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Raising Governance Standards: How to improve gender balance in the sports boardroom

Fieldfisher considers the challenge of levelling the playing field for gender equality in the sports sector.

A google search of "gender inequality in the boardroom" will return no shortage of reports and statistics, indicating that many companies across the world are falling short when it comes to having an equal male to female ratio of board members. The sports industry is no exception.

Yet if gender equality is achieved the potential benefits for sport are staggering. A recent report by Fair Game argued that more gender diversity in football would ultimately lead to improved decision-making, an enriched workplace culture and higher financial performance.

So how can sport lead the way when it comes to balancing the boardroom? No matter the size of sporting organisation, minimum standards of governance centred on fostering a transparent culture in which internal and external relationships focus on accountability to certain standards of gender equality are key to improving female representation on the pitch and in the boardroom.

How good governance can help

To set the tone for gender equality, all sporting organisations, whether local grassroots clubs or national governing bodies, need to have, or at least be aiming for, a balanced boardroom.

A good governance structure and robust processes can both help prevent gender inequality from developing and encourage change.

Implementing minimum standards or quotas for the board of directors, as encouraged by the SIGA Good Governance Universal Standards Implementation Guidelines (SIGA's Universal Standards), is a direct approach to guarantee a diverse and balanced board, as is limiting of tenure of office, which can encourage, or perhaps force, long-serving male board members to vacate their positions.

Blunt mechanisms that link funding requirements to gender equality can be equally effective in boosting female representation at the top.

However, indirect methods can be beneficial in ensuring that a governance structure cultivates the right culture for gender balance to flourish.

SIGA's Universal Standards' encouragement of openness and the implementation of whistleblowing policies will allow employees and stakeholders to hold sporting organisations to account on their commitments to gender parity.

Increasing transparency

In today's world of trial by social media, popular opinion can be one of the most potent drivers of positive change. Hashtag activism applies constant pressure on organisations to adhere to their principles, remain accountable and uphold high standards of governance.

But being under the spotlight is not something for the sporting world to fear. On the contrary, sports organisations should be leading the way in terms of accountability and transparency, encouraging open critiques of their structures, decisions and implementation of governance mechanisms to ensure gender equality.

In a formal sense, a robust reporting policy, which encourages the regular publishing of diversity statistics and information about the constitution of the board, is a useful governance tool to help strive for a more balanced boardroom.

By codifying openness, providing means for employees to challenge non-compliance with agreed standards and being transparent on recruitment processes, sporting organisations will be cultivating an environment where gender equality is the norm. This will make balancing the boardroom an easier task and can also encourage the conversation about gender inequality in sport on a broader scale.

Rethinking commercial relationships

Recent global events have forced individuals and organisations to re-evaluate commercial ties and determine whether business relationships align with values.

While partnerships can be incredibly powerful and beneficial for sport, exits of commercial sponsors for sports organisations can serve as well-publicised condemnations of behaviour.

For example, in the UK, we have seen mobile phone company Three suspend its sponsorship of Chelsea FC following Russia's invasion of Ukraine; life insurance firm Vitality respond to premier league player Kurt Zouma's kicking a pet cat by suspending its deal with West Ham United; and renowned author Val McDermid withdraw her support of Raith Rovers FC following a controversial signing.    

Sport is deeply rooted in the concept of individuals coming together under shared values. Although these values vary between organisations, respect, integrity and teamwork are regularly positioned as fundamental tenets of the sporting experience.

Yet unbalanced boards with positions filled predominantly by men do not truly reflect those sporting values.

Therefore, in the same way in which sponsors react to unacceptable behaviour, commercial relationships could be the catalyst for ensuring gender equality at board level.  

This is actively encouraged by SIGA's Universal Standards, which directs sporting organisations, governing bodies and commercial partners to collaborate in the pursuit of higher standards of governance.

By enshrining commitments to certain standards of governance in contractual relationships and using SIGA's Universal Standards as a guide, commercial partners and sporting entities could hold one another mutually accountable in the pursuit of progressive and more gender-balanced boards.

In summary

There are various ways of tackling gender inequality in the sporting boardroom, from an internal and an external perspective.

Having in place a robust set of rules will encourage an open culture committed to gender parity and invariably make it more difficult for all-male boardrooms to exist in perpetuity, regardless of the sophistication of the sporting body.

External relationships also have a role to play. Whether it is fully engaging with social media cries for accountability or carefully drafting contracts to ensure both parties to commercial partnerships are answerable for failing to adhere to common sets of values, gender parity in the boardroom is something the entire sports industry should be striving to achieve together.

This article was authored by Donna Goldsworthy, partner; Stephen Cartwright, director; and Louis Muncey, solicitor, in the dispute resolution team at Fieldfisher.

A version of this article was first published by the Sport Integrity Global Alliance (SIGA) Journal in March 2022: Access the journal.