Tuesday 20 August 2019

Gender diversity equals more effective boards - but try telling boys' club that

FAI chief executive John Delaney. Photo: Sportsfile
FAI chief executive John Delaney. Photo: Sportsfile
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Ireland has put two women into the Áras. It shouldn't be beyond the capacity of sports bodies to add some women to their boards.

But the reluctance of such organisations to embrace progress means that gender quotas are being introduced by the Government, with 30pc female membership of boards set as a funding requirement. It's time for sporting gentlemen to join the 21st century.

It would be preferable if quotas weren't necessary, and no-one wants them to be a long-term solution. But the problem with insisting that talented women will rise to the top regardless is that change simply isn't happening. The figures speak for themselves.

There are 50 places on executive committees or boards in the three big Irish sporting bodies: the Football Association of Ireland (FAI), Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) and Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). Interested in how many of those 50 are women? One. Mary Quinn on the IRFU.

If a system is malfunctioning, then it needs intervention. Clearly, the process by which people are appointed to the boards of Irish sporting bodies is flawed. Male-pale-stale is the default setting.

Change in the sporting world - as in other aspects of Irish life - needs to happen from the top down, which means moving women into the boardroom where key decisions are made. Diversity in decision-making improves the performance of any organisation.

And so to the old boys' board running the FAI. I'm taking a look at soccer in particular because it is the most popular sport in Ireland in terms of numbers of clubs and spectators.

The FAI is a private organisation but receives a hefty tranche of public funds. So the public is entitled to expect high corporate governance standards from it.

Problem number one: the board is entirely male. Problem number two: it is an entrenched and solidified board. Those fellows have put down roots.

We have John Delaney (49), who has been a director for 15 years. He's currently chief executive, and ought to be actively seeking out able women to serve alongside him if he is serious about his leadership role.

Of the other nine members on the management board, four have been there 12 years, two for 11 years and one for nine. Some industry experts recommend directors should serve no more than two three-year terms, stretching to a third term only under exceptional circumstances.

So most of the board should have stepped down by now. How else can new ideas, new ways of thinking and new perspectives be introduced to a body?

Let's consider the age profile next. Two of the members are 77. A third is 73, a fourth 71. The other members are all in their 60s, apart from one in his 50s. Diversity hasn't just left the building, it seems never to have been present in the first place.

There is nothing wrong with seniority - on the contrary, years can bring experience and wisdom. But an entire board composed of nothing but elderly or ageing men in situ for an extended period? That sort of composition is more likely to maintain the status quo than contribute to innovative decision-making.

Term limits for directors are recommended in the voluntary governance code endorsed by Sport Ireland. Other proposals include age limits, both regarded as ways of clearing out bed-blockers.

What's at stake isn't a nod to tokenism. It's about making boards effective - and diversity helps to do that. Boards are enhanced by people with outside expertise, drawn from different demographics, and with a mixture of female and male members. Diversity helps to avoid groupthink.

Junior minister Patrick O'Donovan has thrown down a challenge to the laddish mentality of the sporting bodies - which receive €25m in taxpayer funding. He has given them a generous two years to source suitable candidates (small organisations have three years to comply).

How will the big beasts respond? The FAI has been quick out of the traps to highlight the progress of women through its management structures, and initiatives such as 'Soccer Sisters' which encourage girls to play the game. These are all commendable. But the FAI board does not reflect the breadth of the game in Ireland.

It has issued a statement saying it would be "inappropriate" to comment on the quota system since it hadn't been consulted yet. Is it suggesting the State should ask the FAI nicely to do now what it ought to have done years ago?

I'll tell you what's inappropriate: taking multiples of millions from taxpayers, half of whom are female, and running the FAI board like a boys' club.

Although a private company, the FAI benefits from substantial grants, including funds from the Exchequer. Its 2015 accounts show grant and subvention income of €5.8m and game development income of €5.2m. A lot more than small change from the public purse is being funnelled towards the FAI. The public is entitled to expect that certain standards will be met in return.

Studies show that the Fortune 500 companies with the highest proportion of female board directors outperform companies with the lowest representation. According to non-profit body Catalyst, they generate 42pc more in sales and 53pc more in return on equity.

So narrowing the gender gap is beneficial for companies. It's less beneficial for the suits who'd lose their seats on boards if the net should be cast wider. But doesn't the welfare of an organisation trump every other consideration?

Ireland is not the first country to implement quotas for sporting organisations. The state of Victoria in Australia did the same a year ago, requiring 40pc female representation.

The reluctance here even to explore what women might offer tells its own story. While lip service is paid to equality, there is a belief that some are more equal than others.

Soccer is an inclusive game which crosses many boundaries. It shouldn't be too much to ask that the FAI's board mirrors this inclusivity and abides by best practice. The same goes for the GAA, IRFU and the other boys' clubs.

Martina Devlin has a diploma in company direction from the Institute of Directors

Irish Independent

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