Beyond the sidelines – empowering female leaders in sport

This article discusses female leaders in sport, both on and off the field of play, and looks at the current landscape as well as various initiatives that have been implemented to empower women to become leaders in both men’s and women’s sport, whether that be as coaches, officials, or in other leadership positions.

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Leadership – coaches and officials

Significant strides have been made recently in women’s sport, however there is still a distinct lack of female coaches and officials, both in men’s and women’s sport at the elite level.

For example, in football, presently in the Women’s Super League (WSL) only one third of the managers are women, although of course Sarina Wiegman is the manager of the Lionesses. There are no female managers of a professional men’s football team in the UK.  Equally, with the Paris Olympic Games in sight, it is worth noting that at the most recent Olympic Games in Tokyo, whilst there was almost gender parity amongst the athletes (48% were female athletes), only 13% of coaches were female.

As for officials, female referees and umpires are underrepresented at the elite level of both men’s and women’s sport. At the Olympic Games in Tokyo, only 32% of Accredited International Technical Officials were women. In football, whilst according to The FA there was a 78% increase in the number of female referees across all levels between 2021 and 2023, it was not until December 2023 that Rebecca Welch became the first female referee in Premier League history, and on the global stage, Stéphanie Frappart was the first woman to referee in both the men’s Champions League (in 2020) and in the men’s World Cup (in 2022). In the WSL, there are more female referees than in the men’s game. However, they are not currently full-time, and so becoming a referee in the women’s game does not currently represent a viable career option for many. This also does not align with the fact that the league has been professional for a number of years now. In rugby, Joy Neville is the only female match official to have been selected for a men’s Rugby World Cup.

Increasing female leadership in sport

Sport governing bodies, organisations, and federations are now starting to implement initiatives to encourage more female leaders in sport. Commitment to – and promotion of – equality, diversity and inclusion in sport not only helps to lead to a more level playing field, both on and off the pitch, but also contributes to good sports governance. We highlight some examples of initiatives that are currently in place to increase female participation in coaching and as officials below:

  • FIFA’s Coach Education Scholarship programme (part of FIFA’s Women’s Development Programme) aims to increase the number of highly qualified female coaches in football and the opportunities for female players to become coaches after their playing careers.
  • UK Sport’s Female Coaches Leadership Programme was introduced in 2021 with the aim of ensuring that there are more female coaches on the Olympic and Paralympic stage. Sally Munday, CEO at UK Sport, said that “UK Sport is committed to powering a diverse and inclusive Olympic and Paralympic high-performance community”, and this programme therefore plays a key part in ensuring that more female coaches are being given the opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities at the elite level.
  • World Rugby has also committed to improving coaching opportunities for women in rugby, setting a target of 40% female high performance coaching roles at the Women’s Rugby World Cup 2025.
  • As part of its Inspiring Positive Change strategy for the future of women’s football, The FA set out a target of 75% of high-performance coaches in manager/head coach roles in women and girl’s football to be female, by 2024.
  • In July 2023, The FA published its refereeing strategy for 2023-2026: ‘To Grow, Guide and Govern’. As part of this strategy, The FA has committed to diversity and inclusion, which includes striving for a net increase of 1,000 women referees by 2026.

Female leaders off the pitch

Off the pitch, sport governing bodies, organisations, and federations are also looking to recruit and progress more women in leadership roles, recognising the importance of gender representation at all levels of the game. By way of example, World Athletics is looking to increase female representation across all four commissions (Athletes, Competition, Development and Governance) to 50% for 2023-2027, FIFA has in place its Women in Football Leadership Programme with the aim of supporting the progression of women into senior leadership positions to encourage more equal gender representation, and World Rugby also has implemented a Rugby Leadership Programme, with the aim of increasing the number of women in key leadership positions in rugby.

Additionally, last year UK Sport announced that as part of its Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Strategy, it is committed to ensure that 50% of British postholders in senior leadership roles at international sports federations are female. As part of this commitment, UK Sport commissioned research to establish whether there are gendered differences in the pathways taken to achieve international leadership roles by British men and women, and it is using the research to inform the appropriate steps to address the gender imbalance going forward.

Establishing clear targets to increase the representation of women in leadership roles is one way that a sport governing body might measure the success of its initiatives and demonstrate commitment to equality in leadership. It is also worth considering the importance of gender equality in leadership as a means of achieving good governance, as having balanced representation and diversity in decision making processes is one factor that contributes to the progression and development of sport by ensuring that the decision makers are representative of society.

Looking to the future

More women in leadership roles, whether that be in coaching, as officials, or in other leadership positions in sport is important to help advance not only women’s sport, but also men’s sport. More visibility of women in such positions will create role models and mentors for young girls and women, thus increasing participation on and off the field. A commitment to diversity and inclusion will undoubtedly pave the way for more women to become leaders in sport.

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