Monday 26 August 2019

Sinead Kissane: World Rugby leading the way in acceleration of women into top board roles

Governing body an example to unions with their ambition to reflect growing popularity of game

IRFU chief executive Philip Browne. Photo: Sportsfile
IRFU chief executive Philip Browne. Photo: Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

There was one word notable by its absence in World Rugby's press release on Thursday to announce its ambition to introduce at least one-third women's representation on its council from next year.

It wasn't "aren't-we-great" or "token" or "gesture". It was "quota".

When former Minister of State for Sport Patrick O'Donovan proposed to bring-in a 30pc gender quota for State-funded sports bodies before Christmas last year it was met with gleeful condescension and derision.

It seems the word "quota" has junk status because there's a view we are way too progressive in this country for something so beneath us as gender quotas.

Instead of looking at gender quotas as an opportunity to accelerate the progression of women into positions of decision-making at board level and to normalise women in these roles, the proposal was unpicked through the prism of what it would take away; of who it would keep out of positions, of the unsuitability of possible candidates, of the undermining of meritocracy, of the unfairness of it all. Boo-hoo. No sooner was the idea out of O'Donovan's mouth when it was binned.

What words were notable by their inclusion in the World Rugby press release two days ago were "representation" and "acceleration".

World Rugby didn't need a gender quota because they decided to make space for extra representation by increasing "the number of people who may sit on the council - its highest decision-making body - from 32 to 49, with the 17 new representatives to be women".

Previously no woman had a seat at this table. Yet with one robust swoop they hope to increase female representation from 0-35pc.

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Radical? Yes.

Reflective? Yes, and more.

World Rugby (WR) say women make up 25pc of the global playing population.

The extra 17 representatives will come from the 11 unions and six regional associations. The IRFU, for example, have three votes at council so instead of sending two male representatives to a council meeting they will be invited to send a female rep too.

It won't alter the voting structure but it will give women a voice and involvement at decision-making level.

"This isn't actually about 17 women being responsible for women's rugby. This is 17 women coming on to council and being responsible for all rugby," Katie Sadleir, who started as WR's first general manager of the women's game in January this year, said.

World Rugby is trying to make real the ideal of what diversity and equality at board-room level should look like.

The European Commission's Gender Equality in Sport, Proposal for Strategic Actions 2014 -2020, has as a proposed target "a minimum of 40pc of women and men in executive boards and committees of national sport governing bodies and 30pc in international sports organisations located in Europe".

These kind of lofty ambitions cause as much tangible shake-up as a shrug of the shoulders.

But Sadleir, as well as WR chairman Bill Beaumont, has been one of the main movers in the change of governance in World Rugby.

At a workshop for 140 union representatives at a general assembly in London earlier this month, Sadleir and Beaumont discussed the new Women's Plan 2017-25 and the new 'Balancing the Board' toolkit which gives practical advice on how to increase women's representation.

Some may question the validity of a sudden increase in female representation on WR council but having a critical mass is a way of de-tokenising the systematic introduction of women.

"A common mistake made with well-intended attempts to improve women's representation is to only appoint one woman to the board," 'Balancing the Board' states.

"Research shows that for optimal impact there needs to be a critical mass of around 30pc representation.

"It can be hard to have your voice heard when you are a sole representative and that experience can be very isolating.

"At around one-third representation, women move from being regarded as 'unusual' or a special interest group, to becoming an accepted and legitimate part of the board."

It makes sense, doesn't it? After the workshop, one president of a union in Europe approached Sadleir and had all the look of a man who had just been enlightened.

"He just looked at me and said 'I just feel so bad. The penny has dropped. I just didn't realise the block I was creating by not stepping back and thinking about it,'" Sadleir recalls.

"He said he was going back to his union to see what he can do".

So what about our own union and gender balance? The IRFU has one woman - Mary Quinn - on their board after she became the first woman to be elected to it in 2015.

When IRFU chief executive Philip Browne addressed the Seanad after O'Donovan's proposal in January, he said: "The imposition of gender quotas on sports organisations is a concern for the simple reason that female rugby is still in its infancy and it will be difficult to find suitably qualified female candidates with the accumulated rugby wisdom and skill-set to fill such quotas without retreating towards tokenism."

However, using the excuse that "female rugby is still in its infancy" is a reductive exercise. Sadleir said a similar point to Browne's was raised by a union in South America - they felt they had to wait until women retired before moving them on to the board.

"Great governance is about understanding what you need on your board. Rugby skills is definitely something that's important but you probably have a lot of rugby skills on your board," Sadleir said.

"Bringing the skill-set that you need for your board and also at the same time working to develop a pipeline of people who can step up to those roles.

"Someone from outside of rugby who has some great marketing skills, for example, to add to the diversity that you're looking for - diversity in gender but diversity in terms of skills and competencies".

With World Rugby breaking new ground with female representation, Sadleir hopes the example will trickle down to other unions.

"If you don't have diversity on your board, you have group-think. You want to make sure that you're looking at all of your decisions from a balanced perspective," she added.

Instead of being forced into it by doomed proposals like O'Donovan's last year, what about the IRFU taking its own initiative to be radical and reflective.

After all the bad press over the evaluation report and the 2023 RWC bid process, World Rugby has taken a lead with the acceleration of women into decision-making positions.

Who's got the balls and foresight to follow?

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