Sport Sister Podcast - 'Season 3, Episode 3"

Episode 3 – Women on Sports Boards: Kelly Simmons and Josie McNamara.

Kelly Simmons is a world leader in football with over 30 years experience. Kelly was formerly the Director of the Women’s Professional Game for the FA, where she led the transformation of the women’s professional game in England into one the world’s leading domestic systems. She is now a consultant and a Non-Exectuvie Director of Women in Football.

Josie McNamara is the General Manager of Northern Powerhouse Boxing Academy, which is run by an all-female board of Directors. With a background in snowsports, Josie now works hard to provide a welcoming space for women and girls to pursue boxing for well-being, not just competition.

Kelly and Josie join Natalie Doyle to discuss the importance of having women on sports boards. They discuss their own experiences on boards and working with boards, changes that have been made so far and where there is still work to do. They talk about the importance of a good Chair, of mentors and shadowing programmes, and of creating an environment where women feel comfortable coming into Non-Executive Director positions.

Women have been marginalized and excluded from many sports in this country for many years. We were underrepresented in leadership positions. We were underrepresented in participation. We’re massively underrepresented when it comes to the commercial dollars. I think it’s important that women are represented, and that they can bring their insights, lived experiences, and different perspectives so that boards are better equipped to grow and develop opportunities for males and females.

- Kelly Simmons

Read this episode’s transcript

Natalie Doyle

Welcome to the Sport Sister Podcast where we bring together professional experts with grassroots pioneers to discuss key topics for women and girls sport. I’m Natalie Doyle and today I’m joined by two brilliant women from historically male-dominated sports.

Ready to discuss the importance of women on sports boards, Josie McNamara is the general manager of Northern Powerhouse Boxing Academy which is run by an all-female board of directors. With a background in Snowsports Josie now works hard to provide a welcoming space for women and girls to pursue boxing for well-being not just competition.

Kelly Simmons is a world leader in football with over 30 years of experience. Kelly was formerly the director of the women’s professional game for the FA, where she led the transformation of the women’s professional game in England into one of the world’s leading domestic systems. She is now a consultant and a non-executive director of women and football.

I’m really looking forward to this discussion because I think it’s a part of the sport that we really need to improve and there’s a lot of progress still to be made so let’s see what Josie and Kelly have to say.


Josie and Kelly, thank you so much for joining me today. We are going to talk about women on sports boards which I know is an area that you both have a lot of experience in personally and a lot of passion about. So, let’s start at the beginning with you Josie. Why do you think it’s important to have women on sports boards?

Josie McNamara

My experience of being a woman on a board is only on an all-woman board, so I’ve never been part of a mixed-gender board. That obviously brings a lot of benefits to it which I hope we’ll go into more detail about, but I think the importance of having women on a sports board, obviously, things like diversity of perspective, bringing those different viewpoints, experiences, insights to the table. Obviously women are, if they’re part of the sport, then they should also be represented at board level and their needs should be represented. And then obviously you know coming down to equality and fairness ensuring women have leadership roles, make sure that that there is equality on that board.

Natalie Doyle

Definitely. How about you Kelly?

Kelly Simmons

Yeah, yeah, similar really. I think the research shows that businesses are more successful if they have diverse boards and sports no different. And women have been marginalized and excluded from many sports in this country over many years and we were underrepresented in leadership positions. We were underrepresented in participation. We’re massively underrepresented when it comes to the commercial dollars. So I think it’s really important that the sports boards are diverse and that women are represented and that they can bring their insights, their lived experiences, their different perspectives, and boards then are better equipped to grow and develop opportunities for men and women, males and females, which is their role.

Natalie Doyle

100%. It’s interesting, Josie, that you mentioned that your experience is being part of an all-female board. Has it always been that way for your organization or has that been something that’s changed over time?

Josie McNamara

No, so our organisation’s called Northern Powerhouse Boxing Academy, and it was started with that explicit intention that it was going to be an all-woman board. And it came about as a result of our founders who had worked in boxing for a long time and had experienced firsthand a lot of negatives around what is a very male-dominated sport. Women have only been competing in boxing for just over 20 years really, so coming into that sport, before the club was set up in 2018, women just weren’t able to be taken seriously within a boxing club environment. It was very unusual for them to feel safe in that environment, you know a lot of the language that might be used, just stuff like, there not being separate changing spaces for women, when you went out to box at a show, male coaches being unaware of how things like the menstrual cycle would affect your weight as a woman.

As you know, boxing is all about your weight category and these are really delicate things when you’re talking about taking teenage girls out to a competition and then being concerned about weight gain.

So the boxing club was set up to create that safe space, to create an environment where it was woman-led, the girls could come in and compete against other girls, participate with other girls, the coaches were women and that was all topped off with a board that was women who acted as advisors and leaders for the club. So it was all about creating a new standard in boxing really. So yeah, I became part of that board in 2019 and then in 2020 became the general manager. So since then have been running the boxing club.

Natalie Doyle


Amazing. It’s a great story. I mean a fantastic organisation doing amazing things, and it’s interesting, you’re both obviously coming from sports that are very historically male-dominated. Kelly you’re involved in Women In Football as a non-executive director. Now am I right in thinking that’s a mixed-gender board that you have there?

Kelly Simmons

Yeah that’s right, yeah, we think it’s really important to have male allies and we’re advocating obviously diverse boards and you know we value hugely the impact and support and input of those male allies. So someone like Paul Barber who is Chief Executive of Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club has a team in the Women’s Super League, I think last week they just announced they are the most profitable club ever in the Premier League. You know someone of his standing in the game to help us champion women in the industry and Women in Football, it’s really, really valuable. So yeah, it is a diverse board and is doing some brilliant work making sure that we develop a pipeline of women leaders who support women in the industry, that we call out discrimination when we see it, and we champion for a more gender-diverse industry.

Natalie Doyle

Yeah, that pipeline is really important, isn’t it? I think it’s interesting Josie when you talk about the work that’s happened at your organisation around getting an all-female board. It’s really impressive that you’ve done that because there are some real challenges to get women on sports boards. What are those barriers that you’ve both seen for women to get into those sort of roles? I’ll let you argue over who answers first.

Kelly Simmons

I think there are many, many talented women. So I think it’s still really important that we build the pipeline but I think there are many, many women there who are probably not getting the opportunity. We know, don’t we, that there’s sort of bias, you know, there can be recruitment biases, group think, people that recruit like for like, feel more comfortable sitting with people who look just like them and those sort of biases can lead to women maybe not getting fair access and opportunity.

I think things are changing. Things are definitely changing in sport. I think the big moment came when Sport England dictated through the governance code that if you wanted Sport England money, then a minimum of 30% of your board had to be female and there was sort of best practice, governance principles embedded within that and from there I saw drastic change in sport. I saw it in the FA and I think really Sport England forced the hand of sport to get its governance sorted and be much more gender diverse. And then suddenly when sports couldn’t turn down the money they found lots of brilliant women were suddenly available to be on the boards. We know that there’s still more to do, and women aren’t a homogeneous group and there aren’t enough black women and women of colour coming through onto Boards. So there is still a lot of work to do but I think that most changed the sporting landscape overnight in terms of governing bodies anyway and we can talk sort of about the wider sport and some of the challenges that are still left to do. But I think for governing bodies, for sport, that was transformational.

Natalie Doyle

Yeah, definitely. How about you Josie? What barriers have you seen?

Josie McNamara

We honestly haven’t really seen any barriers because we, as a woman-led organization, we’ve gone out to our members and openly recruited people onto our board. Funnily enough, we’ve never had, even though we are a women-led organization, we have lots of men and boys that come and train at our club. We have a male coach the rest are all women, but we’ve never had any men ask to join our board. It’s not that it’s exclusively for women, but, in that recruitment process, no men have ever actually wanted to apply for a position on our board. But I think in the wider context of women on sports boards, yeah I think quite often it can be down to those stereotypes and the bias in women feeling like they have that capability and leadership and when I asked our Board Members what is it that they really like about being on our board, it was that they said time and time again, it’s that lack of ego. There’s no conflict. It’s a very comfortable, relaxed atmosphere to be on our board because we’re all fighting the same fight so to speak, and I think women can feel quite intimidated. Even the word, ‘The Board’ is very kind of you have this perception of a group of men sitting around at a big wooden table and they’re saying ‘I think this’. So you know, getting in the dawn and maybe making women aware what it is really like and the change that they can have and that they do have a place at the table. And how rewarding that can be to represent women.

Kelly Simmons

I think Josie said something really interesting there because when women first started to get on the boards of sport, it was often one single woman and therefore there’s sort of extra pressure on you to maybe call out stuff or champion women’s sport and there’s just one of you and it can be quite isolating. And there’s this research, isn’t there, that takes a certain percentage of gender diversity before it can truly kick in because you can’t expect one woman to carry a board of 12 and its thinking around representing women and bringing different thoughts and different experiences to the table. So I know Sport England set that target of 30% with a view to growing that and I think The FA Board, when I left The FA, I think the board was roughly fifty/fifty and it’s really important to try and get up to equal numbers and it not to be tokenistic because that can make it a pretty miserable experience for the woman, the individual woman left on it. I’ve heard some horror stories in my time about that.

Natalie Doyle

Yeah, and it takes a certain type of woman to be able to put yourself forward to be just that single person in the room like the image that you painted there Josie around the men around the wooden table. It’s hard to be somebody who’ll put themselves forward and feel comfortable enough to go for that sort of role. Josie, you talked about creating that safe environment if you like where there’s a lack of ego, which is really important isn’t it, because there’s one thing about getting women onto boards, but then it’s also about how do you actually create an experience where they want to stay there in that environment. What different things do you think that organisations can do to make that experience better for the women who do get these roles?

Josie McNamara

Yeah I think at our organisation, there’s no question about what the priorities are for us. The aim of the club has always been to prioritise women and girls, so when we come into that room, that’s always at the forefront of our minds. We’re never battling against what else might be on the agenda. We’re always working towards that goal. I think we just have a really open environment. We’re a community-based boxing club, so everything we do is about improving things in our local community. We’re really local. We’re in one town. Our participants come from the two neighbouring towns, and as long as we’re answering the needs of the people within that community then we are doing a good job.

Kelly Simmons

I think for me, it’s about a culture of inclusivity and that is really important. Those sort of values and how the board operates are really important in making everybody feel welcome and included and valued and I think that’s about making sure that everybody’s got the opportunity to input. So a good chair, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with some brilliant chairs, like Dawn Airey who’s Chair of the Women’s Super League board, who would make sure that there was space for everybody to input and that their opinions were valued and listened to and you try to reach a consensus by listening to everybody around the table understanding the facts. No aggressive behaviour. None of the sort of stuff that you might think would go on in some boards. you know I’ve been lucky enough to be Exec Lead on some really, really good boards and I think it comes to the ‘how’ they operate and the values that underpin that and clearly you know, Josie, it sounds like your organisation and how you lead and how the board leads probably creates such an inclusive environment, everybody feels that they can be their authentic self, turn up, give their best, be valued and that’s all everybody wants isn’t it?

You hear other stories of boards where it can be quite aggressive and cutthroat and it would put anybody off really.

Josie McNamara

Yeah I think our environment’s probably quite unique and we come together, sometimes it’s on Zoom and sometimes it’s in someone’s house and all our board members came through the club, so they’re all invested. They haven’t come onto the board to put something on their CV. They’ve come because they want to help look after our community boxing club and that creates a really nice environment. And one of the things we have done, when we first started out the board, it was just a group of people. One of the things we’ve implemented over the last couple of years was giving everyone a very specific role. So we would have a Welfare Director, we’d have a treasurer, all the people that you normally have. We’ll have a Head Coach. We have a new project at the moment, so we’ve brought in a new Building Director because we’re hoping to take on different premises. So everyone having a very specific role within the board, because I think especially when you’re a small organisation, you know, I’m the only full-time employee, it sometimes feels like the buck can stop me and I can report back to the board and get their input and they’re brilliant. But when we’ve got an issue, having someone at board level that and that buck stops with them, has really helped how the board functions and how everyone feels more supported at board level. But you know this is at a small community level, working well to answer the needs of our community rather than any kind of a national influence as many boards are.

Natalie Doyle

Yeah, having those clear roles and responsibilities are really important aren’t they? Have you seen that within the roles that you’ve been involved in Kelly, as well?

Kelly Simmons

Yeah, I mean often, the boards I’ve worked with are stakeholder boards so people come in representing, whilst they’ve got to sort of turn up and represent in this context, obviously The FA which is most of my sort of experience, they’re representing stakeholders, so when I was working, I was Director of the National Game. That was The County FA’s and the non-league game, turning up to make sure that sort of their areas of the game were represented. With the WSL that was a mixture of independence, Super League clubs, Championship clubs and The FA. So you’ve got a sort of a mix of diversity, a mix of experiences, a mix of agendas in the room and then the challenge is to try and get everybody lined up behind a common vision and a common strategy and driving forward together.

Natalie Doyle

Yeah, it’s interesting that you’ve both talked about the importance of that clear vision. And Josie, it’s great that you’ve had people who have been involved in the club and then come on to the board so they have a really good understanding of what the vision of the organisation is and what it is that you’re trying to achieve.

Have you got any ideas on what you think could be done to increase the number of women on sports boards? We know that there’s been great progress recently, but what else can we be doing to get more women into those roles?

Josie McNamara

I think a really easy one is just looking for those people who are able to give back, you know, that are looking to give back something to the sport, that might not have considered themselves board material, especially women who might have retired from work. Some of our board members are at a point now where they just have more time to put into something and actually give it that time and thought. And those people do exist within the community but it’s somehow breaking down those barriers and creating an environment where they feel like they’re able to apply for that position. We’ve talked about the stereotypes involved and in having sports boards or having boards in general, but I think actively recruiting in a way that breaks down the barriers and allows women to feel like they’ve got a place at the table.

Natalie Doyle

Did you find Josie, that when you were recruiting people into those roles, did you find that people were putting themselves forward voluntarily or did you need to, you or somebody else, need to give them a bit of a nudge, for those people like you say, who think that maybe they’re not board material, they don’t have the relevant experience? How was that process?

Josie McNamara

Let me think. We’ve done a bit of both. We’ve had specific roles that we’ve really needed to fill like our Welfare Director role with something that we felt within the sport of boxing, working with women and girls, that we needed someone at board level that, our welfare officer and our safeguarding team could report to that wasn’t me, who was involved in the day-to-day running of the club. We recruited hard for that role and got someone who was brilliant. But, for example, when I was invited onto the board, it came totally out of the blue. I’ve worked my whole life in sports, in snowsports, always worked and pushing women and girls in sports and I had just gone along to the club, I was just a club member, I went there to try and get fit again after having my second child. They knew I had a lot of experience in sports and in sport marketing, and I just got a call one day, do you want to be on our board? And I was thrilled. I had never considered that they might want me on their board but I could see the value that I could bring when I thought about it, and since then it’s kind of escalated because I’m now running the place and it’s an incredibly rewarding organisation to be part of. If you’d said to me five/six years ago, you’re going to be running a boxing club in West Yorkshire, I would have just been like what on earth are you talking about.

Natalie Doyle

How about you Kelly? What have you seen with the women that you’ve worked with on boards and elsewhere? Do you see that there’s the confidence there to step into those roles or do sometimes people need a bit more encouragement?

Kelly Simmons

A bit of both I think. I think sometimes it’s a lack of confidence maybe. That’s where some of those leadership programs, and mentoring networks are so important in my industry of football. Obviously, that’s a key role that women in football play around supporting women through different levels of leadership courses, providing mentors which I think are invaluable. It was transformational for me in my career to have a brilliant mentor. Board shadowing I think is really important. I think often, I know a lot of women who are starting to think about could they add non-execs to, you know, they are at that point in their career where maybe they could look at non-exec board posts and are sort of unsure how to get in, wonder if they’ve got the right skills and experience etc. So I think the work that some of those organisations are doing like Women in Football is really, really important to support and encourage and give confidence and signpost women to those opportunities.

But I think, there’s still a lot of sport that I work in where women are massively underrepresented and I think whilst we talked about the governing body going through significant change, probably led by Sport England funding, I know the County FA’s have gone through a big change in terms of their governance. But, a lot of the clubs are very, very male-dominated still. Their boards are. Some of them are 100% male. There’s very, very few women on board throughout the Premier League and the EFL. Those clubs now are now representing predominantly men’s and women’s football teams and a thriving growing women’s professional game and I think there’s an awful lot more to do there. Obviously, there’s privately owned clubs, but I would like to see the government through the independent regulator, and the new licensing system, is that evolves to push more of an EDI agenda through that or certainly look through that sort of lens around the makeup of those boards and are they fit for purpose to drive men’s and women’s professional football as the game changes. I still think the sport I work in, there’s an awful lot to do and there are brilliant women that are ready to step into those roles but those doors aren’t ajar enough.

Natalie Doyle

Yeah, 100%. I think like you said before around some of the governing bodies suddenly found all these amazing women when the governance code required them to, from a funding perspective, it would be good to start seeing some of those changes in other organisations where it’s not necessarily down to funding but just because of all the other reasons that we’ve talked about. If we have got organisations who are listening and would like to think about how they make their board a bit more diverse, how they get more women involved, what advice or tips would you both give to them?

Kelly Simmons

I think if they’re recruiting, for me, I think one of the big things, if they’re recruiting externally for non-executive directors for their board and they’re using an agency, which they often do, then I would demand, I’d be looking at that track record of that agency for its ability to recruit diverse candidates, and I’d be demanding diverse lists instead of them pulling up the same old ‘mates’ list, regurgitated lists of people they know. So if I was going down that route, I’d be really, really pushing to make sure that the lists I’m looking at reflects the communities that we all serve.

Natalie Doyle

How about you Josie?

Josie McNamara

I think investing in that diversity training for, even at Board Level and trying to foster that inclusive environment. I’ve heard tales of friends of mine on other boards and it’s like the woman is still expected to make the cups of tea or tidy up at the end. It’s kind of like we have a woman in the room and they slide into a specific role, even if it’s at that board level. So yeah, I think investing in diversity training right from the top to the bottom in sport is really important.

Natalie Doyle

Yeah, that’s one thing, isn’t it? It’s not just about how you’re recruiting new people on, it’s about how can you upskill the existing people that you’ve got on the board to make sure that you are creating a fully inclusive environment where people are going to want to be part of that.

Thank you both so much, I mean the time has gone so quickly, but it’s been such an interesting discussion. So thank you so much for all of your stories and your advice. It’s been really useful.

Kelly Simmons

Thank you.

Josie McNamara

Thank you for having us.

Natalie Doyle

What an interesting discussion that was with Josie and Kelly. I think what I really liked is that although they’re both involved in sports that are historically male-dominated, very different organizations, and some of the challenges that they’ve encountered are very similar, but some of them are very different, and it’s been interesting to hear some of the solutions that they’ve seen to overcome the challenges of getting more women involved in sports boards and there has been some great progress in recent years which has been great to see.

But I think this is certainly one of the areas of women who go a sport and sport in general that we do still have a long way to go in. So if you are an organisation who is involved in sport, do take their tips and advice on board because they had some great advice in this episode. Let’s see how we can keep turning the dial and make this progress continue.

Thank you once again to Kelly and Josie for joining me and we will be back again soon with another episode of the Sports Sister Podcast. We’ll see you then.

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