3 things sports can teach business about gender equality

Managers can learn a lot from Sport England's 'This Girl Can' campaign, writes Ann Hyams.

by Ann Hyams
Last Updated: 11 Aug 2016

In 2015, the percentage of female directors on boards of FTSE 250 companies was 18%. In the same year, around 1.7 million fewer women than men played sport regularly. 

Research by Sport England attributed the latter to gender differences in both motivations and concerns relating to sport, and launched the phenomenal 'This Girl Can' campaign in January 2015 to encourage sports participation in women by celebrating being active. Since its release, more than 13 million people have watched the campaign's video online and 2.8 million 14-40 year-old women who recognise the campaign say that they have done some or more activity as a result.

Sport has played a major role in my life, so it’s no surprise that I’m a huge advocate of 'This Girl Can'. However, I also believe that many of the issues, barriers and solutions identified by the campaign are just as applicable to women in the workplace as they are to women in sports. I highlight some of these parallels below and hope that the progress achieved on the sports field can be replicated in the boardroom.

Removing barriers to entry

Sport England has focused on removing barriers to entry through identifying that what women really value about exercise and being active is different to men. For example, the term ‘sport’ has negative connotations for many women who regard it as competitive, aggressive, and ‘un-feminine’, which discourages participation. Many traditionally male-dominated jobs, such as law, politics and finance carry similar associations which deter women from both applying and progressing within these careers.

To address this, Sport England found that changing the use of language can counter negative associations and enable sport to appeal to a wider audience. Focusing on terms such as team work, passion and motivation has the potential to challenge traditional perceptions and remove the idea that a particular sport (or job) 'isn’t for me' – a phrase you hear all too often from female employees and athletes.

Encourage and instil confidence

People are encouraged to achieve their potential in different ways. Two methodologies often used by managers or coaches are that of fear and positivity. Sport England’s research found that women tend to be encouraged more by the use of positivity and reassurance than by the use of fear to drive success. Confidence can be built through positivity surrounding the message itself, how it’s delivered, as well as the physical environment.

Ask yourself how your workplace is set up to encourage performance and instil confidence, and whether this is more suited to men or women. For example, how do team leaders communicate when setting tasks? On the whole, I’ve found men tend to be more directive, whereas women will ask for a task to be completed.

I was once told (very astutely) that if a manager says to a female employee 'do you think it would be a good idea if…' they understand that as a command. Conversely, male employees tend to interpret it as a question using this as an opportunity to decline what was actually intended as a command. This simple example demonstrates how the use of everyday language often leads to radically different results, highlighting the importance of thinking about how messages are delivered and how it will be understood by various audiences.

Positivity and inner confidence can come more easily to men than women too. It’s certainly noticeable that my female friends and colleagues tend to have higher levels of self-deprecation than their male counterparts; they agonise over everything that ‘went wrong’, or things they haven’t achieved rather than the things they’ve done well. Whilst a degree of self-criticism can be productive, both in sport and in the workplace women need to be encouraged to celebrate their achievements, using this as a powerful way to instil confidence to progress instead of fearing failure.

Inspire through real stories

'Seeing is believing' is a key principle of the Sport England campaign:

Making sport a ‘norm’ for women relies on local women of all ages, sizes and faiths, becoming active, celebrating it and encouraging others to join in

Parallels between this mission and the current situation for women in the workplace could not be more stark; I’ve had countless conversations with young ambitious women who can’t visualise progressing within their organisations because there are either no women, or senior women they don’t view as role models. The general perception is that few women have made it to the top and those who have struggle far more than men to achieve recognition, fulfilment, and a decent work-life balance.

Sport England encourages women’s networking groups, role models and buddy systems, citing that word of mouth and communication are the best forms of marketing. Once again, the same three things can materially help the progression of women in the workplace, with networking, mentoring and finding role models are seen as priorities for anyone trying the climb the career ladder.

Sport England has made substantial progress with respect to the gender gap in sport by listening and reacting to women’s concerns. As a sportswoman growing up, I was trained to break through the pain barrier; an invisible threshold which once surpassed ensures your path to success. I only hope that as a businesswoman breaking through the glass ceiling is slightly less painful, but just as rewarding.

Ann Hyams works at Whitbread in Premier Inn's strategy team and is on the committee of Eyedea, a London-based network of young female professionals. This article originally appeared on Eyedea's website.

Image source: Simon Q/Flickr


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