NGO: Balanced gender leadership in sport has ‘business benefits’

Sports organisations should strive towards better gender balance among their top executives, as women can generate new business by generating increased 'consumer' understanding and different arguments, says Amanda Bennett, chair of the European Women and Sport group, in an interview with EURACTIV. 

Amanda Bennett is chair of European Women and Sport (EWS). She is also responsible for integrating equality into policies and programmes at UK Sport

She was speaking to Outi Alapekkala.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

What do you expect of the EU competence on sport regarding women and sport?

There are two things: potential achievements for sport involving women, and there specific things the European Women and Sport (EWS) can do. The EWS is a named partner in the Women's International Leadership Development (WILD) programme, which the EU has agreed to fund across seven EU countries for €250,000. 

This is a strategic investment in developing not just women as leaders but women operating in their sport organisations and influencing those organisations to improve the provisions for women. Over the next 2-3 years, the EWS will be helping to propagate, disseminate and promote the programme. 

The original concept of WILD was designed by me and a colleague in the UK. It was delivered in the UK during a three-year period and it was so successful that CCPR – the UK national alliance of governing and representative bodies of sport and recreation – approached ENGSO [European Non-Governmental Sports Organisation], who said 'we need to run this programme across Europe' and we have no reached a multiplier effect. 

What is the Women's International Leadership Development (WILD) programme about?

WILD operations are managed by ENGSO through CCPR. EWS is also a supporting partner in the WILD programme. 

There are three benefits to this programme. One is increasing the confidence and the competence of women leaders so that they can go to sport organisations at national level and become more scaled, better able and more confident. Second, they will then influence their organisations in a way that the organisations will be better governed and have a different style of creativity. 

Do you mean that sports organisations are better governed if there are women?

If they have balanced leadership, they are better organisations. This has been proven in the private and commercial sectors. The most successful companies, those that make the most money, are those which have men and women at the highest levels because they understand the consumer and bring a different style of leadership and business arguments. 

So, talking about societal factors, sports organisations need to see the business benefits of having a balanced leadership. And this is strategic, because that will then influence the decisions sport organisations take about their participants, culture and education. 

We can ask 'what is a good club?' A good club is not just about having a lot of people participating with coaches, with some of the athletes going to national level. A good club engages men and women, younger and older. And in order to do that you need to change the way your club operates. Having women and men at the top of a sport can influence the decisions that affect the grassroots. So this investment by the EU is strategically smart, because it has multiple benefits. 

So, EU funding for WILD is a good example of using EU money wisely?

Yes, for two reasons. First, independent evaluation of the programme shows that unequivocally, without doubt, the programme has worked. It has worked for the women and it has worked for the sports organisations. So we can demonstrate the training events, mentoring, international experience, building networks – these things don't just help women, they also help the sport organisations. 

We therefore have hard evidence and that is really important. Just saying 'balanced leadership is a good thing' will not get you anywhere. You need hard evidence, and we have that, and the EU has made the right decision to finance expansion of this programme. 

In the UK, the programme is currently funded by UK Sport. The EU funding will allow the UK and six other countries to expand the programme. 

What about your partner countries?

We are seven countries, but it is about the national sport organisations, such as the French Cycling Organisation and the Hungarian Swimming Association. People in those national sport organisations can be in the programme and also have a chance to connect at European level, come together and share experiences. This means that you have a European-wide network, increased cultural awareness, sharing of best practices and, after, everybody goes back to their organisations. This is why I say it is strategically a very wise investment. 

But sport organisations have to put something in. It is not a case where you say 'here is some money from the EU: go away and be a brilliant leader'. It doesn't work that way. The sport organisations need to give the women the time, they need to release them to training events and make sure they put them in situations that are going to challenge them. 

Women receive training, they have workshops and they network within their sport. Their sport has to commit to putting them in meetings and events and giving them presentation opportunities. So, sport has to help develop them as well because sport gets the benefits. 

If an organisation has skilled, confident and competent individuals, it has to make sure it makes the most out of it. But what we have discovered is that there are competent skilled women in sport organisations, but the sport organisations are not making the most out of it. They are not maximising the talent – even though the sport would be better off then. 

What do you think are the main barriers to women's participation in sport and is it true that women practice less sport?

Statistically we don't have enough information across Europe. There is supposed to be a UNESCO observatory in Greece, but we are still waiting for the Greek ministry to actually set it up. But UNESCO and the Greek government have agreed that there will be an observatory on women's sport, and it will monitor women's involvement in sport globally, participation, and leadership culturing. 

We need this information because we need the evidence to say a) the situation is good or bad and b) here are some ideas for solutions. Women want to be involved in clubs but they have less time, less money, they're less likely to drive a car and more likely to opt for public transport, more likely to take care of children, etc. There is nothing new here. 

But the point is that saying 'it is true there are all these are societal factors' and 'isn't it a shame that women have all these things they need to deal with' doesn't lead anywhere. 

Wake up! Sport can do things like provide child care. It can do things like make it cheaper for women to be a member of a sport club. It can provide different kinds of participations in competition and creation. Women are competitive. There are plenty of competitive women out there. So let them go to the competition pathways. 

But there are plenty of women who don't want competition. There are women who would be great leaders and coaches, but they just want to take their child to the club. However, instead of sitting down and reading a book or knitting, they could be on their feet leading a group on a Sunday morning. 

But it is very common that you see the dads doing that – sons and fathers, why not daughters and mothers? Meanwhile, clubs can do this. They can run programmes and promote these things. It is not about saying 'the door is open and if the women don't walk through it is their fault'. We need to change our mindsets on this. 

The women and leadership programme is an excellent example where sports organisations have done something specific to bring more women as participants and club members here and as sports leaders there. Just saying 'if you are good enough you'll be just fine' does not work. You need to do something in particular to make sport women-friendly. 

What do you think of positive discrimination?

Positive discrimination? No, absolutely not. Positive discrimination in the EU and in the UK is illegal. You cannot appoint anybody voluntarily or in paid employment simply because they are women, a man, disabled or of ethnic minority. There is no support from the basis that just because she's a woman, 'get her in the committee'. 

What you want is better recognition of the skills of a woman. There is research that shows that women have to work harder in business, education, health and sport. It is about societal factors that we tend to find not just in sport. We appoint or recruit people we want to recruit people that are like us because it makes us comfortable. 

And you'll find that organisations mainly run by women will most likely recruit a woman and they'll say 'she fits in, she meets the person specification'. I'm always very nervous about 'she fits in'. 

It is better to have a more diverse and creative population on a board in a company which should be progressive. If everybody is the same it'll come to a standstill and as an organisation you'll stop evolving. So we need to make sure that people who are elected, appointed or recruited are skilled and have good experience, whatever the person specification is and not just because she is a woman. 

Because if you do it, the rest of the people around the table will resent that and it will be very difficult to get anything done then. So, to conclude I'm for positive action, but not for positive discrimination. 

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