November 7th 2016
Quotas in sport: common sense, madness or hypocrisy?

UK Sport and Sport England recently published its ‘Code for Sports Governance’. This outlines a range of targets to do with transparency, accountability and financial integrity which all organisations must reach if they are to receive funding. The well-known stories of corruption in FIFA and the IOC are just two of the clearest examples of the need for ‘something to be done’. However, one of the most controversial targets for each body, including the FA, the RFU, the Lawn Tennis Association and the England and Wales Cricket Board, is to have at least 30% gender diversity on their management boards.

An FA press conference: very white and very male

“If sport wants to be publicly funded, it must reflect the public it serves”, said Ruth Holdaway, the chief executive of Women in Sport, adding that this new code sent a ‘loud and clear message’ to all sports that if they want to receive the funding they must reflect the public they serve.

In theory, this is a completely logical way in which to address a deep-seated issue about leadership, participation and management in sport. The FA, for example, has only one woman on its management board, Dame Helen Rabbatts. The use of quotas is a complex and controversial way to solve complex social issues, though, and there is mixed evidence as to its benefits in the long term. How they got to a figure of 30% is, perhaps, the least interesting of the questions.

The issues faced by sport are a sad reflection of broader issues in the UK and across the world. The current presidential election in the USA has highlighted how sexism is still so widespread in society. The words and actions of Donald Trump regarding women have been as controversial and unpleasant as anything seen in US politics. The accusations of sexism made against Shane Sutton at British Cycling may not be as extreme as Trump’s failings but they have focused attention on one of the UKs most successful sports and shown how pervasive sexism is. And Bernie Ecclestone’s comments that he doesn’t think there will be a woman driving in F1 in the near future also brought accusations of sexism and stereotyping. The issue of gender discrimination needs to be addressed.

It is interesting to take a step back, though, and consider how and why a policy of quotas is being used here. This is the government imposing standards onto a wide range of sports and using the stick of funding withdrawal to make sure it happens. This is quite normal behaviour, logical thinking and one which fits with, say, the payment of benefits: if you are deemed ‘fit to work’ then you must be available and actively seeking work if you are to receive benefits from the Government. If any sport wishes to receive money from the Government then it must abide by its standards and rules.

But are these quotas and standards fair? Ken Loach’s film, ‘I, Daniel Blake’, has focused attention on the whole benefits system around disabilities, eloquently and powerfully suggesting that there are flaws in the both the system and the application of these rules which do not support those who most need it. Under the broad umbrella of ‘cutting the deficit’ and ‘living within our means’, great injustice can be done and suffering results. This is not to suggest that forcing the FA, for example, to appoint more women to its board is not a reasonable thing to do but, under the headline of what is ‘reasonable’, dangers lurk.

If we look at society more broadly, what do we find regarding gender equality? A brief analysis gives the following numbers.

In Parliament, there are 191 female MPs out of a total of 650, a fraction under 30%. Has this, by any chance, inspired the figure for sporting organizations? If you want equality, should it not be 50%?

The cabinet of Theresa May has eight women out of 23 posts, a figure of 35%, although this is unusually high in the political history of the UK. The Tories currently have 68 female and 263 male MPs, barely 20% and hardly impressive when you consider the safe seats they could put people into if they chose to do so. Should the Conservatives be punished or fined for this shortfall? Labour have 99 female MPs out of a total of 232, which gives a record figure for a major British party of 42.6%.

Tony Blair and Labour’s female MPs in 1997. Has there ever been a worse title than ‘Blair’s Babes’?

It is interesting to note, though, that these figures are record highs and that from 1918, when they could become MPs, through until 1987, women always made up less than 5% of the total. It is only since 1997 that female MPs have risen above 15% of the total, and only in 2010 that the figure went above 20%. In other words, progress has been made but it has been slow, taking Parliament nearly a century to address this issue of equality — and it still fails to properly look at the issue of inequality in pay and conditions for women in a wide range of employment.

Looking at other areas of industry and society, the story is even more complex. In the FTSE 100’s companies, for example, only seven have female CEOs — half as many as there are CEOs called ‘John’, apparently. Women only occupy 14% of executive committee posts in banking. In 2013, the Royal College of Surgeons that only 9% of surgeons are women — and it was likely to take 160 years to achieve equality. Of 106 High Court judges, 22 are women, while of the fifty Chief Constables in the police, only seven are women. Should these organisations be punished in some way for failing to achieve a fair gender balance? Should the banks be fined? Should there be a quota system imposed on surgeons? Should these organisations be put under the same requirements as sport administrators?

A very British scene: Queen Elizabeth II with some of the High Court judges

The question here is not about the need to improve the gender balance in the governing bodies of our major sports. The challenge is more profound and, while it may be helped by imposed quotas, it is far from certain that this will solve the problem. There are many questions which arise from this policy: What is a reasonable time frame to follow for such a quota, given how long it has taken Parliament to deal with issues? Is it fair to demand that sports bodies should be singled out to appoint a set quota of women into positions of responsibility? What level of responsibility is considered appropriate? Should quotas be tied to funding? What are the dangers of following quotas? Can it lead to tokenism? Is it fair to men who may be overlooked in favour of be less qualified and less experienced women? What special skills are women supposed to bring to their organisations — and can we presume that all women possess these skills? What if the problem is the structure of the organisation itself and not just its members? And do quotas foster a true meritocracy or does it cross a line into discrimination?

And where do you go next? Do you have similar quotas based on race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation and education? Do you impose rules regarding the wealth of members of such boards so that all voices can be heard? And should such rules only cover sports or should they apply to other areas of life as well?

These are complex issues and Government has a duty to be involved. They cannot be ignored just because they are complex and the solutions are both difficult and may, quite possibly, fail to materialise. The point here is to ask the questions and to challenge the assumptions which seem to lie behind this policy. It seems to be something rushed through and where the potential pitfalls are not acknowledged. Using the bullying threat of money also reveals something quite rotten about modern society; somehow it suggests that the only thing that motivates people to grow and develop is money.

And that is a sad statement.

Andrew Ison

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