The business of sport has been historically male dominated. How do you see that scenario having evolved?
Well I’ve been in the business now for almost 30 years depending upon when we start counting and without question during this period of time there hasn’t been a lot of evolution for women in leadership positions in sport. We feel good about the future but where we are today, women are highly unrepresented in sport particularly in leadership positions.
You have made a very successful transition within the sports industry from a former athlete into a business woman. Were any of the challenges you had to face in this progress gender related?
In the early days of my career I faced more biased towards my age because I was quickly rising through the ranks, but deemed as perhaps too young and then when I got to my early thirties then the gender issue started to arise particularly when I started to have a family. I think at that time I was looked at a little differently and questions were asked of me that would not have been asked of men. “How will you do this job with two children?” and my response was “Well, the last person had three children and he managed just fine.”
So there has been that issue and because I was the only woman tournament director in the masters series group, I can remember those early days of learning, observing, and getting the results, and certainly getting the results earned me the respect as any man or woman should within an the industry.
Sport England and UK Sport have set targets for their funded governing bodies to have 25% of their board of directors constituted by the underrepresented gender by 2017. What is your take on quotas? Is this something sport organizations at large should be looking at?
I think it’s a really difficult question and if I am honest I am not sure I have grappled with my own opinion, but what I do know is that women are underrepresented in sport, in all industry, and in government, and something needs to be done to have more women involved.
Ideally we would like targets that are voluntary and that businesses see the integration of diversity as not only the right thing to do but the smart thing to do. The research is there – gender balanced boards, corporations and senior management teams produce greater return on investments, greater shareholder value.
So in a perfect world I would love to see that quotas aren’t necessary, but I do think we’re perhaps at a point in time to spark this discussion where we have action and not lip service. In our own sport (tennis) the International Tennis Federation does not have a single woman on their board and I know they are not happy about that. It is due to the government model so they are looking at that and how they can make sure they have female representation. Tennis is the sport of equality, so even in our own sport we have work to do.
Although more women are increasingly getting involved in the business of sport few have progressed into leadership positions. What do you believe is and has been the greatest impediment for women progressing their careers within the business of sport?
I think it takes a proactive approach and a goal within an organization to say we want diversity. Whether that’s gender, whether that’s race, you got to really work at it to provide younger women with those opportunities. To say that they don’t have the experience is one thing, but if they are not given the opportunities then they will never get the experience. So it takes leadership within the organizations to make it a goal and I think we need critical mass, at least 30-35% until we can really kick start.
At this point in time we are going to rely on a lot of men to make the difference because they are in these leadership positions, they are the decision makers. And this cuts across all industries, not just sport. Critically, for gender diversity to improve, it will require men and women working together.
In looking at the past and how the role of women has developed what do you diagnose for the future?
Well I am very optimistic that we will have more women in sport and more women in leadership positions in sport, and I have that confidence because I believe the research is there to support that having gender diversity improves the bottom line.
In the sports industry, taking the fan base growth, more and more leagues are looking for improved engagement from the female consumer. More and more brands are looking to communicate with women as key decision makers, as a part of the She-economy. So by default economic growth, the sports industry is going to need additional women in the organization and to be relevant to female consumers as well.
When I go and speak at MBA programs I am thrilled to see a good balance of men and women and that pipeline will come. I was with Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox, this past summer and she said “It’s going to take time, the pipeline is coming” – so we are in this period of time where the pipeline will come, but what do we do for those that are in director positions today to get more women?
At the moment, I believe I am the only woman that is running a professional international sport worldwide - and that is just not right and that can’t be the way it is in 2014. I’m optimistic about the future and see my role and part of my responsibility to mentor and to go out into the MBA programs to demonstrate my success so that other women too can enjoy it and actually perform better than I will!
Questions answered by Stacey Allaster, Chair and CEO of the Women's Tennis Association.