Football boards and diversity

Despite increasing awareness of the need for diversity, women are still left on the sidelines when it comes to representation on football club boards


Image: Istock

Christina Philippou  

Director of policy, Fair Game, and principal lecturer, University of Portsmouth

Much has been made of the need for diverse boards – reflecting the population that you are. For International Women’s Day, Fair Game published a report on the state of play (pun intended) of gender diversity in English football. Penned by a number of academics (including myself), the report was based on existing and new research, and looked at governance and boards. While the results were, unfortunately, not wholly unexpected, some of the findings felt out of place in 2022.

Diversity own goal

Representation of women on boards was far below the 30% mark, with League 2 showing the highest representation (11.3%) and the Championship the lowest levels of representation (4.2%) in the top four leagues. The Premier League saw 11.1% female board representation, bolstered by the likes of Brentford, whose focus on diversity and inclusion has been widely noted in the industry.

The even more shocking figure was the number of all-male boards found: two thirds of clubs in the top four leagues had all-male boards. The Premier League had the lowest proportion of all-male boards (40%), while 83% of Championship clubs had all-male boards. This in 2022.

“Representation of women on boards was far below the 30% mark, with League 2 showing the highest representation (11.3%) and the Championship the lowest levels of representation (4.2%) in the top four leagues.”

Calls for change

But why? Football’s diversity problem has been widely noted over the years, and not just at club level. The Football Association (FA) – which looks after the England national team and grassroots – has been repeatedly criticised in Parliament for poor governance (including lack of diversity), and the previous FA Chairman resigned after using offensive language that was anything but inclusive. The calls for better diversity and inclusion in football continue from the government.

But sport is being forced to change by stakeholders too. We have seen protests from fans against lack of inclusion (for example, the Chelsea sale build-up saw a trending hashtag #NoToRicketts against one of the bids following leaked Islamophobic emails).

We have seen loss of sponsors where boards disregarded issues linked to diversity and inclusion. For example, Raith Rovers recently lost sponsors, fans, and teams following signing of a player ruled to be a rapist in a civil court case in 2017.

So, where to next?

We have seen diversity and inclusion as part of the governance requirements set out in the latest edition of A Code for Sports Governance for sports organisations wishing to access public finance from the likes of UK Sport. And even the independent Fan Led Review of Football Governance and subsequent Government response suggested that diversity and inclusion form part of the remit of the proposed new football regulator, given football’s poor track record on the subject to date.

Good governance of organisations in which the public has an interest or emotional stake is increasingly expected. And so, despite being behind other industries, football will eventually follow. Clearly, on the diversity side, more needs to be done.


Changing the game


Playing by new rules