Women on sports boards

How do you join a sports board, and what’s it really like to be a woman on one?

These were the questions we asked at our ‘Women on Sports Boards’ event with Women in Football and Women on Boards last Thursday as part of Mishcon de Reya’s Women’s Forum. We received thought-provoking answers from our high profile panel comprising Heather Rabbatts CBE, the first woman to be appointed to the board of the Football Association; Julie Harrington, Managing Director of St George’s Park and board member of The British Horseracing Authority; and Sally Bolton OBE, Managing Director, London 2017 World Athletics Championships. The panel was chaired by BBC Sports Correspondent, Natalie Perks and was attended by over 60 people. Here, we outline some insights from this event.

The boards of sports clubs are generally recognised to be even more male dominated than boards in other industries. Few women have shared the success of our panel in breaking through the glass ceiling. So why is it so difficult? In addition to the ‘club culture’ of sports such as football, many women who have managed to establish themselves on sports boards have had to refute long-standing perceptions held by men. It can also be the case that, if you have not played the sport of the club whose board you sit on, your credibility can be challenged.  Our panel felt that as women they had needed to put in more hours and do more preparation in order to be taken as seriously as their male counterparts. As any minority, not just a gender minority, there is a greater degree of attention on you and therefore any mistakes that you may make.

With this in mind, making into onto a sports board as a woman is no mean feat, but as our panellists show, it is possible. How? It’s critical to be passionate about what you’re getting in to and to be aware that it will involve a lot of commitment and hard work. Any attempt to join a board requires careful consideration, it should not be treated as simply the next step on the ladder. The advice from our panel: pick a board that you like, learn as much as you can, approach with confidence, be prepared for rejection and be prepared to try again.

What about the role of quotas? The opinion of our audience and panel was mixed – many felt they would not have liked to secure their jobs as a result of a quota; being the only woman on a board can be daunting enough without being conscious that they are also there to fill a quota. The panel felt strongly that women on boards should not be tokenistic and that positions should be allocated on merit, but they recognised that quotas can open doors that may otherwise remain shut. Other views felt that, by allowing diversity through quotas create more balanced boards, which have been proven to result in better business performance. As is the case in countries like Norway which have enforced quotas, the ‘quota stamp’ eventually wears off and what’s left is greater equality and increased opportunities for future generations.

Once you make it onto a board, your role – along with your fellow board members – is to make a difference, leaving the company in a better state than when you joined it. It is likely that the experiences and skills you have developed, and that have led to you joining the board, are plentiful and valuable – you’ll have needed them to get to this point. There is much you can bring to the table, and selecting your messages and delivering these in a timely and impactful manner is the key to being heard.  Our panel felt that knowing themselves and standing their ground was critical to their own success on sports boards. They also acknowledged their responsibility to advocate for change – particularly when it seems not to be forthcoming.