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Women in sport leadership... Are we our own worst enemy?

I suppose I came to sport from an unusual route. It was all Lord Coe’s fault actually. I had been working in the garment manufacturing business for over 20 years, and when I heard he had assumed the leadership role in the bid team for the 2012 Olympic Games, I knew we would win the bid, and decided I wanted to be part of the adventure. 

So, I finished up what I was doing, decided I did not want to carry on making skilled peoples’ jobs redundant for the rest of my working life, took myself off to Loughborough for a year to study for a Masters in Sport and Leisure Management, and ended up in the sport business.

No-one was more astonished than I was that I somehow managed to land a job in sport with no actual experience of it – thank you England Netball, it was a chancy move on your part, and a shot in the dark for me, and I suppose there was the first issue. I had few preconceptions about working in sport, and coming from the clothing industry, where women dominate, especially in the executive design functions, I had no notion that the skills I had picked up over the years in business, product development and sales and marketing would be less valued in sport because of my gender. And of course I picked a female dominant sport to start my career in the sport business in, although the challenges of raising the profile of a sport that still carried the public perception of being a schoolgirls’ game were evident immediately. I saw that as a societal issue though, and more about the media dominance of (mens’) football than overt discrimination against women in sport.

In truth, I don’t think gender has anything to do with it in my case. I don’t remember there ever being a clear plan about how my career would progress, only that I knew I wanted to work in manufacturing industry. Family influence was strong there I think, and I wanted to make something, a product rather than something intangible, and I certainly didn’t want to teach or be an accountant, the classic careers department solution when I was at school “because it’s a good career for a girl”

I suppose that was what set me off on a path where I mostly decided to do what I chose to do, and not to go down a path others deemed acceptable. I think it’s probably not popular to suggest that perhaps women hold themselves back, but I do think I see this. In fact I would be prepared to admit that I have done so myself, choosing to move on from role I was happy in so that my husband (not my current one) could change his own career. 

Having said that, I have never been afraid of ambition, nor worried too much that I don’t fit in to the expectations of others about how women at work, or in life, should behave. I have always felt entitled to both have an opinion and share it, and with this sense of entitlement comes the belief that if I want to do a particular job, there is no gender reason why I should not have a go. Of course, entitlement comes with the responsibilities of bringing the right skills and experience, but the fact that I am a woman has no bearing, to me, on that.

This is not to say that I do not believe gender discrimination exists – of course it does, you just need to look at the number of female chief executives in business and sport to see it. I’m not saying either that women don’t have hard life choices to make.  What I am saying, though, is that women could expose themselves to the risk of success a bit more often – if we don’t even apply for these roles, we are definitely not going to change the gender imbalance. We have just finished a recruitment process for our second BUCS Chair – I am not breaking any confidences when I report that of over 30 applicants, only one was a woman. Who then pulled out before the process was complete. Very disappointing, especially for an organisation with a 50/50 gender split, a woman CEO and 2 women on the board.

I feel like saying "come on, have some confidence and aspiration." I think we should feel entitled to the top roles and act accordingly, do things in our own style, as women in business and sport, and not create our own glass ceiling by finding reasons not to pursue a career dream which are not to do with how good we are.

By Karen Rothery, Chief Executive of BUCS


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