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Liz Nicholl: All too often the culture in organisations is allowed to develop and go unchecked

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.

Liz Nicholl, the outgoing Chief Executive of UK Sport, shares her thoughts on the advancements that have been made during her tenure at the top of British sport.

Has the culture of sport impeded women’s progress?

I know for a fact that it has been because 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 is it that is actually stopping them stepping up into more senior roles. We have an annual conference where about 300 people from across the system get together and we’ve had open sessions where we get to hear from women.

These women said they thought there were several things holding women back in the high-performance system. They wanted to see more role models of women that had been successful and managed to get to the top in various roles. Secondly, they wanted more networking opportunities and some support to be able to discuss common issues. Thirdly, they thought that there were potential barriers at the recruitment point, with recruitment processes often led by men and there is potential for unconscious bias. They also said there needed to be better understanding and more opportunities for flexible working. In terms of culture, they said they wanted a more developmental culture which is really interesting because it came in advance of some cultural issues being raised by athletes, particularly by women athletes.

So, we’ve done a lot of work over the last 12 to 18 months on culture in high-performance programmes to help address some of these concerns, e.g we have culture health checks in the form of surveys of athletes and support staff to help create a positive winning culture. We don’t want to lose that winning culture but we want to create a positive winning culture. This approach shines a light on what is working well and provides an early warning system to highlight problems and issues so that sports can see what needs to be done and can take action. That has been incredibly helpful in pointing out to the high-performance system, and each individual sport, areas where they can better and areas where athletes and staff are saying they want to see some change. I hope we can create an environment that will see more talented women come through.

What is an example of poor culture?

I would say the one thing that everybody has to work on is creating an environment where everyone is able to give and receive feedback in a constructive way- the permission to ‘call it when you see it’. All too often the culture in organisations is allowed to develop and go unchecked. I think that’s probably the most powerful thin that everybody needs to work on. When it feels uncomfortable it is uncomfortable and therefor it needs to be raised and called.  

Are there any schemes or programmes that are being delivered by NGBs to create a pipeline for female leaders?

Centrally, we have an athlete coach programme and we have a future leaders programme. We are seeing more women coming through on both programmes. Many governing bodies don’t have the resources to invest a huge amount into personal development and so our central programmes are important. Over the last year we have also created a new People Development Strategy which includes objectives to attract talented individuals from diverse backgrounds and rewarding and compelling career paths, to drive transformational leadership and management practices and to further embed a high-performance culture that creates inspiring learning environments.  

What changes would you like to see?

Diversity on boards has significantly improved over the last few years and The Code for Sport Governance has helped with that. I think where we need to see a step up, from UK Sport’s perspective, is on the senior leadership teams within sport, particularly within the world-class programmes in sport. We should get to the stage where we expect to see at least one woman on a senior leadership team in a high-performance programme. We should ensure that there is never a situation where there isn’t a good balance of male and female on recruitment panels. I think those are areas where we still need to take a step up.  

We mustn’t stop talking about this. It’s really important. International Women’s Day allows us to reflect and think ‘have we really made any progress in the last year’?