The Big Debate: Balancing the Boardroom

Getting more women into sport’s major boardrooms: are quotas really the answer?

Sport has long been playing catch up with the commercial world in its attempts to professionalise. It has started to see progress by imitating best practice in core disciplines like marketing, law and broadcasting.

However, one element of sport’s Old Boys Club mentality unfortunately still rings true – the clue is in the phrase – in that our part of the industry is still dramatically under-represented when it comes to women occupying the key positions at boardroom level.

Catalyst Market Research’s survey between 2005 and 2009 showed that the top quartile of Fortune 500 companies by female representation outperformed those in the lowest quartile in terms of sales and return on invested capital.

In an attempt to correct this female under-epresentation, quotas have been mentioned as the most practical method, and the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) was one of the first to embrace explicit numbers.

However, not everyone is so keen, and in other parts of the industry quotas amount to nothing more than a box-ticking exercise. The naysayers prefer to focus on the issue of board members delivering on hard value, rather than worrying about gender.

Major broadcasters and brands need to be convinced by the numbers as they don’t respond to sentiment.

Another part of the puzzle is the risk that board quotas simply shepherd women into non-executive directorships, rather than into executive roles.

Research by Women in Sport into the gender composition of sports governing bodies in England has shown that there is a heavy bias towards females being non-executive directors rather than occupying managerial posts or being performance directors.

However, for those governing bodies like the IAAF, embracing the female quota method has led them to benefit from the halo effect in the eyes of everyone else.

We asked four experts whether they felt quotas were the best way forward, or if there was a better way: 

Leanne Woods. Sports law barrister and trustee for Women in Sport.

It is important to remember that this is not diversity for diversity’s sake

YES …In an ideal world recruitment to sport’s major boardrooms would be merit-based, transparent and provide equal opportunities for men and women. Quotas wouldn’t be part of the conversation. But sport’s boardrooms are far from an ideal world.

At both national and international level, many remain massively imbalanced, despite years of being nudged in the right direction. Men still overwhelmingly dominate sports governance. This is why I believe, somewhat reluctantly, that quotas are the answer. Or rather, quotas are part of the answer.

It is important to remember that this is not diversity for diversity’s sake. Evidence from business shows that balanced boards make better decisions, improve financial performance and increase innovation. 

Sport is at risk of falling behind business in taking diversity seriously. While the UK government has been broadly opposed to fixed quota systems, Germany has taken a bold step in introducing legislation making it compulsory for its biggest businesses to have 30 per cent female supervisory boards.

The arguments against quotas are often that they lead to question marks over a woman’s ability to do the job or to tokenism in recruitment. For a time I subscribed to these. But my view has changed for two reasons.

First, progress is just too slow. Something more needs to be done. I believe that quotas will accelerate change.

Secondly, if a board has proper recruitment strategies in place and targets a diverse audience, then these ‘slights’ should not even arise. High quality female candidates will be available. Recruitment just needs to look beyond the ‘usual suspects’ who are mirror images of other board members who are there already.

Maria Salgado. Head of marketing and communications, Ladies European Tour

Imposing gender quotas help mask the symptoms and do not tackle the cause

NO…Quotas hide the truth. Real cultural change is hard and gender quotas offer a beguilingly simple solution to a complex and difficult problem. But imposing gender quotas on the boards of sports governing bodies help mask the symptoms and don’t tackle the cause. They hand people in executive positions an easy way out.

The other view, to which I subscribe, is that I want to know where the problem is. Who are these people who believe they are doing a great job by excluding half the population from decision making positions? The numbers expose them.

Gender diversity on boards results in better corporate performance on every measure, including finance.

If we look at women’s sports, we find men and women successfully delivering across a plethora of roles: on the pitch, in the locker room as well as in the back office. However, this has not necessarily been the case for women in men’s sports. We are making progress, however, more women on boards would no doubt accelerate this process.

Quotas would certainly “fast track” the benefits that a diverse leadership could bring to any organisation; not only at the board level but throughout the company. Women have the same determination to achieve.

And while their different approach to problems, conflicts, risk and success may differs from that of men, the two styles often complement each other to create balance in an organisation. However, opportunities for women have been slow to manifest in a male dominated sport industry.

Female athletes are delivering the same level that male athletes do and therefore, having an equal representation on boards is key for the growth of women in sport.

Kelly Fairweather CEO, FIH (International Hockey Federation)

There does have to be some mechanism put in place to promote a better representation of women

NO …We need to look at the reasons why there aren’t women coming through the ranks rather than going out and promoting women into senior positions.

Quotas aren’t the answer, but there does have to be some mechanism put in place to promote a better representation of women.

There are a huge amount of capable women working in the business of sport, I just think there’s not enough effort made to give them better opportunities.

It is also important that governing bodies promote gender equality from the top to the very bottom, and when you are an international governing body like ourselves, that means pushing it through the continental federations to the national associations.

We have never had an issue with this. Across our sport – from umpires to FIH board members – we have women represented unequivocally. On our board, seven out of 15 are women.

Eight members of our board are elected; we don’t have any quotas, but what we do have – and this is a subtle-but-important difference – is a statute that says four need to be women and four need to be men so we have equal representation.

We have found those elections have become very competitive and last year we had more women running than men.

The amount of women who work in the sport is related to how strong the women’s game is compared to the men’s.

Our female game is strong and that means a lot of our administrators are former players.

The growth of women’s football and cricket is starting to gain traction so I think further down the line you will start to see more women in executive positions in those sports.

Nick Varley, CEO, Seven46

Until you start putting in a system that encourages women to participate and gives them an opening early on in their careers, then I can’t see any changes at the top of the leadership of sport

YES …My gut reaction is probably the same as many other men who are my age or older, that quotas are a bad thing. However, there’s probably no other way to move the stats on than to have the quotas in place.

If you look at athletics and the IAAF (International Association for Athletics Federations) for example, they have had quotas in place for almost 20 years for the number of women it has on its executive board, and the net result has been an increase of the representation of women in their sport.

One of the first women who was elected on to the IAAF board as a result of that quota was Nawal El Moutawakel (International Olympic Committee vice-president), who was mooted to become the first female president of the Olympic Movement.

Would she have got to that stage without the IAAF’s original quota? Who knows, but certainly when you see a trajectory like hers you can see it did not do her any harm.

However, you are still only looking at 20 per cent of the IAAF being women, and we are saying that is a good result?

Until you start putting in a system that encourages women to participate and gives them an opening early on in their careers, then I can’t see any changes at the top of the leadership of sport.

No-one can argue that it isn’t massively under-represented.

Just look at the FIFA ExCo (executive committee) for example – or whoever is left on it at the moment – it is absolutely terrible how under-represented women are on that board, and there are many other governing bodies that you could say the same thing about.

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