What’s Next? Ruth Holdaway on International Women’s Day

March 2019

This International Women’s Day I’m preparing for an international adventure of my own. In May I will leave Women in Sport, after five and a half wonderful (and challenging!) years, for a new role as Chief Executive of Tennis Victoria, in Australia. I will now have to practice what I preach. No more demands for more women in leadership roles in sport – I’m upping the numbers myself as the first female CEO of Tennis Victoria.

I’m also reflecting, of course, on whether I have ‘shifted the dial’ (apologies for the cliché) when it comes to creating gender balance in sport’s leadership more broadly.

It’s impossible to know for sure, but putting the issue of leadership aside for a moment, one thing I can be sure of is that my successor will enter a very different women’s sport landscape than the one I entered in 2013.

There has been unquestionable progress, and the drivers for this are many and varied:

  • Brilliant female athletes breaking though in increasing numbers, despite still not being funded to anything like the levels of their male colleagues
  • A ‘perfect storm’ with women leading sport at the national policy level: a moment when we had a female Secretary of State, Sports Minister and CEOs of both Sport England and UK Sport
  • Unsung heroes, like Lisa Parfitt at Synergy Sponsorship and Sally Horrocks now of Y-Sport previously the FA, quietly and effectively promoting and selling the women’s game to sponsors. By helping brands understand women’s sport as a smart investment they’ve raised the profile, and the value, of women’s sport.
  • Leaders in their own field, like Clare Balding and Helena Morrisey, using their influence to achieve ‘firsts’ like the women’s Boat Race; rivalling the excitement and thrill of the men’s race, on the tideway, on BBC 1, on the same day. And then there is the biggie! In January 2015 women across the UK laughed and cried when, for what felt like the first time ever, they saw themselves – their everyday normal selves – finally represented playing sport on the telly as This Girl Can was launched. This hugely successful behaviour change campaign led to 2.8 million women getting active (according to Sport England’s figures). It’s so great to see Women in Sport’s 35 years of research and insight supporting initiatives like this.Sport has been brave. It has been bold. It is now a requirement that any organisation in receipt of public funds from Sport England or UK Sport must have a minimum of 30% of either gender on the board. Government may not want to describe this as a ‘quota’ – but I will, because it is, or it will be if Government and the funding bodies are true to their word and reduce funding to organisations who do not meet this standard within the next year or so. I’m proud of Women in Sport’s audits, like Trophy Women? and Beyond 30% bringing transparency to the pitiful number of female leaders in the sector. I’m proud of Women in Sport’s surveys and focus groups bringing the issues to life. And I’m proud of Women in Sport’s focused campaign for this 30% requirement to exist. Thanks to the ongoing support and funding of Comic Relief, now in its 4th year, Women in Sport is moving into a new phase of this work. In 2018, 40% of the women we surveyed told us that they feel undervalued in the sport workplace because of their gender. Nearly half the women we spoke to! How can this be accepted? It has to change. I will watch with interest from a tennis court on the other side of the world – and I’ll be doing my bit as a female leader deep in the grassroots of sport myself. So, allow me to leave you with one challenge – what could you do to support Women in Sport to drive the culture change needed for not only gender diversity, but for women to thrive? Do feel free to start with making a donation. Thank you.
  • 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, the Charity will work to enable women to thrive, influence and lead in sport. By definition, with greater diversity comes greater difference and perspectives, which can slow down or influence decision making in ways that is challenging for organisations to adapt to. Preparing all leaders to engage women and embrace diversity is critical – and Women in Sport will now address this challenge and support the sector to change.
  • And it’s good to be proud – but if you’re not careful, pride comes before a fall – something I’d very much like to avoid! So, I readily admit there is more, much more, to do.
  • This change certainly doesn’t have the Pizzazz of something like the This Girl Can campaign – but I believe it will be just as transformational. The evidence is clear, with more diverse boards will come not only fairness, but better decision making too [1].
  • But I started with women in leadership roles in sport – and it is here that I am proud to have been part of something I believe history will reflect as a tectonic shift.
  • I could go on…

1. McKinsey & Company (2007), Women Matter: gender diversity, a corporate performance driver. Joy,L., Carter,N.M., Wagener, H.M., Narayanan, S (2007), The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women’s Representation on Boards. Catalyst