Sarah O’Connor: Boards can deliver change for the better

Board composition has been a topic of conversation in the commercial world for some time. 

In business, it has long been accepted that a diversity of skills and experience among a company’s directors is essential to enable the board fulfil its function of ensuring an organisation’s prosperity by establishing the strategic direction, safeguarding the best interests of its shareholders and other stakeholders and ensuring compliance with all applicable regulations.

More recently the meaning of diversity has extended to include gender and other considerations such as background and ethnicity for example, initiatives such as the 30% club. Established in the UK in 2010 with the objective of ensuring that a third of the boards of FTSE100 companies would be female. At the time only 12.5% of directors were female but this has since increased to 27.5%.

Yesterday’s announcement by Minister Patrick O’Donovan that sports bodies where women didn’t make up 30% of the board would from 2019, be at risk of reductions in their state funding has ensured that Irish sport and its administration will play a key role in this wider debate. For many this policy constitutes unwarranted interference in the affairs of independent organisations. For others it will be regarded as a step towards addressing a gender imbalance that has existed in organised sport from its inception. The issue of women and sport challenges policy makers not just in Ireland but globally. In 2015, Sport England invested £10 million in its “This Girl Can” campaign designed to boost women’s and girls’ participation in sport. For them, it was a public health issue. Guardian sports writer Anna Kessel takes it one step further commenting in her book Eat, Sweat, Play, that the issue is not one of equality but an economic one. Kessel highlights research that shows women who took part in sport are in fact, more likely to enjoy professional success and be better paid.

However, perhaps it is not the differing sides to this debate that we should focus our attention but rather the likely impact on the 65 plus Irish National Sporting organisations or 28 Local Sports Partnerships in receipt of state funding. In this, there may be some comfort to be found for those fearful of the implications of this policy. In particular, evidence suggests better gender balance leads to improved outcomes for organisations commercial, charitable and sporting. The bulk of this research comes, unsurprisingly from the commercial world but it does find the benefits of gender diversity even, where facilitated by the introduction of quotas outweigh the often stated costs of increased regulation, decreased efficiency, tokenism and a decline in the quality of governance with the “best people” passed over in favour of installing more females.

The reality is that sport is changing. In Ireland, female participation is increasing but also importantly from a business of sports perspective are interest levels. The Irish Sports Monitor 2015 found female participation rates have increased by 2.5% since 2011. A decline of 2.3% in male participation rates over the same period means that the gender gap between men and women has never been so narrow.

This appears to mirror trends internationally with a 2015 study by Repucom (now Nielsen) finding the increasing availability of sport to girls in school is contributing to growing interest levels in women in all things sport. The study, which examined behaviours in 24 countries, found that almost half of all women declared themselves interested in or very interested in sport compared to 69% of men.

Media consumption data also supports this changing landscape with for example, some 89% of women under 30 using the internet at least once a week to keep updated on sports. With women also found to influence more than 70% of all household spending decisions, the female audience does appear an increasingly important sporting stakeholder. Perhaps, it is for this reason that an increased presence of women on the boards of sporting organisations should be seen as a welcome one. If better boards are ones on which both genders are represented and better boards lead to stronger sport, then the potential benefits to Irish society both current and future can and hopefully will be significant and that is something we can hopefully all get behind.

Sarah O’Connor is Head of Sport, Wilson Hartnell and Director, Boardmatch Ireland a charity that works to improve governance by placing skilled professionals on the boards of not for profit organisations.


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