Passion-powered change: the positive pursuit of diversity

On International Women's Day, Synergy managing director Lisa Parfitt lays out how female leaders in sport can drive the changes they want to see in the industry.

Passion-powered change: the positive pursuit of diversity

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change we seek.”

The words of Barack Obama at an address to supporters in February 2008. Ten years later, and there’s little doubt that the world has changed profoundly, no more so than in politics. But in many ways, for one of the most fundamental global issues, gender diversity, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

It’s a bit of a cliché, really: a woman, in leadership, writing an article on the importance of gender diversity; but, clichés aside, I feel a great responsibility to other women, and to the industry that I work in and love.

Steve Jobs, a very different breed of visionary to Obama, once said: “People with passion can change the world.”

Whilst Jobs may have been talking about “passion” in the context of entrepreneurial spirit, passions can be equally powerful as drivers of cultural and societal change.

Because passions are the things that we choose to fill our lives with, what we dedicate ourselves to and form relationships around. Passions are the stuff that we want to feel a part of, and most importantly are committed to making better.

For others, passions might include music, movies, fashion, theatre or gaming – the list is endless. For me, it’s all about sport: the skill, camaraderie, community and entertainment it provides inspire and engage me like nothing else. That’s precisely why I’m personally so committed to making sport, and the industry behind it, better in any way I can.

Women’s sport has clearly come a long way over the past decade – in terms of profile, pay, investment and even the nature of the conversations that surround it.

Whether it’s the 100 million people worldwide who watched the Women’s Cricket World Cup Final, the shrinking gap between male and female sports participation, the removal of F1 Grid Girls, Katrien Meire’s appointment as CEO at Sheffield United, the commitment of Lewes Football Club (also known as Equality FC) to equal pay, or 7.4 million people tuning in to watch Johanna Konta’s semi-final at Wimbledon (making it the tournament’s most watched women’s match of all time) – it’s clear that significant changes are taking place.

100 million people watched England beat India in the Women's Cricket World Cup final in July 2017

Another great example of this is men’s tennis star Andy Murray, who had no hesitation in appointing Amélie Mauresmo as his coach in 2014.

Still, that very moment which was such a powerful signal of progress also highlighted how far we still need to go. The narrative that ended up playing out around this appointment amongst the media and tennis community was a story of unconscious bias and, at times, blatant sexism. Yet the British number one's cool, calm and unsanctimonious correction of journalists that failed to recognise the impact of female tennis players on the sport cast a spotlight on the inequalities that still exist. Of course, there are plenty of women in the game that have been saying the same thing for some time, but Murray used his voice and considerable social media presence to throw open the door to this echo chamber.

The fact remains that for everything I love about sport, and for all the positive steps we’re seeing, we need to acknowledge that diversity in sport still isn’t the 'new normal', and it isn’t reaching its full potential as a result.

In 2017, Women In Sport released its #Beyond30 report, revealing the progress of sports governing bodies in reaching the government-set target of 30 per cent of all boards being women. Progress has been made, but 33 of the 68 governing bodies that receive public funding from UK Sport and Sport England still don’t meet the 30 per cent target.

Of course, this isn’t just an issue for sport.

Women make up less than 40 per cent of the global workforce, and only 25 per cent of leadership positions. Yet the economic opportunity to get more women involved in work is staggering - McKinsey estimates that it could create up to US$12 trillion in additional GDP globally.

Remember: Deeds not Words. Because gender equality is everyone’s business, and if you are not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

What’s more, there is a strong positive correlation between the representation of women in leadership roles and the financial performance of businesses. When companies commit themselves to diverse leadership, they are more successful. Fact. Good decision-making requires the ability to hear and consider different points of view from people with different backgrounds, opinions and perspectives. More diverse companies are better able to win top talent and improve their customer focus, employee satisfaction and decision-making, and all that leads to a virtuous cycle of increasing returns and competitive advantage.

But brands also have an obligation that goes beyond their shareholders. They have enormous power as 'social shapers' – influencing society's stereotypes, cultural norms and prevailing attitudes. That’s why it’s so important for them to consider how women are portrayed in marketing and, as Engine’s ‘21st Century Woman’ study showed, there is still plenty of work to be done on that front, too.

More than three-quarters of women don’t believe that brands are representing the modern woman accurately. Even sports apparel brands, who have been selling their wares to women for years and can point to some of the world’s best examples of marketing to a female audience, still have work to do: only 44 per cent of women think that sports brands are doing a good job at representing them. It makes damning reading, particularly given how intrinsically linked a brand’s commercial and social objectives can be.

Gender equality in marketing needs to be a basic hygiene factor for agencies and brands looking to target women, who, let us not forget, represent 50 per cent of the population. Airbnb CMO Jonathan Mildenhall’s response to the ‘misguided words’ of one former industry leader on gender equality really summed it up, when he tweeted:

Unilever has made a clear statement to the advertising industry by committing to stop stereotyping women in its advertising and promising to ‘advance portrayals of gender’. The company recognises that advertising is a platform from which it can lead positive cultural change, and the economic fruits are staring to bear that out, with a 24 per cent increase in customers rating their advertising as progressive, and a sales growth of 3.4 per cent.

This type of thinking is also becoming more visible in other industries. Grossing US$821 million worldwide in the six months since its release (including a staggering US$103 million opening weekend), Wonder Woman turned Hollywood convention on its head, proving that an action blockbuster built around a strong woman – and directed by one – can sell. The movie was not only a commercial and critical success, but was also accredited by Vanity Fair magazine as being 'a beacon of empowerment in a Donald Trump world'.

The massive global success of 2017's Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins and starring Gal Gadot, underlined the appetite for female-led entertainment

And the hope is that this is no isolated incident: Patty Jenkins has already signed a record-breaking deal to make a Wonder Woman sequel. That in an industry tainted by the #MeToo scandal, as well as its historically dismal record of hiring female directors or offering equal pay. And it’s a responsibility she takes extremely seriously: “You’re of course aware of the money, but I’ve never been more aware of a duty than I was in this deal.”

The fact is that gender equality is absolutely essential for the social and economic growth of sport and entertainment: there’s a whole new, untapped audience out there with vast rewards available to those brands and organisations who are able to connect with them.

That’s why it’s our collective responsibility to find ways to disrupt the norm and champion gender equality from the boardroom, to the backroom, the marketing departments to the playing field, and everywhere in between.

100 years ago, the Suffragettes created the campaign 'Deeds not Words'. It was a campaign fraught with danger, where those that spoke out risked isolation, prison and even death. Yet the Suffragettes created a movement, and, united by their passion for change, they were responsible for a huge step forward for gender equality.

Which brings us back to where we started. Our passions are the things that bring us together and drive us to do better.

The fact that many people share our passion for sport makes it not only natural, but necessary to use it to power the debate, to keep the discussion in the public eye, shift preconceptions, and hold it up as a beacon of the new normal.

Remember: Deeds not Words. Because gender equality is everyone’s business, and if you are not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

So, whether it’s standing up for gender diversity on panels, being committed to closing the gender pay gap, delivering a more progressive marketing strategy, addressing gender imbalance in your partnerships or creating female-only shortlists, all of us should be asking ourselves one simple question every day: What can I do, personally, to create a more diverse and ultimately more successful industry?


Against the backdrop of this anniversary year for women’s rights, this year Women in Sport, the UK’s leading women’s sport charity, will host the Women in Sport Empower Conference. The purpose of the conference is to ask – how can we drive change over the next 100 years?

Together with partners from across Europe, Women in Sport will launch its latest research into the portrayal of women’s sport in the media. From the front pages to the commentary box, research into the breadth, quality and quantity of women’s media coverage will provide opportunity for insightful debate and discussion.

Women in Sport will be joined by top UK journalists, broadcasters, sportswomen and industry leaders for keynote speeches, workshop sessions and panel discussions to explore how we can ensure the empowering benefits of sport reach as many women and girls as possible.

Demonstrate your active commitment to the continued progression of women’s equality in the UK in this milestone year by becoming a part of this event. Publicly show your aspiration to be part of the solution, not the problem. For more information contact me.

This article originally appeared as part of Synergy's NowNowNext series.