Women in Sport: The long road to the top table

Getting women to become more involved in sporting bodies is a concern in Ireland and overseas

Ann Marie O’Donovan with Mary Quinn, who was appointed to the IRFU committee in October. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Ann Marie O’Donovan with Mary Quinn, who was appointed to the IRFU committee in October. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

To Australia, and the news last month that the state of Victoria is to cut off funding to sporting bodies whose boards don’t have at least 40 per cent female representation. The plan is to be phased in over the coming three years, by which time sporting bodies such as the VCFL, the FFA and the state’s eight AFL clubs will have to bring the number of female directors on their boards up to the required level before being eligible for state funding.

“People can say what they like but 51 per cent of the population are women,” said Victorian minister for sport John Eren. “People need to make an effort and stop making excuses. Some people say if it’s not broke, why fix it? Well, I say it is broke.”

In Ireland, all it takes is a look at the accompanying panel to see a situation no less in need of work. As a country, we provide funding to 59 sporting bodies each year. Of the top 20 in terms of 2015 State-funding listed below, only four would pass the 40 per cent test. Damningly enough, seven of them muster up 10 per cent or less, including the three most popular and heavily-funded sporting bodies in the country. Between the 50 places filled by the executive committees/boards of the FAI, IRFU and GAA there is just a single female representative.

Mary Quinn was appointed to the IRFU committee in October, the first woman to sit on it in the 137-year history of the union. Formerly the chairwoman of the IRFU women’s sub-committee, she cheerfully describes her elevation to the top table as, “a long, slow accident that happened over seven or eight years.” She was standing at a Leinster match in Donnybrook one day when a provincial employee collecting for charity got chatting to her. The chat ended with an invitation for coffee, which led to her being cajoled into doing some volunteering, which sparked her interest in getting dragooned onto a committee here and a funding drive there.

Making history

And well she knows it. When she arrived at the Aviva for the first committee meeting her heart sank as she was ushered into the room and saw the length of the table they would all sit around. For the official photo, she was given a men’s blazer that had been taken in a bit in her honour.

“Although not taken in enough! And I am not wearing a tie, no way. And I won’t be wearing a scarf either, thanks very much. It was bad enough trying to find a shirt that would look decent under that big blazer!”

Second Captains

Progress comes dropping slow, in sport as in society. Quinn is the first in her sport and she dearly hopes many follow her, across all sports and in all capacities. But as she says, it happened by accident. There was nothing systematic, nothing organised. It was just that somebody spotted her and thought she might be interested, long before she had given it any thought.

“I think first of all, things are increasing and long may that continue. But looking back, would I have volunteered knowing what was going to be ahead of me? I think I would have been too daunted. I would have lacked confidence. It was only because someone offered me a role on a kind of ad-hoc basis and told me to just try it and see what I made of it. If it didn’t work out, it was fine. There was no pressure on me.

‘A bit daunting’

“But I also think that sporting bodies . . . have to make it easier for young women to sign up. You don’t wait for people to volunteer, you go up to them as they’re standing pitchside and you ask them would they like to sign up and give a hand. You offer them something modest, not too time-consuming and you try to get them drawn in and curious.

‘Mentor them’

In the build-up to the general election, the issue of gender quotas in politics was examined from all angles. An interesting theory (generalised though it is) as to why fewer women run for office than men was their psychological starting point. Whereas women worry would anyone vote for them, prospective male candidates’ attitudes tend to be more, ‘Sure won’t it be great to gather up a few votes?’ In Quinn’s experience, the parallel is easily drawn in explaining the lack of female administrators across the sporting spectrum.

“I know it may be kind of sexist to generalise like that because obviously there are people across the spectrum in both sexes. But yes, that would definitely be my experience. It’s a bit like rugby saying, ‘Aw, women are always asking questions.’ That’s how women are, they like to clarify things. They want to know, ‘If that works there and it doesn’t work here, why not? And what do I do when it doesn’t?’

“Women do ask questions and I think that there’s a thing in women where they feel they need to be really qualified before they put themselves forward for something. They don’t have great confidence in themselves unless they know they have the angles covered. Again, I know that’s generalising and I do think that’s changing with the younger generation.”

Australian example

“I think, though, that you have to be careful about the transfer of knowledge. Gender quotas could result in people being shoehorned into roles where they feel uncomfortable or out of their depth. That’s no good to anyone, least of all the people themselves, be they men or women. You have to empower people to contribute their ideas, you have to support them and encourage them and not burn them out.

“Yes, if you find that you’re up against some kind of really sexist glass ceiling, then by all means start considering quotas. But if something is already happening and it’s developing at a good pace and you’re getting more and more people in who are wowing people with their contributions, then it’s better to let it grow organically.”

The question for Irish sporting bodies is this: Can we say it’s growing organically? Can we say it with a straight face? 

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