Who Would Want To Be A Female CEO In Sport?

Alongside a lack of female coaches in sport, there is an even greater lack of female CEO’s, leaders and decision makers.

According to Farrer & Co and their 2019 report: Women in Sport, Levelling the Playing Field, only 3% of professional sports clubs have 30% or more of women on boards, and only 5% have a woman in a leadership role.

There are a number of initiatives aimed at increasing these numbers, from the Women in Sport campaign ‘Beyond 30‘, aimed at working with sport bodies in order to achieve at least 30% representation of women on their board. The BreakThrough Summit launched by ESPNw aimed at inspiring women to ‘see it and be it’ and countless efforts by governing bodies to encourage more women to apply for leadership roles.

So with all these initiatives and awareness around the lack of female leaders in sport, why are we not seeing a significant increase in the diversity of sports leadership?

The experience of women working at high levels in sport isn’t always as simple as it seems. Now don’t get us wrong, being the CEO of any sports organisation comes with unique challenges, including even the smallest of failures being publicly available for all fans, athletes and coaches to see…but being a female CEO in sport comes with additional challenges other than the usual pressures of being a CEO.

Take the experience of British Athletics CEO Joanna Coates.

Joanna has been in post since March 2020 after an incredibly successful 10 years at England Netball. There, Joanna led a successful bid to bring the Netball World Cup to England in 2019, and saw Team England win Commonwealth Gold for the first time in their history in 2018.

It’s fair to say that when Joanna joined British Athletics in early 2020, the organisation was in a state of disrepute. They had been issued warnings by UK Sport and a number of independent reviews were undertaken into their Safeguarding practices and overall running of the organisation. Joanna Coates was head hunted to sort out the mess left behind by the previous CEO and administration to save the organisation and protect the athletics community.

From the off, the new CEO had an unprecedented amount of exceptional challenges to deal with, including a Global Pandemic and 4 days into her role, a suspended Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Over the last 19 months, Joanna Coates has tackled issues head on, reformed the organisation, made bold and difficult decisions, and always put the athletes at the heart of everything she does. She has made herself available to everyone who wanted to speak with her, everyone who wanted to share their views and insights with her and everyone who wanted to have a general moan about the situation the sport got itself into.

As is always the case in sport, not everyone agrees with every decision that is made by the sports leaders, and often take to social media to air their views and share their frustrations. However, Joanna has has continually been the target of abuse, harassment, threats and bullying across social media and in the media itself.

Her Twitter timeline is filled with abhorrent abusive replies, and back in August 2021, Joanna admitted that she had stopped posting on twitter because of the amount of abuse she was receiving:

Even in response to these tweets, the abusive posts by some continued and over the next few weeks, it seemed every time the CEO of British Athletics tweeted, her replies were filled with abusive, bullying and abhorrent content.

For the respect we have for Joanna Coates, we decided not to publish examples of the abusive tweets she received, but trust us when we say, anyone who says they wouldn’t be effected by them is lying.

To briefly explain the set up of athletics in the U.K., the governance is lead by 5 organisations; British Athletics, England Athletics, Welsh Athletics, Scottish Athletics and Athletics Northern Ireland. The 4 Home Country bodies are headed by male CEO’s, all who are also responsible for the decline of athletics across the UK. None have received the abuse that the only female CEO has received, and none of whom have publicly condemned the abuse.

For someone who is passionately committed to making change, and giving those who were abused sexually, physically and emotionally by the sport, the justice they deserve – is this really the treatment she deserves?

Are those dishing out the abuse simply showing the World how toxic the sporting world is and how low athletics has really sunk?

In a joint statement published alongside Kyniska Advocacy, both the FCN and Kyniska expressed their disappointment and frustration of the unfair treatment of Joanna Coates and recognised the work she and her new team at British Athletics have undertaken so far to make the athletics world a better place.

Cultural and systemic change does not happen overnight. It takes bold, persistent and concerted action from people who care. How lucky is athletics in the UK sport to now have those people in charge.

And it’s not just Joanna Coates who has to deal with sexist bullying, harassment and public humiliation simply for doing their jobs.

Take the example of the Australian Olympics Chief giving a ‘dressing down’ to Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and ordering her to attend the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics.

Or how about the comments Debbie Hewitt received on her appointment as the first female Chair of the F.A?

Or how about the constant abuse Karen Brady received as West Ham Vice-Chairman:

I have pretty much always been on the receiving end of abuse, often from football supporters who can spout the most hateful stuff.

More often than not it comes from middle-aged men with daughters and families of their own who still think it is somehow OK to have a go at me even though I have nothing to do with transfers or the team and clearly don’t play football (not that that would make it OK either).

The abuse I get is vile. And so much worse now than it’s ever been.

It is very personal, hateful and targeted. Internet trolls often reduce me to the way I look as a way of attempting to belittle me.

To ask again the question we started this post with – who would want to be a female CEO / leader in sport?