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Engine Sport’s Lisa Parfitt: 30% isn’t enough

For International Women’s Day, we spoke to leading figures within the sports industry and asked them to reflect on Beyond 30%, Women in Sport’s report on workplace culture in sport. We’re sharing highlights from these interviews ahead of their wider release.

Lisa Parfitt, Managing Director of sports marketing agency Engine Sport, formerly known as Synergy Sport, discusses the positive changes Engine has made to improve gender balance and the challenges that remain in the industry.

Is the culture of sport impeding women’s progress?

It’s such a broad question, because the sports sector is multifaceted no one-sector of the sports industry is immune to negative culture. However, from my perspective in the commercial & marketing sector I would say largely on the whole no. The culture of sport has hugely changed in the commercial sector as a response to what’s happening on the pitch and regarding how women are perceived and the opportunities available to women. In my experience I’ve seen enormous strides forward and women are absolutely recognised for their expertise and talent within the commercial sector and because they bring a different perspective. I think there has been positive impact as a result because of a generational and cultural shift towards a more equal society.

How has your organisation improved its culture?

At Engine we have a programme called ‘Better with Balance’ which has been in place for around three years. The objective of the programme is to have 50/50 male-female leaders in the business. The research we have from our own business is that the gender split up to middle management is pretty equal. It’s at a senior level where we start to see a significant drop off and this is reflected in lots and lots of other businesses. The programme has a number of strands chosen based on the barriers for women to leadership positions that we’ve identified and to ensure that we achieve gender parity. It’s about supporting women at various different points in their career, and the ‘Get In’ pillar is about how do we present ourselves as a diverse workplace? For example at Engine Sport we’ve reviewed our job descriptions because it’s very easy in sport to make them sound competitive and aggressive but that tone doesn’t necessarily appeal to women. Our ‘Get Back’ pillar supports women to come back from maternity leave, not only when they come back but also before they leave to make sure they have clear career plans, goals and so they know the business really welcomes and supports them back to the workplace. There’s a ‘Get On’ programme which is a leadership, development and mentor programme for women within the business. What that’s done is created a group of women and men, allies, who are actively supporting the talented women in the business.

What changes could be made to go beyond the 30% gender diversity quota that was brought in by UK Sport as part of the new Code for Sports Governance?

It should be more than 30%. I know there is ambition within that 30% and I know there are governing bodies that are still falling considerably below that, but I don’t think 30% is enough. I think we should be looking at 50%. Organisations need to be made more accountable for the action plans and programmes they have in place to support women, like Engine’s Better with Balance. Sadly, organisations are still riddled with unconscious bias, why shouldn’t those that are publicly funded ensure that everyone undertake unconscious bias training? We all have blind spots based on our upbringing and lifestyle, but we can’t do anything to combat them until we know what they are. I think there could be initiatives like that that we could be tougher to enforce within publicly funded organisations to make sure they’re really uncovering their blind spots to gender.

Several top female leaders in British sport will be leaving their posts this year, do you think this will have an effect?

There’s going to be natural churn and there’s always going to be people starting & leaving roles. My hope is that the women that are stepping down from roles will move on to somewhere else and have a positive impact wherever they go. I absolutely believe that you have got to ‘see it to be it’. Women and men need to see other successful women who are inspirational and aspirational leaders.

But, I it’s almost as important that there’s a healthy pipeline of women for those leadership roles. The most senior people in roles ie the CEO, aren’t always the ones that feel the most achievable for most women. It feels quite far off, a long way to go. I think it’s important that we start to look at the roles beneath the CEOs and to make sure we are building those women’s profiles. There are some incredible women in those roles across the industry, roles that feel more attainable and achievable for other women. I know lots of amazing women in the with in the marketing & commercial sector and we have brilliant relationships, I think sports industry could be doing more to support them too.

With the announcement of the new RFU CEO, I don’t think there was enough mentioned about how Jo Manning Cooper was leaving the RFU to go to Sky, she has made an incredible impact on the Sports Industry and I think it’s a shame that didn’t get enough attention.

We’ve recently been working on a new women’s sport project and we’ve been exploring the interesting concept of zero-sum sexism, the idea that if a woman advances a man becomes oppressed. It’s beautifully illustrated by the classic case on International Women’s Day of those people that come out and say, ‘when’s International Men’s Day?’… ‘If I don’t get something I’m worse off’. I think we’ve seen a real change in that in culture, particularly in young people. There’s many more male allies that support (gender) diversity and I think we will see a major shift in the culture of the sports industry as a Gen Z enters the workplace.