The Two Sports: Promoting women in sport beyond This Girl Can
There are two sports businesses, or at least two distinct halves. On the one hand, there is the sport that everyone sees: the pitch, the court, the superstar players. The other is behind the curtain. The part you see on the top is the swan, but below the surface there’s a lot of hard work going on to make the rest as elegant as it is.
Rebecca Hopkins, founder of award-winning PR agency ENS and the Sports Technology Awards, nails the divide: “Suits and tracksuits,” she calls it. One is no more important than the other, but what is important is the difference. Vitally important.
Hopkins’ area is firmly on the suits side, and whilst there is a necessary drive to increase the numbers of women participating in tracksuits, the numbers in suits are in need of a boost, too.
“I love the This Girl Can campaign,” Hopkins tells me. “I was a massive supporter of it and it was absolutely the right thing to do. It has got more women involved in sport and will continue to do so. But I think it has muddied the water of women’s role in sport.”
Whilst Hopkins is clear that this was certainly never the role of This Girl Can in the first place, this is where the idea of two sports businesses comes into play. Increasing participation alone might be promoting ‘women in sport’ in some sense, but that’s only half the battle. That’s only the tracksuits.
“I recently was in conversation with a few governmental departments about the work we’re doing (at the Sports Technology Awards) and asking where we can leverage opportunities and harness government resources to promote ourselves more widely,” says Hopkins. “Three people said ‘have you been in touch with the This Girl Can campaign organisers at Sport England?’ But what on Earth has participation got to do with us running a global sport-led business out of the UK? How do those two things equate?”
That’s a misunderstanding at a fundamental level when the aim is to grow women’s participation in the two sports businesses. Whilst This Girl Can and other initiatives have brought the important area of participation into focus, that’s only one side of the coin.
“If we’re fighting that degree of misconception on that sort of level, we’ve got a hell of a long way to go,” says Hopkins. “It’s like asking more people to look at advertising and saying that shapes the advertising industry. What the consumer sees does not necessarily result on how that industry attracts its workforce.”
There’s no suggestion that we’ve succeeded in getting to exactly where we want to be in terms of participation in sport. But whilst it’s true that greater participation amongst younger girls and teenagers might grow general interest in sport among women of working age in the future, that doesn’t necessarily help, or certainly not in the short-to-medium term. What’s needed instead is more women involved in executive roles. More women in suits, not tracksuits. Unfortunately there are two sides to that coin, too.
“I think you’ve got a nucleus of women who are prepared to stick their hands up,” says Hopkins, who is in the perfect position to see this particular phenomenon when looking at those who are nominating their work for awards at the Sports Technology Awards. “ We had a sports tech Young Exec category at the awards last year and we were delighted that it was won by Alex Willis from the AELTC. So i think that when women do stick their hands up they are more than capable of competing with the men – but women simply aren’t sticking their hands up enough.”
“So everybody has to meet each other halfway on this and that is never a quick thing to achieve.”
One of the ways in which the suits side of sport can do that is being more proactive when it comes to hiring practices. (“We do need quotas because it’s been demonstrated time and time again that if you do have quotas, it does prompt societal or cultural change,” says Hopkins) But one of the main things that promoting the great work of women within the sports industry will achieve is the creation of new role models, too.
That might matter a little bit less on the tracksuits side for the moment. Women are already playing more sport than ever before and attitudes are changing; more and more female athletes and sportspeople are becoming household names, too. But within the sector, things are slower to change.
“Most schoolgirls or young women who are graduating, when they think business women in sport, I would be staggered if many of them could name someone other than Karren Brady,” says Hopkins.
“The fact that there are perfectly capable female coaches for the women’s national football squad, and the fact that didn’t go to a woman was disappointing and I think a huge trick was missed there.”
Just because the job of coach of the national team went to a man instead of the more qualified women – people like Mo Marley who had more experience within the women’s game – doesn’t mean that women’s participation will drop. It does, however, reinforce some of the perceptions of the male dominated sector of sport. Whilst some say a name like Phil Neville might raise the profile of the women’s game on a national level, it might have the polar opposite effect on changing perceptions within the business side of the industry.
That’s why Hopkins’ differentiation between suits and tracksuits is so important to bear in mind. What’s good for promoting women in sport might only be good for promoting women in one particular side. But we have to think about both.
In the end, diversity in all its forms brings more ideas, perspectives and knowledge into the tent. And in turn, that helps sport – this vast landscape of global brands, businesses and personalities – to better engage with its worldwide audience.
In order to do that, though, we have to acknowledge the two sports.
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