Michelle Chai, Technical & Competitions Director of the Arabian Gulf Football League
What is your view on the growing influence of women in a historically male-dominated industry?
I think it’s great that more women are now involved in sports in general and specifically for myself, in football. However, I do believe that there is still a long way to go. Particularly if we are talking about “influence”. It is true that more and more women are getting into the sports industry but how many are making an impact or having an influence?
How has this scenario evolved and how has this progress impacted the sports industry?
We definitely have progressed. I believe that participation in sports is a first step of having more women in the sports industry. A woman is more likely to be involved in the sports industry if sports had featured in the early stages of her life. So, it’s like the pyramid – if we have a larger base of women participation in sports, some will move upwards into the sports industry and from there, some will have the chance to move into more influential levels of the sports industry. Compared to 50 years ago where in a number of countries, participation of women in sports is frowned upon, in the last Olympic Games, all participating countries were represented by female athletes and I think at the grassroots level, things will only improve.
Although a growing number of women are getting involved in the business of sport, few have progressed to leadership positions. To what do you attribute this imbalance?
Fear! Historically, men occupy these leadership positions and if you look at any board of federations, these are made up of men. It takes courage for them to appoint a woman into these leadership positions and in some cases, appointing a woman would mean one less spot for men. Sports is a microcosm of the society and if you look at society in general, even in other industries or in politics, how many women are in leadership positions?
Further in a culture such as in West Asia where men and women do not mix as freely as in Europe, it can be a disadvantage for an organisation that has a woman in a leadership position while majority of the management are men. Often networking and relationships are made during social events or get-together in the evenings, but where mixing of gender is not readily acceptable, this can be a disadvantage in case a company appoints a woman to the top position.
You mentioned men and women not mixing freely in some cultures such as in West Asia. How is this scenario reflected in the Arabian Gulf League?
Within the official working environment, women and men mix freely and both genders respect and accept each other. However, after working hours, the mixing of men and women can still be frowned upon. As an example, in this region, the concept of a “majlis” during the evening is quite common. A majlis is where people gather at the home of an individual to socialise, mix, have dinner and usually last about 2-3 hours. This “majlis” setting though is almost usually gender-specific. So, a man can only hosts other men in his majlis and similarly a woman can only hosts women in her majlis. I have been in situation where my male colleagues invited other management personnel but have not invited me. When asked, the reply was “but it’s only for men. I can’t invite another woman to sit with all the men”. Some would argue that this is an after office-hour setting, however, as we know, many networking / relationship and often groundwork for decisions are taken in such a setting.
What are the potential benefits of more women occupying leadership roles in sports organisations?
I don’t think it’s a case of whether it should be a man or a woman in a leadership role. The only factor that should be taken into account is one’s abilities. Obviously men and women think in a different way – one not necessarily better than the other. Therefore, whether it’s a man or woman, they each will bring with them different qualities.
Sport England and Sport UK have recently set targets for their funded governing bodies to address gender imbalance by 2017. What is your take on quotas? Is this something sport organizations at large should be looking at?
We have to be careful with quota. If you are certain that you have capable women but opportunities are not provided for them, then I think we should have a quota. From my experience, once people have worked with you, they will judge you by your abilities and not whether you are a man or woman.
The main challenge is how do you convince them, before they had a chance to directly work with you, that you, as a woman, is equally if not more capable than the man sitting next to you. Particularly when you are in male dominated sports, it can be difficult for a woman to get that opportunity. This is where a quota would work – an opportunity. But after that, if the woman cannot perform, then she shouldn’t be kept there just for the sake of quota.
If people put women in position just to fill a quota or just to follow a trend or because their organisation is under pressure, often it doesn’t work. If you have a board of 20 people, and you have a quota of 2 women, it is possible that these 2 women would just be marginalised during these board meetings.
Looking at the past and present, what do you diagnose for the future of women in sports?
Definitely it would be better. Society across many more countries would accept women’s participation in sports. As society in general begins to appreciate that men and women are different but yet equal in their value, we will hopefully start to see those women with capabilities and abilities be given their deserved opportunities at the top of the sports industry.