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Sport and equality charity takes aim at 'pitiful' number of women in senior roles

Jeremy Wilson
UK Sport chief executive Liz Nicholl has found that the wider culture of sport is still impeding women’s progress. - Action Images

A leading sport and equality charity has launched an initiative to tackle the culture and “pitiful” representation of women in sports leadership positions after research found that 40 per cent of women working in the industry felt undervalued.

Women in Sport also interviewed some of the most influential women working in sport as part of its research and, following a commitment in 2017 that all publicly funded sports bodies must target 30 per cent boardroom gender diversity, it is beginning a two-year focus on transforming cultures.

UK Sport, the body that oversees elite funding for Olympic and Paralympic sports, has already introduced “culture checks” in surveys of athletes and support staff. During feedback at UK Sport’s annual conference, chief executive Liz Nicholl also found that the wider culture of sport was still impeding women’s progress.

“Over the last couple of years I have worked with women in the high-performance system and asked them how they’re feeling and what it is that is actually stopping them stepping up into more senior roles,” said Nicholl.

The feedback included a desire to see more role models of successful women such as Nicholl in senior roles, a feeling that there could be an unconscious bias in recruitment processes and that there needed to be better understanding and more opportunities for flexible working.

Other key findings from Women in Sport’s “beyond 30 per cent” research, which was first published last year, was that 38 per cent of women working in sport had experienced discrimination in the workplace and 34 per cent felt their professional performance was judged by sporting ability. Only 46 per cent believed that there was a fair and equal treatment of men and women in their organisation.

Ruth Holdaway, who will soon leave her position as chief executive of Women in Sport after six years, said she was proud to help bring “transparency to the pitiful number of female leaders in the sector”.

She added: “In 2018, 40 per cent of the women we surveyed told us they feel undervalued in the sport workplace because of their gender. How can this be accepted? It has to change. Women in Sport’s emphasis will now be the culture of the sport workplace. Identifying good practice from within and outside the sport sector, testing its impact and providing practical support.”

Dame Katherine Grainger, chair of UK Sport and the first British woman to win medals at five ­successive Olympic Games, highlighted a challenge to get more female coaches in high-performance sport. “There’s a big movement [at UK Sport] to create opportunities for athletes to become coaches once they leave their sport,” she said. “We’ve also got a leadership programme and there’s a big push to make sure we’ve got a complete mix of men and women.”