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Gender Diversity in Sports Science

Please note: In this post I am primarily focussing on gender diversity. It is not my intention to minimise the concerns or importance of underrepresentation of members of other minority groups.

I recently posted an appeal on LinkedIn to event organisers to create diverse speaker line-ups. The post seemed to strike a chord with many commenting and reacting positively. My plea was triggered by seeing three events within our field advertised in a single week that all had an entirely homogenous speaker line-up. Since then, there have been even more events. I’ve witnessed a tweet with a picture of an all-white male panel discussing the benefits of diversity. All taking place within the month that is supposed to celebrate Women’s History…

Yet, it is an easy action to post pleas or even complaints. It is almost effortless to ask for more diversity. That is just the “What”. So, on reflection, I challenged myself to do more. A post alone is not enough, but it is one platform to share a more detailed discussion. It enables the conversation to move beyond just asking for more diversity, to discuss the “Why” and “How”. And, as we have previously discussed, Simon Sinek argues we should start with why…

Why is Diversity Beneficial?

Broadly speaking there are many benefits associated with diversity. TalentLyft, a Human Resources company, pooled together findings from an array of sources to identify ten such advantages (see below). These included greater innovation, faster problem solving, and better decision making. Perhaps one aspect driving these benefits is the bringing together of people from different perspectives.

Ten benefits of workplace diversity shown in different hexagon shapes.
TalentLyft's Top Ten Benefits of Workplace Diversity (no copyright infringement intended)

For instance, a two-year research study by Deloitte surveying more than 450 companies globally, found inclusive companies were 3.8 times more like to be able to coach improved performance and 1.7 times more likely to be innovators in their market .

In sport, a meta-analysis found group diversity in teams and organisations demonstrated positive effects on important outcomes, such as organisational effectiveness and affective outcome (Lee and Cunningham, 2018).

From my anecdotal perspective, having a diverse staff provides a wider range of personalities and backgrounds for the athletes' support network. Individuals innately connect differently with differently people. If everyone looks and sounds the same, the athletes are not afforded variety in the staff that seek to support them. It is the different perspectives and experiences that make the difference. I echo the benefits listed above by TalentLyft within the dynamics of the performance staff team, and for me, the benefit to the athletes and their support network is absolutely paramount.

“Diversity isn’t a nice-to-do, it’s a need-to-do. Different perspectives and skills increase our effectiveness. Achieving diversity requires deliberate action.” General Stanley McChrystal & Anna Butrico, Risk

Despite these benefits, cultures of similarity that marginalize women are said to perpetuate over time in sport through informal processes and institutionalised norms, values, and assumptions (Cunningham, 2008). While I hope progress has been made since that was published in 2008, statistics and anecdotal experiences highlight we still have a long way to go. Anonymous surveys gathered by Sportsmith investigating performance staff demographics have consistently had female respondent rates around 3-4%.

Clearly then, this remains an issue in need of discussion and action. It is difficult to make systemic changes, but each of us has behavioural autonomy to some degree.

How Can Sports Teams and Practitioners Promote Gender Diversity?

So what can sport teams, organisations, event organisers, and practitioners do to promote gender diversity? Below, I provide a list of practical steps – not theoretical, not legal – but practical advice. I am by no means an expert on Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI): these suggestions are put together based on my own experience of more than a decade working in professional men’s sports, plus the suggestions of my female peers who kindly contributed.

  • Ensure there are suitable bathroom and changing facilities provided in all facilities (training grounds and stadia/arenas), ideally with women’s sanitary products provided.

  • Provide a comfortable, purpose-built Mother’s Room facility (also called a Nursing or Lactation Room) for new mothers.

  • Understand the maternity and paternity leave rights for your employees. Readers in the U.K. can take this quiz on the Equality and Human Rights Commission website to test their knowledge.

  • Create an EDI advisory group within your team or organisation. Here is a getting started guide on how to go about doing this.

  • Provide suitable kit/gear with appropriate fit and sizing. This may require investing in a wider range of styles and sizes as an organisation, but is vital to support your staff in feeling comfortable at work. Such clothing should mirror the design of male staff so as not to feel out of place, while provide a practical and appropriate style. Note: women’s style short-shorts or low cut tees are equally, if not more so, inappropriate as oversized men’s clothing.

  • Have open and honest conversations about their access to different facilities at different times. What is the expectation for females to work in the changing/locker room in male team sports? And vice versa for male staff members with female athletes? Everyone should feel comfortable. Personally I would not go into the team changing room when male athletes were in there. However, female physios on game-day may need such requirement to do their job. The worst part is the uncertainty. Have an honest discussion and collaboratively agree the expectations.

  • Consider the safety of female staff members at your facilities, as well as on the road. Here are some suggestions:

    • Ensure female staff members have a safe parking space at the facility. If they are required to walk late at night, perhaps post-game, through a publicly accessible car park/lot, it should be well-lit and secure or staffed by security. In discussing this point with others, I heard a story of a female working in professional sport who was robbed at gun-point walking back to her car after a game one night. Of course, this point is also to the benefit of both male and female staff members.

    • If female staff members are expected to travel alone for work, ensure as best as possible that she has safe and suitable accommodation (i.e. not a cheap AirBNB in a questionable area).

    • Females should not be required to meet with/treat 1-on-1 athletes or staff in closed hotel rooms, so identify and communicate a suitable space for private conversations, meetings, and/or treatment.

  • Event organisers should strive to always provide a diverse speaker line-up. Visibility is key. In recent discussions with a male peer, he explained that it is not deliberate, organisers seek speakers based on merit and the wider pool means it often happens to be a homogenous group. “People don’t even realise!” Yet, this reiterates the institutionalised norms mentioned earlier. This is precisely why this needs to be approached intentionally. It is more difficult to find speakers from minority group, and often these individuals might be less willing to speak, perhaps because of less experience and comfort doing so. Reach out to organisations (e.g., Women in Sports Tech, Women in Football, WiSER Connected, Fearless Women, BASES/ESSA/NSCA etc.) or individuals to discuss possible candidates. Alternatively, crowdsource! Ask for suggestions via your network or social media. Of course, the quality of content is still paramount, but there are worthwhile contenders out there just waiting to be asked.

  • Seek female co-authors for research projects. The dominance of males in sports science authorship has been highlighted in IJSPP and previously mentioned here on the blog. Again, intention is required to try to address this.

  • Include diverse guests/contributors and media content on websites, podcasts, and in textbooks.

  • Employers in football (soccer) can join the #GetOnside movement and make a pledge for how they will improve the landscape for women and girls in the game.

While here I have focussed on gender diversity, diversity should be promoted across the board. Employees should feel included regardless of age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, physical conditions, cultural background, and country of origin. Employers should therefore, also understand the needs of other groups, such as clothing requirements, recognising festivals/holidays, and how to support individuals who are fasting. For broader guidelines on building inclusive workplaces, have a look at this report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

Above are my suggestions based on my own experiences and those of my peers. It may not be exhaustive and I welcome further comments and discussions. My hope is that by providing actionable steps, it moves the conversation a step beyond simply asking for more diversity and visibility.


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