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Opinion: Positive discrimination is needed in sport to battle gender balance problem

It’s a necessary evil.

Hope Solo spoke at the One Zero conference in Dublin this week.
Hope Solo spoke at the One Zero conference in Dublin this week.
Image: DPA/PA Images

“Well, I could be wrong but I believe diversity is an old, old wooden ship that was used during the Civil War era.” – Ron Burgundy.

LIKE RON’S EDITOR, Ed Harken, I would be surprised if anyone involved in sport in Ireland was concerned about the lack of an old, old wooden ship (while it could be argued some attitudes towards women in sport in this country do harp back to Civil War times) however, there have been lots of concerns raised about a lack of diversity.

Just last year the then Minister for Sport Patrick O’Donovan focused the spotlight on the boards on the national governing bodies of sports in this country.

His intention was to ensure at least 30% of a sporting organisation’s board was made up of female representation.  His rationale was that “young Irish women need role models on and off the field.”  His method was the stick; don’t reach that target and face a cut to funding.

At the time, the proposal generated lots of reaction.  Some saw gender quotas as a necessary evil; others were vehemently opposed.

It was very interesting then to hear opposing views to the notion of gender quotas and positive discrimination at One-Zero 2017 at Croke Park last week.  The conference heard from leading voices in the world of sport discussing leadership, elite performance, nutrition and a range of other topics.

One voice that has passionately fought for better conditions for female sports people, to the point she believes it got her the sack, is Hope Solo.  A superstar of world soccer, she maintains her sacking by the USA Soccer Federation was due to being to the forefront of a campaign to secure better pay for female players, rather than controversial remarks made about the Swedish team in the aftermath of a defeat.

She’s not keen on positive discrimination though.  Her message in this area was very clear cut; “Pick the best people based on merit, not on gender.”

The view that being picked for a team or coaching position or board should be based on merit and not on gender is one that certainly came to the fore when Patrick O’Donovan made his intervention.

However, Kate Dale of Sport England, also speaking at One-Zero, had an alternative viewpoint.  Sport England have already introduced gender quotas.  Any organisation applying for UK lottery funding must meet the criteria of having at least 30% gender diversity on boards.  It applies both ways – the example of the England Netball Board needing to reach 30% male representation was used.

Dale passionately believes it is necessary because otherwise gender balance will not be achieved and, while withdrawing funding may be a blunt implement, “money works!”

So, two big questions arise.  Can we be sure that a woman, if she is the best person for a job on merit, doesn’t have less of a chance of getting said job based on her gender? Equally importantly, if a woman is, or perhaps is not, the best person for the job should we positively discriminate in her favour to ensure a female point of view is heard?

If the answer to question number one is ‘yes’, then question number two should become irrelevant.  I say ‘should’ because there are numerous other factors and obstacles that may stop a woman from putting herself forward for a job.

If the answer to question number one is ‘no’, and as long as that answer is ‘no’, then positive discrimination would certainly appear to be that “necessary evil” however much it grates.

Kieran McSweeney is Associate Director Teneo Sports.

‘Gary Speed was a huge friend of mine. I never thought he had any issues’

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Kieran McSweeney

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