Sara Sutcliffe, CEO of the English Table Tennis Association
Published: 12 Feb 2014
At the beginning of 2014 it would be easy to think that the role of women in leadership positions in British sport has arrived. Five of the most influential roles in British sport are held by women, the Secretary of State, the Minister for Sport, Tourism and Equalities, the CEO of UK Sport, the CEO of Sport England and the Chair of sportscotland. On top of that Debbie Jevans is CEO of England 2015 having previously been the first female Director of Sport at an Olympic Games Organising Committee, London 2012. But it doesn’t take much to scratch below those impressive statistics and we find only one Premiership Club female CEO and whilst Olympic sports fair slightly better with six female CEOs out of 36 sports, it is hardly shattering the glass ceiling. On the performance side, whilst a third of Team GB’s medals were won by women at London 2012 you have to look a lot harder to find many female Performance Directors.
Many National Governing Bodies have only relatively recently come through the transformation from being largely volunteer run bodies and many are still completing the changes to their governance structures to modernise into the business that they now must be. The need to introduce non executive directors on Boards has been slow to be fully accepted and whilst I don’t believe any of the men running British sport do not value the role a woman would play in their leadership team or even as their boss, the opportunities do not present themselves often. It is also not the easiest industry to combine with family commitments as sport is not Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm but in the 21st century that is as much an issue for men as it is women.
Sport England and UK Sport have put in place targets for funded Governing Bodies that by 2017 a third of their Board of Directors should be female (or rather, the under-represented gender just in case a Board is dominated by women) which I see as positive. Whilst I have always been an advocate that it should be the best person for the job irrespective of their gender, I am increasingly of the view that opportunities need to be created that allow women, provided they are suitably qualified, the chance to step out of the shadows and into those roles in an industry that has been and still is male dominated. It is indisputable that a diverse Board in terms or age, background and gender should be a more effective Board.
There are aspects of the sports industry that are well populated by women, not least in-house lawyers in Governing Bodies. That is where my sports administration career started, as Legal Director at the British Olympic Association. Sports medics are equally as likely to be male or female. Likewise in many other functions of a modern governing body such as marketing and communications. However it is in the leadership functions, be it on or off the field of play, where we need to see a greater representation of women.
How do we address the issue? I believe the root of the challenge lies in the fact that many of our sports are male dominated on the field of play. The traditional sports of football, rugby, cricket are still predominately seen as men’s sports, despite fielding very successful women’s teams. One only has to look at the back pages of the national newspaper to have that confirmed. Even in the sports where the coverage has become more balanced such as athletics, swimming, tennis and cycling it is disproportionately the male stars who attract the most coverage and commercial opportunities.
There are many female role models in sport and examples of where women are carving out successful careers for themselves just as in several other traditionally male dominated industries. But we cannot sit back and wait for it to happen on its own, notwithstanding initiatives such as the female Board Director targets. It will still take a determined and concerted effort by women to create and take every opportunity they can in terms of their career path. When I decided to leave the BOA after almost 12 years and off the back of an unforgettable experience at London 2012, it was with the view that I wanted to take on the role of being CEO of a NGB. However I knew that to really challenge myself and to take myself out of my comfort zone, which is what you need to do to progress in any discipline, I needed to find the right opportunity as it wasn’t going to just land on my doorstep. Utilising your network is a priority in most industries and sport is no exception whether you are male or female. I made sure enough people, other NGB CEO’s in particular, knew of my desire to become a CEO so that when the opening came up at the English Table Tennis Association due to the retirement of my predecessor, no fewer than four people in my network alerted me to the opportunity.
I am proud to be part of an industry that is changing, that is embracing the benefits of diversity in its boardrooms and leadership teams. But that change needs to step up a gear and I want to see the media in particular play its role in promoting women’s sport and the role of women both on and off the field and help make it a career route that is truly accessible for many, not just a few.
Sara Sutcliffe is the CEO of the English Table Tennis Association and was formerly the Director of Legal and HR at the British Olympic Association. Sara is also a non executive director of British Gymnastics and GB Taekwondo.