What Is The Invisible Barrier For Women in Sport?
“Despite the many social and organisational benefits of advancing women in leadership within the sporting sector, Australian sporting clubs and organisations have been slow to catch on. Why? The sporting sector faces a number of cultural and structural barriers that affect women’s aspirations and opportunities for promotion or employment within the sporting sector.
Cultural barriers to gender equality come in the form of social attitudes, practices and beliefs that reinforce ideas about what men and women should and shouldn’t do. Their commonplace in our daily lives causes us to view them as ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ and prevents us from questioning their presence. For this reason, gender inequality is largely invisible, making it a difficult issue to tackle.”
Advancing Women in Sport: Moving Gender Diversity from Conversation to Action
The Default Mode
“Whether you’re a sideline reporter, a commentator, a player – grassroots or professional — or even a leader, if you’re a woman in sport, chances are you’ve been made to feel like a lesser citizen at some point.” – Fleta Page
The backlash that reporter Fleta Page received when tweeting about cricketer Chris Gayle’s inappropriate behaviour towards female reporter Mel McLaughlin in 2016, as well as McLaughlin’s own experience in the matter, is indicative of stubbornly entrenched attitudes towards women in the sporting sector. To coin a phrase from Page’s twitter feed, “default mode dickhead” is unfortunately still all too common in sport. This attitude, which has been widely accepted as boys will be boys or that’s just the way it is, is one of the invisible barriers that women who aspire to leadership positions in sport face.
Whilst Chris Gayle’s attitude was publicly overt, less obvious attitudes (invisible) play out daily in sports (and non-sports) workplaces everywhere. If you’ve heard any of the statements below, then it’s definitely time for the leaders of the organisation to undertake a cultural pulse check. Failure to act will mean women in your organisation are more than likely to be feeling like lesser citizens, every day.
The Invisible Barriers
Our research tells us that women are less likely than men to feel welcome and fully included in the sporting sector. Despite women in sport being very committed and very passionate about their role and the contribution they are making through a career in sport, women sport have lower levels of job satisfaction and higher rates of job turnover. In an environment where the race for top female talent hots up, this is bad news for leaders. Because a lack of women, or the ability to attract and retain top female talent will cost the organisation dearly.
For decades, sports organisations and clubs have organised themselves around the values and experiences of men. This obviously means that whilst the environment suits and meets the needs of male participants and employees, it may not be meeting the needs of girls and women. Consider these questions that are based on our research and the lived experience of women (including myself):
- Are the facilities female friendly? Do you have segregated shower cubicles? Do you have sanitary items and bins in toilets? Are there sufficient toilets for the number of women in the organisation? Are there gender-neutral baby change facilities? Is there a clean space (not a toilet) available for breast-feeding?
- What is the proportion of visible female representation for the organisation? On websites, social media pages and newsletters? In visual displays around the workplace (photographs, multimedia, posters)? Are speakers and panelists at events gender balanced? Are there women on the board and executive team?
- How is the organisational housework allocated? How many men are rostered for canteen duty? Who takes the minutes at meetings? Who organises catering, off-site events and gifts?
- Is the workplace equitable and flexible? Are men (and women) offered and encouraged to work flexibly and/or part-time? Are men offered and encouraged to take parental leave? Are men and women paid equally? Has there been an audit of the gender pay gap and HR policies?
You get the picture. Many of the barriers to women advancing in sport are invisible, entrenched yet can be relatively easily eliminated.
Busting the Barriers
There is a lot of talk, but not enough action when it comes to busting the barriers that prevent women from advancing in sport. If you and your organisation are serious, then there are three questions to ask yourself and your teams to check that the default mode is not dickhead in your organisation.
- Do we know the reality and the barriers women face in our organisation?
- Have we asked what the lived experience is for our female employees, athletes, supporters, fans, sponsors and suppliers?
- Have we got a winning strategy when it comes to women?
If the answers to any of those questions are no, then it’s time for you to stop talking and start doing so your female employees, athletes, supporters, fans, sponsors and suppliers feel welcome, are included and belong in your organisation.
There is undeniable evidence that advancing more women in sports leadership is a win/win for sport and women. So now is the time for sports leaders to stop the conversation and start the action.
Advancing women into leadership does not simply involve upskilling women to become effective leaders—after all, what is the point in having highly capable women who, due to cultural and structural barriers, are unable to move up in their careers? At Advancing Women, we believe it is important to build female leadership capability while simultaneously addressing the cultural and structural drivers of gender inequality within an organisation.
Advancing Women fills a gap in the market for customised gender equality action plans that suit the unique needs specific to an organisation. At Advancing Women there is no such thing as one-dimensional and ‘off the shelf’ initiatives; rather we use design thinking practices and a four-phase approach to build a gender action plan tailored to the organisation. This approach is effective, sustainable, and deceptively simple.
This article was originally published by Advancing Women, and authored by Michelle Redfern
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