introducing a quota system can create a culture of box ticking and token gestures. Yet if draconian measures work in other businesses, they can succeed in sport.
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