Are we Making it Happen? – The State of UK Sport for women on International Women’s Day

For more than a century, this time of year –the early spring- has had a positive association with women and with equality. The first International Women’s day in March 1911 shone a light on prejudice faced by women of that era (German women still had another six years to wait before the right to vote), and both this day and Women’s History Month have gone on to become international festivals and platforms to galvanise and promote equality between the sexes, and to honour and celebrate the achievement of inspirational and progressive women throughout the ages.

2015 has seen a particularly encouraging start to the spring from the perspective of women in sport in the UK, with a series of milestones including the government-backed Inspiring Women in Sport Week, the highly-publicised launch of the This Girl Can campaign to encourage more women to take part in sport and physical exercise, and a House of Lords debate on 5th March on the measures that the government is taking “to encourage women to participate in sports on a professional basis”.

The debate touched on some areas of forward progress and gathering momentum, but also on some issues of endemic prejudice and disadvantage facing women in sport.

Much of the good news comes from golf, which is encouraging and perhaps fitting for a sport that started here in Britain in the 1450s. Both the Royal and Ancient Golf Club and Royal St George’s Golf Club have at last opened their doors to women members this year, and Get into Golf, a grass roots programme for beginners that is part of Sport England’s £13 million England Golf Partnership, is reporting that 45% of participants in the programme are women. And speaking of inspiring women in sport, we were pleased to hear the incredible Charley Hull mentioned in the debate. Still in her teens, and one of the UK’s top golfers, we can’t wait to see her career take off.

The success of the women’s cricket team and the work of the ECB were also mentioned in the House of Lords. Currently ranked second, and winners of the last two Ashes, the team are forging a bright path, and their governing body is following suit in finally issuing contracts to its female professional players.

Football seems to be lagging behind, with a “huge disparity between the men’s and the women’s game” and a glaring lack of coverage for the women’s game, with Lord Storey remarking that “the English women’s football team beat Finland 3-1 last night, yet if you look at the sports pages of our national newspapers, you will find no mention of it in the Times, the Telegraph, the Mail, the Express or the Mirror”. Baroness Nye pointed out that the England women’s football team are currently preparing for the World Cup in Canada in July, where they have been told they will play on an artificial pitch, something that would be inconceivable for men playing at World Cup level.

In the same Lords debate, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson pointed out how sporting inequality in America has been tackled by their Title IX legislation (that states "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance"), asking if it was “not time that we had our own version in Britain”?

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, Making it Happen, resonates particularly strongly with us at Women Ahead, and from the outset we have been determined to create genuine, tangible and positive change rather than just adding to the debate. Our view has always been that business leadership has a profound potential in shaping the current and future landscape for women in sport, and perhaps the greatest testimonial for the potential of this approach is that fact that next month sees women competing (live on television, no less) in one of the UK’s most prestigious sporting events for the first time in history; thanks to pioneering support from Newton Asset Management, the first Women’s Boat Race will be held on Saturday 11th April. We are proud to work alongside Newton’s CEO and chair of the 30% Club, Helena Morrisey, and to support the club’s cross-company mentoring scheme to increase the pipeline of female leaders that will continue to make change happen.

Things do not happen. They are made to happen.
— John F. Kennedy