|Organisation:||Women in Sport|
Ruth Holdaway is Chief Executive Officer at Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation. Prior to this she has held a variety of roles in other not-for-profit organisations including Women’s Aid, The Prostate Cancer Charity and Breakthrough Breast Cancer.
The FCN had a chat with Ruth about her experience of sport and why it is so important that governing bodies work hard to raise the number of women taking part and coaching sport.
In some way’s sport has always been a part of my life. I grew up with three brothers and sport was big in our family. All of my brothers are massive football fans, they played football from an early and I took part in dancing, so in my household there was a very typical gender divide! This was the 1970’s and 1980s so we are talking a long time ago! That was probably quite typical of most families back then. When I was young, I didn’t really consider football as something that I would play because I didn’t know any girls that played football. Football was something that the boys did and to be honest, I loved my dance classes. I was really into my dancing until I was 18.
I also loved tennis and when I went to University I wanted to pursue tennis, but I wasn’t good enough to play for the university team. There wasn’t really a social tennis option at that time, so I ended up dropping sport. It wasn’t until I started living with my cousin (who is like a big sister to me) that I considered sport again. She was a really big influence on my sporting life because she was very fit and active. When she and I lived together she got me excited again about activity.
One day early in my career, I was very bored at work and an email popped into my inbox from Lastminute.com. It was a newsletter and on the front page it had something about a surfing weekend in Cornwall and I thought that was quite cool! I emailed it round to a load of friends asking if anyone fancied doing it; before I lived with my cousin I never would have considered doing it. So her influence was really important because it gave me the confidence to think I could try new things and that being outdoors and being active was really fun. So long story short, a couple of friends wanted to go and we went down and had a weekend in Cornwall – we barely came out of the sea and I fell in love with surfing. I don’t think I stood up on a surf board that particular weekend; I just got the bug for it! I booked to go back down there before we had even left! That was about 15 years ago now and I haven’t looked back since. I used to surf a lot, most weekends I would get in the car and go to Devon and Cornwall. I don’t have the time for that anymore, but I still love surfing, all my holidays are structured around catching waves. It helps me to keep fit and when I’m not surfing, I want to try and stay fit so that when I do go I’ve got the energy and the stamina for it.
As Chief Executive I oversee everything that we do and it’s my job to lead and guide the organisation strategically. When I joined the charity I undertook a review of our mission and our vision of our strategy. We exist to transform sport for the benefit of every woman and girl in the UK and we have four ways in which we want to achieve that. Firstly we want to see all women and girls benefitting from playing sport, secondly we want to see more women and girls leading, volunteering and working in sport and thirdly we want to normalise sport for women and girls. We want more investment into women’s sport which will enable our elite athletes to do better enabling sports to invest more at the grassroots. It will also mean that we get more media coverage and you will see women’s sport a lot more; we need to be able to see it. And finally it is important for us as an organisation to thrive as well, so fundraising and generating income for ourselves and investing in our staff is a really important part of our strategy. We are a charity and we need people to donate and support us, companies, trust foundations and individuals, to enable us to do our work.
I think that the major events such as the Olympics and the Women’s Football World Cup this summer are very important in terms of raising the profile for women’s sport. What we want to see is for women’s sport to have a profile outside of those major events. One of the reasons women’s sport gets such a high profile at the Olympics is because the men’s sport is there as well and its happening at the same time so then people notice the women. What we want is for the women to be noticed all of the time and for sport to just to be open to women and girls the same way it is for the men. We know that’s not the case at the moment because we know there are nearly 2 million more men than women playing sport once a week. We also know that there are a fraction of the number of women working in sport as there are men and that there are nowhere near the same number of women sitting on the national boards of the governing bodies. So there’s a lot to do to reach a point where the doors to sport are open for the same degree to men and women, that’s what we want to achieve.
I think it is because of a legacy of sport being a ‘man’s world’. I think it is starting to change, but it does require certain action to drive that change because it’s not just going to happen naturally. Even if it does happen naturally, it will be slow so we need a paced pick up and to proactively do things. Sport has been played by men and men have run sport, so if you think about local sports clubs, they are often run by volunteers and committees of the people that play the sport, which have all traditionally been men. Those men then rise up through the ranks of that sport and then end up making strategic decisions at the national level of that sport. The same isn’t true of women; women haven’t tended to get involved with the administration of sport in that way, therefore as sport has professionalised and commercialised over the years it has been the men that have taken on those senior roles. Probably by default or possibly a little bit by design, sport has then been structured around what men want and need and it just hasn’t met the needs of women. Therefore you just get this legacy of women not being able to access sport in the same way and then not thinking about it as a career option. We know when we go into schools through our ‘Changing Games for Girls Project’, we ask girls about their career aspirations. In the main they just don’t think about sport- it’s not even on their radar as a sector for them to work. That’s something that we are working hard to change.
No I think it requires action and a concerted effort and energy. We need to see more women on the boards of the national governing bodies. Our job as ‘Women in Sport’ is to help governing bodies with that. We need to help them understand where to advertise, how to structure the roles, their meetings and timings of their meetings, all this kind of stuff. We need to structure it so that we can recruit the best women as well as the best men and we need to be proactive about that. We have a programme working in schools with the Youth Sport Trust and one of the things we want to do as part of that is to use sport to empower women and girls to feel confident in the first place and to have ambitions and aspire to leadership in whatever walk of life. They can then open their eyes to sport as a possible career option so that with that empowerment and with that confidence, they then might realise that if (for example) they really love badminton, they could run badminton clubs, or they could be a communications PR person for badminton, or even one day run the sport’.
It would without question improve sport immeasurably. There is very clear evidence that where you have gender diversity around the board table in any business, that business performs better commercially. Sports organisations will be commercially more affective if they have women on boards and that will enable them to do more for everybody. It will also give them the female perspective which will enable them to do things more appropriately and better for women and get more women participating in their sport. That in turn will empower women and give them confidence and to do all the things I talked about.
I think there are a lot of barriers and also part of it is cultural. I was in a meeting with Sports Coach UK yesterday and their figures show only 30% of qualified coaches are women and when you get up to the elite level and past level 2, its only 17% of coaches are women, so there is a massive gap there. One of the things that they have been looking at and one of the things they are encouraging sports to look at is how qualifications are provided. So for example, in many sports at the moment, you need to give up a full weekend to do your qualification. For women that have a family, that just may not be possible and they actually can’t go away for a whole weekend if they have got young kids. It’s about looking at how qualifications are provided and figuring out if there are better ways of doing it so they can fit into a women’s life more affectively. That alone would be a good start!