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Q&A with Sarah Butler on IWD22

Sarah Butler is a passionate PR and Marketing Communications professional, with over 15 years’ experience in the sports and lifestyle industry, having worked for both professional sports teams such as Harlequins, and multi-million-pound corporate companies, including ECCO and currently the SportsTech leader in data and AI technology, Stats Perform.

Alongside her current role at Stats Perform as Director of Global PR, Sarah is the founder of Sport Business Connected, a company created to support women working within the sports business industry, which includes the Women in Sports Business Speaker Series.

– Which sports properties or associated businesses are leading the way when it comes to promoting gender equality and diversity within their own organisations?

I always find it hard to answer this question because, without actually working in these companies, it is hard to know if they are truly promoting gender equality or if they are saying it with PR campaigns and linkedin posts.

There is little benefit in an organisation which ticks boxes by hiring female leaders, but not giving them the ability to make decisions and make the changes they want to, or not empowering the women in their teams,.

 Companies are very quick (for example) to put out an Instagram post about #IWD, but are they truly supporting the women within?

I will say from my own experiences, my first role was given to me in a very male-dominated professional men’s rugby environment. Although I was playing premiership rugby at the time, this was considered irrelevant by my male (and female) colleagues, and I was expected (it seemed correct at the time) to prioritise my paid employment. Now the same club is doing some great work with promoting women’s rugby, both on and off the pitch – a big change from when I was working there.

At Stats Perform I have been blessed with strong female role models and leaders, and some of the most impressive and supportive colleagues I could ask for. No company is perfect, and Stats Perform, like many others, has a long way to go when it comes to promoting gender equality and diversity, but the company is definitely committed to promoting and supporting women from within, and this is probably one of the reasons I truly enjoy working there.

– Where is the sports industry still falling short on gender equality?

What I keep hearing from senior managers within the industry is that there is a degree of frustration about a lack of female job applicants, rather than a resistance to employing women. How can we get more women to apply for roles for which they are suitable? What we do not want is positive discrimination, which does our cause no favours in the long term.

I was once asked on a panel, should we allocate X interview spots to women for advertised roles? My response was I think bosses need to take more responsibility to push their female employees to progress, both internally and externally. We need to address the fact that, in general, women are not great at pushing themselves forward for roles or for promotions, and I always say, you need to know your worth and regularly push for promotion and go for that next role.

 A lot of roles within this industry are filled by men and women who are already known to the employer. With regard to men, their network is much stronger,  and they often already have a relationship with the shortlisted candidates. For women, traditionally, this network is a lot smaller and, from feedback from my events, there is a general dislike and fear of networking, so the network is weaker. My advice to any young woman starting out in the industry is, ‘Never underestimate the power of networking.’ To those women currently working within the industry, ‘Understand the importance of reaching out to another woman in a room full of strangers.’

– What more can be done to improve access and opportunities for young women looking to make a career in the sports business?

  • More work with schools and universities – we, at Stats Perform have started an engagement programme with schools to work with kids to give them more of an understanding of the side of the industry most people don’t know exists and what roles are available and what skills are needed.
  • With so much coverage dedicated to senior leaders and breaking glass ceilings and promoting C level women, we tend to forget about the importance of the role of middle management within an organisation. We forget that not every woman wants to be in a senior management role and that isn’t a failure, it is also the reality. At my events, I have always tried to put women of different levels and backgrounds on my panels, as the likelihood is that 95% of the audience will identify more with the marketing manager who is balancing work, family and career decisions than they will with the high-flying CEO. As inspirational as the CEO is, it is important not to alienate the women playing the vital roles within the organisation at all levels; without recognising and empowering these individuals, I believe we are losing talent within. These are often also the women who are making the industry a more attractive environment for the next generation.

– What are the biggest obstacles or barriers for women working in the sports industry today?

  • Women’s own confidence -women holding themselves back
  • Understanding of the roles available in the industry
  • Lack of female role models in the industry
  • Not pushing for promotion and asking for more money
  • Industries not understanding the value of diverse teams being the best teams
  • The fear of change, because that’s the way they’ve always done it

– Which individuals are blazing a trail for women in the industry right now?

There are so many, but I will mention the women who have supported and influenced me.

  • Current and past mentors – Heather Bowler (ITF), Fiona Conroy (Pitch), Anna Kessel (Telstra), Paris Smith (Pinnacle), Lisa Wainwright (Sport & Recreation Alliance), Steph Harries (WSG), Sara Orchard (BBC),
  • Ladies from the 100 club, you know who you are, thank you doing the dirty work for the next generation to take the credit
  • Laura Louisy (NFL), Sarah McChesney-Gordon (Sport Radar), Ginelle Polini (Catena), Kate Harris (Stats Perform), Louise Garlick (CAPE), Lynsey Douglas (Neilsen), Maria Rowe (Stats Perform) and all the other wonderful women in the SBC network
  • My 2 female bosses at Stats Perform– Nancy Hensley and Wendy Lucas
  • I know I have forgotten so many, so thank you to all the women who have said hello in a room full of strangers, recognised my strengths, lifted me up when I was down, listened to me when I needed to talk and been my cheerleader when I doubted myself.
  • If we all do small things, together we can achieve so much more.

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