In 2015, Sport England launched their ‘This Girl Can’ campaign to encourage more women to participate in sporting activities. It used attention-grabbing headlines such as, “I kick balls, deal with it” and “Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox”. The aim was to show what real women look like during training rather than what is seen in mainstream media.
Sport England CEO Jennie Price suggested that results from their research show an alarming disparity between men and women who were actively exercising on a regular basis. “The figures on participation are crystal clear," she said, "There is a significant gender gap, with two million more men than women exercising or playing sport regularly.”
Can you spot the parallel with the business world? There is a similar disparity between the number of men and women at senior levels in organisations. According to Grant Thornton’s 2014 International Business Report, the proportion of women in senior roles is stuck at 24%. And at the most senior level - on the board - women account for 22.8% of overall board directorships, although this statistic hides the fact that 27.9% of non-executive directorships, but only 8.4% of executive directorships are held by women?1
Before they began this campaign, Sport England looked carefully at what women were saying about why they were participating less than men. One of the strongest reasons why women didn’t want to participate was a fear of judgement: for being the wrong size, not fit enough and not skilled enough, just not good enough in some way.
To counter this, Sport England launched the 'This Girl Can' campaign. This campaign tries to tell the real story of women who exercise and play sport. They major on the fact that women come in all shapes and sizes and all levels of ability. They have a myriad of reasons for doing what they do.
But, if women have such strong beliefs about their capability to participate in sport, is it such a leap of faith to think that they might also have doubts about their capability to hold senior positions in our organisations? Is it inconceivable that the belief held by some women, such as “If I get on that treadmill and press that button and fall off, I’m going to look really stupid and everybody is going to stare at me, and I’m certainly not going to wear those clothes to do it”, just might have a corresponding belief attached to the work environment? Might it be possible, there are women in our companies who think “I am not going to put myself forward, because if I speak out in a meeting or take on a role that I don’t feel comfortable doing, if something goes wrong, people will judge me and think I am stupid”?
And so, what might we learn from this campaign? Sport England realised that typical role models for women in sport, such as Olympic athletes Jessica Ennis or Victoria Pendleton, might not be the best way to encourage normal women, because their fitness levels and physiques are seen as completely unachievable. In business, maybe typical role models such as Karren Brady, Rosmarie Scardino or Martha Lane Fox seem to have lives and careers that are equally unachievable.
Like Sport England who looked for ordinary women to front their campaign, with no airbrushing or flattering editing, should we look for similar ordinary women to be the face of diversity in our businesses? Could this approach help to engage female employees and give them more confidence in your organisation?
Who will be the first in the corporate world to embrace women, "Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox", or "I kick balls deal with it," without judgement?