Where are the women? Gender diversity in sports business.

Posted by in Asia, Australia and New Zealand, Career Advice, Helen Soulsby, Women in sport

Recently our Director, Asia, Helen Soulsby, spoke at the 2014 Asia Pacific World Sport and Women Conference in Australia on, ‘The State of Play – Female representation across the business of sport’. This is what she had to say:

When I was a little girl, I didn’t want to work in sport (or in search for that matter). Believe it or not, I wanted to be a nail technician. Not really the career my parents were hoping for but they knew this was the first of many aspirations I would have. Then my ambitions changed to wanting to be a nurse and my family smiled, and let me get through that phase, as they knew I would be a terrible nurse! I then wanted to join the army, again my family smiled considering I was the least disciplined person they knew, but they let it ride.

Then thanks to a sport loving family and a fantastic PE teacher, who was 5ft 2 and played basketball for England, I was one of the fortunate girls who, while going through that crucial early teen phase turned more to sport and not away from it and I realised I loved it and wanted it to be a part of my working life. So despite having top grades and a sister at Cambridge University, I chose an average rated polytechnic to complete my ‘sports’ degree.

Then my dreams were shattered. I completed my degree and the career counsellor said, “OK so do you want to be a PE teacher or a Leisure Centre Manager?” Well…neither! I couldn’t at that time think of anything worse. So then I trained as an aerobics teacher, set up my own classes and made some money and went travelling.

On my return I found a way into sport. I became a sales rep and then worked in product and marketing at adidas. My eyes were finally opened to the potential of the wider sports business that almost 20 years later has expanded beyond recognition.

I was lucky enough to be involved with the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup and launch of the first ever female soccer boot by adidas – definitely a highlight in the early part of my career. At no point did I ever feel that gender came into play, in the opportunities I had or the opportunities I chased when I was in the early part of my career.

But 10 years later after fours years at adidas, some time running sponsorship for a global insurance company and heading up commercial and marketing at Athletics Australia, I took a break to start a family. There are no two ways about it. This is the time when most women hit a speed bump in their career. Lack of or cost of childcare or the simple desire to want to spend a couple of years out at an essential time in your career will invariably slow your progress.

I always kept my ‘hand in’, I freelanced, consulted, juggled. I was a ‘mumtrepreneur’ (note to all of us to never use this word, no one ever says ‘dadtrepeneur’).

There is no doubt that a career break affects many women’s career aspirations – sometimes positively but more often than not it is negatively – forcing women to re-assess and lament that it is really stacked against them. For me it created a new opportunity, I set up a very niche recruitment agency, as a sole trader I was able to set my hours and have the flexibility my family situation demanded and needed. I used the relationship skills I had developed and saw a gap in the market and four years ago I was able to combine both passions of sport and people/talent by becoming the Director of SRi’s Singapore office.

So what does the sports industry look like out there…in terms of gender diversity?

Well, it is pretty dire and pretty male dominated. 70% of all the jobs we work on will go to a man.

When you look at short-lists the picture is confronting. Out of all jobs assignments worked on in Asia, 50% of them will have NO women on the short-list, in Australia its 40%.

Functionally, there is a huge sway towards men in the commercial, sales, leadership and operations areas, while the sway is more skewed to women on the marketing and creative areas. Some 95% of commercial and leadership or operations focused roles will go to men. This is probably reflective of the general workplace, but definitely distorted more in sport. In marketing and communications, HR, design or research based roles the number is more even, with approximately 60% going to women.

I believe this functional skew is one of the key reasons why women are not better represented within the sports industry.

Sports business has changed over the last 10 years immeasurably as I alluded to earlier. So many of our briefs are for Commercial Directors, Sponsorship Sales, Head of Partnerships, Business Affairs Directors and of course GMs or CEOs. Often the sole focus for these roles is revenue generation: sales, BD, development of new revenue streams, negotiation with partners on funding, creation of joint ventures and more.

Sport has grown up to be big business and with that there is a huge focus on revenue generation, bottom line management and financial stability.

Other areas that have grown are around media rights and all things digital. Media distribution and selling of media rights is almost entirely dominated by men particularly in Asia and the requirements of the individuals in terms of entertaining clients and ‘building’ relationships is seen as better delivered by a man. But the days of deals in the karaoke room, while not over, are certainly diminishing. Now content owners and broadcasters/platforms have a whole new context to play in – the OTT. Direct to consumer, on-demand, pause play, catch up services, highlight services, and sports content is driving this area.

In addition, sports businesses are more and more attracted to legal and finance backgrounds as media and commercial rights negotiations and the carving up of rights across territories becomes more and more complex. While half of all law graduates are female, in the USA only 30% of lawyers are female. In Australia less than 20% of Partners in law firms are female. The drop off happens immediately from college, so again this is an area where the female pool of talent is small but the demand is getting stronger.

But let’s go back a step. Why should we bother or care about gender equity in our industry? I do feel that it’s important to remind ourselves of why we are bothering and why organisations across the sports world should take diversity seriously.

Put simply – it’s not just right, it’s right for business, all business so that means sports business too.

  • Diverse teams make better decisions.
  • Research shows that companies with a better gender balance in senior positions perform better.
  • It is necessary – meeting the needs of 50% of the population must mean having them represented in companies at decision making levels.
  • Cutting yourself off from 50% of the talent pool makes no sense (especially when women outperform men in education).

In certain territories, Australia being one, there is a huge push to have more women on Boards at sports organisations, with a target at 40%. This is needed no doubt but also has to be combined with a bottom up and an ‘in organisation’ concerted effort to raise the % of women in leadership positions across sport.

It’s not good enough to move one successful woman from one Board to another. Let’s legitimately grow the wider pool of potential directors which means more females in sports business at all levels.

So how do we make changes, what can we practically do?

What can women do?

With senior business leadership roles the single biggest limiting factor for female candidates appears to be the lack of finance /commercial experience. They are more likely to be an expert in people and culture or marketing etc. While it is fair to say that sports business is extending and requires senior skill sets across a multitude of areas, the driver for leadership is commercial acumen and delivering value. This is not new, with Forbes stating the number one key driver to becoming a CEO is a finance background and financial acumen.

A recent study by Harvard regarding first job choices shows that just 10% of women chose finance related roles compared to 24% of male graduates. I don’t have stats for Asia, but I would doubt it is so different. Therefore, building financial literacy and having finance/commercial responsibilities as a key part of the roles in your career or up skilling your finance capability and understanding at some point, will clearly make a difference.

This is essential as sport ‘grows up’ and becomes increasingly sophisticated and commercially driven. ¾ of CEOs were promoted internally (but less than a 1/3 were lifers). While I think this is far more common for very large multi national companies than many sports organisations, I do believe that having a little staying power in the future will go a long way, show some loyalty and show you can deliver results.

45% of CEOs served as Non-Executive Directors on public company Boards before becoming a CEO, so clearly the drive towards having more female representation on Boards will help drive more female leaders in sport.

I believe women should upskill their financial capabilities and show some loyalty, but just as important they should put their hand up. It is still widely highlighted in research that women are not as good at self-promotion as men are in business.

What can organisations do – practically?

In some regions, Asia specifically, sport has to be seen as a credible career. While sports management degrees in Australia may require the highest HSC results and sport is seen as a desirable career path, this is certainly not replicated in other regions. Parents in many Asian countries are horrified if their child goes into sport and not a blue chip firm or a government job. So we have a big job to do just to ensure it is seen as a credible career choice. This requires a multi agency approach and really is essential for both genders to want to consider it.

Most importantly, organisations must show they mean business. That gender diversity is essential to their success and while jobs should not be pinpointed for certain sexes there should be a genuine desire to redress the balance.

How do we do it? Here are some simple first steps:

  1. Know the facts. What is the current situation? Not just in total numbers, but how are job categories and senior roles split in terms of gender? Have a starting point? Then you know where you need to get to. It is not enough to say you have 50% of workers who are female when the majority are all operating in service positions and not decision making roles.
  2. Recognise it is not just a ‘women’s issue’. Have key male champions to ensure this not just a women’s issue, but a company commitment. Again studies show that the best people to promote diversity (this was related to both gender and racial) were white men and the last time I looked we had a lot of those in sport. The recent HeforShe campaign by the UN has done exactly this, calling on men to be vocal and support their equality campaign.
  3. Get leadership on board, gender diversity must become a policy.
  4. Set goals, targets and quotas. Quotas are a divisive issue but what is certain is that to encourage more women into your organisation many more factors come into play.
  5. Draw clear lines for succession and pathway and enable them. Don’t join the numerous companies that lose talent at key stages of a female’s career (and yes this is usually defined by having children). If a talented woman cannot see a way of getting through to the top of your organisation, you may lose that woman, or she may never join you in the first place.
  6. 5. It is a ‘given’ that companies should do as much as they can to ensure that parenthood at work is not seen as a liability. How this plays out in ether practical support, flexible working, encouraging both sexes to take parental leave etc., depends on the stage your company is at, but many small things can be activated quickly and without huge cost.

In addition, in sport I do believe that one of the key things we need to do is to ‘mind our language’ as highlighted so brilliantly in the ‘like a girl’ campaign, explaining that acting ‘like a girl’ should not be seen as an insult – http://time.com/2927761/likeagirl-always-female-empowerment/.

I am not advocating ridiculously over the top changes to vocabulary but whether you like it or not the language we use all contributes to an organisation showcasing an open and inclusive, forward looking environment or the opposite, and a boys club.

Every female leader is asked how they balance work and life. Is every male leader asked this?

Men are assertive, women aggressive.

Men should be more patient, women need to stop being emotional or hysterical.

In certain countries, Australia particularly, you have a multitude of rules and regulations which aim to ensure that workplaces are fair and equal, these should be embraced and not feared. Wider across Asia it is still a region where before the interview the client can (and does) want to know: the candidate’s age, what they look like, how many children they have, what their partner does, details of their family background and more, are they planning on having more children? Do they have elderly parents?

Immediately assumptions can be made about that candidate as to if they can cope with a travel schedule or if they may be able to go toe to toe drinking sake with the client.

You don’t need to be a female to understand, lead, market, digitise, commercialise, a female sport. Likewise you don’t need to be a male to design a man’s soccer shoe. Let’s move away from these tactical sound bites and remember what the focus is – you need a balanced leadership team to offer different points of view and ways of working to ensure greater business success.

Companies should also not pigeonhole women into certain functions, if talent is shown, then upskill and transfer. If you have the right behaviours and cultural fit, keep them in the business and look at ways you can help individuals to transfer across functions.

You could have the ideal CEO lurking in your company right now, with just a little support, mentoring, and professional development they could lead your business to the next level across the commercial playing field.

And finally, for those of you who work with recruitment and search partners…brief your partner to deliver you a diverse list of potential candidates. If you retain a firm which is how we do the majority of our work, the partnership that you can develop is much deeper. We can get involved in the balance and make up of your team and work to achieve a balance with you. If your company is looking too male heavy in the senior area don’t just say “we need women on the short-list.” Demand it!

What can SRi do?

We can’t make clients implement diversity policies, but we can guide, offer and highlight…and I think we have an ethical responsibility to do that.

In four years, I have had just two short-lists questioned (by the same client) due to having no women on it. Interestingly one assignment was for a Sales Director. The client has a world leading sales team but no women and he knows he is missing out on dollars.

In Australia, the position appears a little better but in terms of a formal requirement, only one client has asked us to highlight gender diversity in progress reports and one client has asked for a specific (40%) quota on females on the short-list.

Our sports business world is not reflective of real life and we need to work to change this.

  • If you are a woman. Stand up and be counted, up skill and build your cold hard commercial nous.
  • If you are a man. Stand up and be counted as a champion of gender diversity in your business because you not only think its right, but because you KNOW it is right for the business.
  • If you are an organisation. You need to stand up, discover your state of play. Get the cold hard facts of where you are now and where your gaps are, particularly across leadership and set some goals for change.
  • If you are an organisation recruiting. Make your talent partner work harder for you. Demand balance and build a long term relationship with a firm that can do more than put a ‘bum on a seat’, but can help you build a balanced team that will not only change the state of play for your business but transform the way the sports industry works….most definitely for the better.

About the Author: Helen Soulsby – Director, Asia

Managing teams in Singapore and Beijing, Helen’s role is to drive performance and growth in the APAC business through partnering with clients to deliver executive search assignments, as well as advising on executive board structures to best lead overall business strategy. The APAC team has built a reputation as the leading business in the region in delivering multi-hire projects that enable sports businesses to launch in the APAC region with maximum impact.