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Jane Sullivan

What can ‘the beautiful game’ gain by embracing diversity?

Authors: Jane Sullivan Jane Sullivan, Consultant and Coaching Psychologist at Insight Coach Consult Research Ltd

02 August 2013

There is a wonderful irony in football in the UK:  the game that seeks the best talent from around the globe with wonderfully diverse and successful teams is struggling to create a similarly diverse workforce ‘off the field’.   Whilst the different leagues are, literally, a cross-cultural melting pot of talent, ‘the game’s’ management and staffing structure is predominantly white, male, and middle-aged.  There is a distinct lack of young, black or Asian faces in the hierarchy, and women don’t fare too well either.

Although, there is something of a small revolution going on in some parts of the industry. Kick it Out - an organisation set up to tackle racism in football - organised an event in partnership with The Work Foundation to look at this very issue. They invited speakers from two football clubs who are making clear steps towards more diverse workforces (Millwall and West Ham) and heard from academics, HR professionals and employment lawyers on this issue of diversity at work and the potential for greater diversity in football. 

It was heartening to hear from Millwall and West Ham on the determination of their respective chief executives to generate diversity in their management structures. Their focus was on the need for better community engagement and they both viewed a more diverse workforce as a means to that end. 

Professor Stephan Bevan and Professor Mike West, both from The Work Foundation, provided some interesting evidence about the relationship between diverse workforces and organisational performance.  The relationship is not clear cut, as it would seem that increasing diversity per se is not a magic bullet for improving the bottom line.  However, if you increase diversity and get a few other things right – such as good objectives, clear structures, and good management – then it appears to be something of a ‘golden ticket’. 

What struck me in particular was an overall willingness to improve diversity from all the delegates and speakers, alongside a palpable frustration that progress is slow. A rather heated debate about the lack of black football managers took place on whether the talent is not there, or if it was a case of perceived cultural barriers stopping potential applications. This created something of a stir, as did a question about how organisations think too narrowly about diversity, relying on easy but lazy ‘categories’, without any consideration of the possibility that someone could be, say, black, and female, and disabled at the same time.

What struck me as the real challenge for football is that to create a culture change of this magnitude requires absolute conviction, from the various clubs and the governing body. Change of this magnitude won’t happen overnight but there is great potential if each and every person in that room does something, no matter how small, towards making that change happen.

The interesting thing is that football knows it makes good business sense to embrace diversity. Perhaps it’s time they started looking not just at good practice outside the game but started to learn a few lessons from the pitch on how to make it work behind the scenes.