The governing bodies of half of the UK’s most successful sports were on Monday night facing millions of pounds in cuts unless they move to ensure women make up at least 30 per cent of their boards by the end of the financial year.
At the start of Women’s Sport Week, The Daily Telegraph has obtained figures showing seven of the 14 national governing bodies of the country’s biggest, richest or most decorated sports are on course to fail to meet a strict target imposed in a new Code of Governance expected to be published by the Government before the end of this month.
They include those of football, rugby union, cricket, cycling and boxing, all of which were set a goal four years ago of ensuring at least a quarter of their boards were women by April 2017 but are still nowhere near doing so.
The revenue streams of the NGBs of hockey and triathlon were also in jeopardy from the new 30 per cent threshold, upon which the award of public money will depend.
Sport England, the Government-appointed funding body which has invested almost half a billion pounds in grass-roots sport since London 2012, told The Telegraph it was ready to take punitive action if necessary.
Chief executive Jennie Price said: “I’m very confident that the relationship to funding is a real one, and that if people don’t comply with the code, that is going to be a very real risk.
“We need a real willingness and a really credible plan of action to do this. So, we accept that it can’t all be done in five minutes but it needs to be done as fast as we can do it and it needs to be properly and actively pursued and accepted as the right thing to do.”
Paralympic legend Baroness Grey-Thompson, a former non-executive director of UK Athletics, was scathing about the failure of the biggest NGBs to enact change after being given four years to do so.
“How much longer do we have to wait?” she said. “I think there has been time to change and to shift that behaviour. A few years ago, I remember having conversations with people who said, ‘Well, there aren’t any good women’. Really? There are plenty of good women.
“Do it or don’t do it. I think there probably needs to be some more punitive action taken against them [NGBs].”
Debbie Jevans, arguably the most experienced female administrator in British sport, said she had been against quotas four years ago but the lack of progress since had changed her mind.
“It’s a shame that’s had to happen but sometimes you do need a sledgehammer to crack a walnut and it is necessary,” said Jevans, the vice-chair of Sport England and director of the Football League, who was previously chief executive of England Rugby 2015 and director of sport at London 2012.
“I’m disappointed that it’s necessary but, because the change hasn’t been driven enough from within – and I don’t buy that not enough women are applying – it’s been necessary to do that.”
Price said 30 per cent representation on boards should only be the start.
“Women are just over 50 per cent of the population, so we should be looking for as close to parity as we can get,” she said. “Parity on boards should be a long-term aspiration. Obviously, skills-based and ability-based, but we should expect roughly that is what happens naturally.”
Jevans put the failure of NGBs to comply with the previous goal down to “subconscious” resistance.
She said: “I think people default to their comfort factor and their comfort factor is what they’ve always known, what they’ve always been comfortable with and the people they’ve enjoyed working with. It’s the group-think.
“Rather than it being consciously discriminatory, it’s just easier to carry on as it’s always been and not question the norm. But you’re missing out on 50 per cent of the nation and their view, and attracting that side of the nation into the sport.”
Senior executives at many of the non-compliant NGBs, including the Football Association, have made efforts to reform, only to be thwarted by their ruling councils or other decision-making structures. Those structures could also be forced to change under the new code.
“If you have no women in the governance structures that underpin your board, as an organisation, you should be asking yourself why?” Price said.
The same could be said about the lack of female coaches in elite sport, according to Grey-Thompson and Jevans.
“I would love to see an active programme to get more women wanting to be coaching and not thinking that is a male-dominated world,” Jevans said. “I know we had a female coach of the women’s football team for a while, which was great. But I’d like to see that breakthrough in other sports. That, I think, would make a big difference.
“What Andy Murray did appointing Amélie Mauresmo was great. She’s a Wimbledon champion. I remember the quote saying, ‘Well, she can’t go in the changing room’. Nobody ever said to all the male coaches they can’t go in the female changing room.”
There is just as big a gulf between the respective exposure – and consequent financing – enjoyed by men’s and women’s sport, with only seven per cent of UK media coverage devoted to the latter.
That is despite research carried out by marketing firm MKTG for the Women In Sport campaign group showing additional television hours can increase audience numbers.
The number of female directors, coaches and visible role models all impact upon the most important aspect of sport, participation, in which the gender gap has closed of late. However, there are still 1.6 million fewer women playing sport regularly than men.
“There shouldn’t be a participation gap,” said Price, whose job it is to get the nation active and who helped orchestrate Sport England’s game-changing “This Girl Can” campaign. “That would be my long-term aspiration.”