Sport Sister Podcast - Season 1, Episode 8

Episode 8 – Women In Leadership: Yvonne Harrison and Sarah Waite.

Yvonne Harrison and Sarah Waite

Yvonne Harrison is the Chair of Women in Football and is Chair of Trustees for Foundation 92.  Sarah Waite is the Chair of Vinters FC and has over 10 years of experience volunteering in grassroots football.  Yvonne and Sarah join Natalie Doyle to discuss women in leadership in sport.  They cover the challenges they have faced in being women in leadership; the importance of surrounding yourself with supportive women; male allies and much more in this episode packed with tips and advice.

Everyone is a leader. You don’t need a CEO title to be a leader of an organisation. The strongest organisations for me are those that have leaders right throughout.

- Yvonne Harrison

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 grassroots sport. 

I’m Natalie Doyle, and in this episode, I’m joined by two amazing female leaders. 

Sarah Waite is the chair of Vinter’s FC in Kent and has done great work with her club and league to grow participation. Yvonne Harrison is the CEO of Women in Football and Chair of Foundation 92. They are both amazing female leaders in sport, and they’ve got a lot of great experience. Let’s meet them.

Right, Yvonne and Sarah. Thank you so much for giving up your time to talk to me today. We’re going to talk about women in leadership, which I’m really looking forward to getting your thoughts on because I know you’ve both got a lot of experience in this area. I feel like I need to set the scene a little bit for the listeners because we are recording this three days after the Lionesses were crowned European champions at Wembley. I think we’re probably all in a bit of a Lions-loving bubble and I’m sure we’ll get onto that a little bit later on as well, but I suppose it sets up the conversation perfectly because, in Sarina Wiegman, we’ve got a great example of a woman in a leadership position and the positive impact that can have.

If I start with you Yvonne, why do you think it’s so important to have women in leadership positions in sports specifically?

Yvonne Harrison:

I think it’s important for society full stop. I mean, women make up half of the population, why wouldn’t they be in leadership positions? But I think more importantly, in an organization, it’s really important that you have diversity of thought. And if you don’t have women in leadership positions and it’s just men, then you get this group think because how can a group of men represent truly the views and the thoughts and the perceptions of women, just like women cannot fully represent the views and thoughts and perceptions of men. So I think it avoids group think. And I think from a company point of view, if you’re looking to attract new employees and retain, it’s very important that you create a culture where there’s aspiration and women feel like they are valued and their thoughts are listened to, and that they can influence what’s happening in that organization.

So for me, they’re probably a couple of the key reasons why I think it’s so important and in sport, goodness me, women, when they’re allowed to play have been really successful despite the lack of investment that’s coming to women’s sport more generally. So again, I think it’s hugely important that we have female leaders making decisions within sports organizations because the experiences particularly of athletes and things that athletes are going through again, they’re quite nuanced and we’ve seen it in football actually, where we’ve looked at debates around the colour of shorts and we’ve seen clubs change the color of shorts from white to something else because of how the white shorts make people feel. So I think it’s very important. I wouldn’t have thought men would think about that. Often sport has been designed by men for men and that is the way it was. It’s not the way it needs to be.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah, absolutely. And the more women that get involved in participating, the more important it is that their views are represented, isn’t it? Sarah, how about you? Why do you think it’s so important?

Sarah Waite:

I think for me, to add and build on the comments Yvonne has made, it’s simply for me about being something that others can aspire to become. If I drill it down to my own personal reasons for becoming involved in sport, it’s simply to inspire my daughter. I’ve got a, well, she’s not young anymore, she’s 13 years old, but she got involved in football when she was just 5. Now I know that the fundamental and only reason that she ever got involved was simply because she saw me there as well, and that’s the only reason that she stayed as well. Now she plays for an all-boys team. She’s the only girl in this team, and as you can imagine, being 13, she’s reaching that stage where that could potentially become a challenge for her, but it simply isn’t because she’s seeing me there, I hope, and I believe as an inspiration, as someone to look up to, someone to aspire to be.

She sees me surrounded in what we know is traditionally a male-dominated environment, and she’s thinking, yeah, if my mum can do this, then I can jolly well do it as well. And it’s not just about women. I think if we had other classes of the community more involved as well, different genders, ethnicities of all types, I think we would start seeing that inspiration coming across all areas of the population.

Yvonne Harrison:

Yeah. I would actually agree with that massively. I think one of the challenges, and I know we’ll come onto this, but one of the challenges I’ve found when you establish yourself within the sports industry, and you start to develop that reputation and you’re in board rooms, you’re influencing conversations, the amount of people that have come to me, and I’m very grateful for that, but, you know, can you be on this board? Can you join this committee? Can you do this? I’m like, you know what, I’ve got loads of mates who are equally as brilliant and can, so I think there’s almost a default position that we want you, and we want to be like this. For me, progress would be that women are fully represented in leadership positions full stop. But actually, then the second step of that is women need to look different. We need to come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, different ethnicities, because again if everybody looks like me and comes from my background, we’re going to represent our view and we can’t help our biases. 

Everybody has that. And as much as we want to make sure we’re fully relating to everybody, we can’t. So I think that’s a really important point.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah, it’s true, isn’t it? We’ve talked about the visibility of Lionesses, and obviously, there’s been a lot of chat about that over the last couple of days, in terms of girls wanting to get involved in playing, but Sarah, you talked then around the importance of having those visible role models as well. And that’s what you’ve been for your daughter and will likely be to other girls as well. You both would’ve come through that situation where you maybe didn’t have those role models and you’ve ended up in these leadership positions. Did you find that as an extra challenge that you had to overcome or was it maybe not something you were aware of at the time?

Sarah Waite:

I think from my side, I think I was aware of the challenge, and I guess the challenge just made me more determined to put my head above the parapet and be that one to say I’m going to be different, but I recognize that that’s more down to personality, I guess, and that doesn’t come easy for everybody. So for us to simply rely on individuals being brave enough to step out and be different is not acceptable. What we need is, as we’ve said, to have representation such that stepping out doesn’t have to become part of being a strong person. It’s, I’m going to do this because I can see others are doing it. And I see it’s perfectly normal and okay for me to do the same.

Yvonne Harrison:

Yeah. I would echo that. I think one of the big things for me, certainly earlier in my career, it was mostly men that were around me. But I had an unbelievable boss in Richard Sanders and lastly Chris Brindley is Chair of Greater Sport. And I think allyship can’t be underestimated. The power and the opportunity that male colleagues have to open doors, champion views, call out discrimination, really support and be proactive in this space and put you forward for things when perhaps as Sarah said, maybe you don’t feel like, not everyone’s going to feel like they can get in that room. But also surrounding yourself with other great women who, I’m in a WhatsApp group, which is called PMA, which is a bit cheesy. I know, but you know and we we’ve had it for years, but these are all women who are friends of mine who are involved in sport.

And that might be journalism, media presenting, events, a whole range of things, but you know, somebody’s got a big interview, they’ve got something going on, there’s something they’re not sure about, all you need to do is drop a single line into this and I swear to God, suddenly the positivity comes and you’re like, I can take on the world. So I think there was a lack of female role models that I could relate to when I was younger, but the male colleagues I had around me really believed in me and really pushed me, and also like Natalie, very driven. I remember at one point my boss saying to me, Yvonne, you can take a breath. Like it’s just this ladder and I’ve gotta keep going, but actually just breathe. And I might have done for five seconds and then I cracked on, but you know, it’s that sort of thing.

At least you’ve got somebody just reminding you that it’s okay to just pause. Because it is. Because we put so much pressure on ourselves to be the role model, to create the change, to pave the way for others. And that can be mentally very challenging alongside potentially balancing, the other part of your life which for both of us is as a mother. I have a 13-year-old daughter as well, and two boys and I work equally as hard with the boys as I do with Clara around their responsibility in society, and in our household, and in school, and with their friends groups to champion, I think that’s massively important.

Sarah Waite:

Yvonne, it’s interesting when I hear you speaking. What’s striking me is perhaps the vast difference in the two of our environments that we find ourselves in, when it comes to being female leaders in a sport environment. I hear you talking and this is your job with no disrespect. You are in an environment where it’s your job. You’ve got a fantastic structure behind you, of line managers, of leaders who are a support mechanism in an organization that’s really enabling you as much as possible to fulfil your potential. And then if I look at where I’m coming from, and I know many others come from, I’m involved as a female in sport at the grassroots level, I’m a volunteer, that support structure, that environment, those mechanisms are simply not there. You go into it blind and you get what you’re given kind of situation. And although we face identical challenges I don’t doubt, the environments are so vastly different that I wonder that our challenges may well be experienced quite differently.

Yvonne Harrison:

Yeah. I think it’s a really fair point. And I’ve also been in that grassroots environment, but in a predominantly female sport of netball, set up a junior club, been on that committee and that type of thing, but I think you’re right. And actually, Women in Football have just launched a program with PepsiCo around helping to qualify and pay for qualifications for 45 new female coaches as part of the legacy. And we’re working with The FA on that. And within that, we’ve actually built in some coach developer sessions, because it’s all very well and good, somebody going, and I’ve done this myself, to go do your level one, go do your level two. I know they’re not called that now but back in the day, and go and do those badges.

And then you’re given this group of kids. It’s really tough to be a newly qualified coach and, the stresses I had of trying to plan a session and is it right? And are the kids going to listen to me and all of this stuff. So to actually build in sessions with the coaches, so as they’ve gone and they’ve started doing their activities in grassroots football, they can come back and we can understand, well, what are the challenges you’re facing, what have been your biggest barriers, what has surprised you, just started to get an understanding of that on pitch stuff. Equally an anecdote from, I went to an event at a Rugby club with a friend of mine and it was a lady’s day. And, you know, it’s all about raising money, all happy to raise the money and drink some prosecco, no problem, to support grassroots sport.

That’s fine. And I have to say, I called out the chairman of this club because his language and his behaviour in this raffle that they were drawing was 100% unacceptable, but it took a couple of times for him to say things before I just thought enough. He was making comments about women that were going up and getting the prizes, either positive comments or some negative comments actually as well. And it was at that point, I was like, hang on a minute and I just got up and I went and got the microphone and I just called it out right there. And then the women in the room went absolutely bananas and the guy just walked out and I thought, I don’t care who you are. I don’t care whether you’re the saviour of this club or not.

It’s totally unacceptable. And like you, I don’t want my daughter having to listen to that ever, like ever, I just don’t want it and I’m not going to stand for it. And I do get what you’re saying at the grassroots level, I’m involved in a grassroots football club as well. Not as a volunteer, just as a mum, actually, sometimes it’s nice to just be mum on the sidelines, but I do help when it’s needed and things like that. And I have to say the environment has largely been really positive. 

However, I am very aware of some very old-fashioned views and you know, the tone of sexism and misogyny and people think it’s fun and it’s banter. Do you know what guys, it’s not. So I think it’s a fair point.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah. So true. I think it’s, it’s difficult as well, isn’t it, because it goes back to that confidence thing that you’ve both talked about, about being confident in those situations to call it out or to say something when you might be feeling uncomfortable. And I think this is probably also where we need to put the onus back onto clubs about what do they do to make sure that the environment and the culture within the club is right. That women feel comfortable either to say something or feel comfortable to come forward and get involved and put themselves forward for those sort of roles. What do you think clubs and organizations can do to try and make that a bit of an easier journey for any women who might want to be involved?

Sarah Waite:

I think my experience with being involved in clubs, generally, I honestly don’t see that much sexism or I’m never in a position where I feel like I’m a lesser person than my male counterparts. So it’s not so much that for me, but what I do see, I’ve never had a male volunteer come up to me and say, oh, I’m not sure if I can do this. I don’t know if I’ve got the skills. I’m not sure if I’ve got the time. But you can guarantee every single female that I have been involved with as a volunteer in grassroots has said those exact questions. More around, I’m not sure if I can do this. I don’t know anything about football.

They doubt themselves. I don’t know what the magic wand is that I need to wave, but if we could solve that piece around demystifying this belief that you need to be a Ronaldo in order to teach a six-year-old, how to have fun on a football pitch, not even kick a ball, have fun. Right. Do you know who’s best at helping kids have fun? The mums? So let’s get the mums in there. We are great at dealing with kids as are dads, of course, but we need more mums involved because they can do it. They just don’t have the confidence, or they don’t believe that they have the confidence.

Yvonne Harrison:

Yeah. And I think actually that’s really important when we look at some of the messages that have come out of the women’s Euros, some of the campaigns that have been done, because, there’s been a lot of talk with, you’ve got to see it be it. And it’s absolutely true and we need role models. And I think for these young girls in particular, girls and boys playing football at that early age, they genuinely don’t care who’s teaching them. Like you say, they just want to have fun. And from a wider societal point of view, I think 98% of young people in academies don’t make it. I mean, it’s a horrific statistic. They just don’t make it. But actually what we want and with my old hat on, as the leader of Greater Sport, would be I want people to have fun being active, to get used to living an active lifestyle, and to continue that throughout their lives.

Now people will have peaks and troughs, particularly women because of life cycle changes and things that go on and other demands in terms of family and stuff. But if we lead active, healthy lives, physically, we’re in better shape, mentally we’re in better shape, socially we’re in better shape. Actually, there’s a lot of evidence that says your earning potential is higher if you’ve been involved in sport, and this doesn’t have to be an elite level, it’s just the skills that it gives you, but ultimately that benefits society. It benefits the economy because we’ve got people well in work, therefore, paying taxes. So it’s great to have the aspiration and you know, people want to be the next Beth Mead or Russo, and that is just awesome that these young girls now that are going to play football, can have that genuine knowledge that they can pursue a career in football, but like that is immense.

But fundamentally it’s about just participating and having fun and what you talk about there in terms of that imposter syndrome and that confidence, that manifests itself very, very strongly in the professional sports world as well. So the biggest challenge of our 6,000 plus members of Women in Football, is themselves. And I was thinking about this before and you asked about challenges. My biggest challenge throughout my entire career has been me. Can I do it? Am I good enough? What will they think of me? Despite the fact that I’ve invested hours and hours and hours into my own development, in my own time, to make me a better person, coach, mentor, leader, employee, colleague, you know, the works. So I think there’s something really interesting in the point that you make at grassroots level, and actually, with that being my background, that Women in Football, what do we do for those women?

Because anyone can join Women in Football. It’s totally free. But the majority of our members are either people who work in the football industry, mostly in the men’s game actually, because that women’s infrastructure is growing as we speak, or people that aspire to be. What about the support for grassroots coaches? Because we need to keep them in the game. If you’ve invested the time to get qualified, we want to keep you. And who knows, people might get involved in coaching and then think actually, I wouldn’t mind working in this in some way. And there’s loads of opportunities with local foundations, leisure trusts, community clubs, particularly the big ones that have got their own facilities. There’s tons of stuff that could be done, so I think it’s a really good point.

Sarah Waite:

It’ll be interesting off the back of the Lioness’ success. We don’t doubt that The FA will go to town now on getting more females involved in football. Great. But what will they do about getting more females involved in supporting football in the coaching, in the administration, that side of things? I see very little in my experience right now, and I’ve been involved in the administration of grassroots football and coaching for 11 years now. There’s very little support that I see coming from The FA to support females, supporting football. Lots about getting females involved in actually playing, but not so much on the support side.

Yvonne Harrison:

Yeah, I think the legacy, I mean there is, I guess partly in defence of The FA, but just to kind of raise awareness for anybody that’s tuning in, there is a very strong legacy plan around the women’s Euros and their plans to get another 350 females into officiating and another 300 plus into coaching. That’s great and that will be across the country. But I think what there isn’t at this moment in time is that support on the administration side as well. And I think it is needed. It really is. And as the number of teams grow, I think, gosh, my son’s team they’ve got 80 plus teams at their club. It’s massive. That is a huge infrastructure. And if we were paying all of these volunteers money, that’s a significant salary bill, you know? So I do think you’re right, because somebody is a volunteer does not mean they don’t require and deserve support because it can be tough sometimes.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah. Sarah, you’ve highlighted in terms of, from a grassroots perspective, but Yvonne you would see it with people that you work with as well, is that there is that sort of confidence barrier, that imposter syndrome, for women coming into these roles, if you had somebody come to you who was interested in pursuing a career, either a career in football, or they want to move up to a leadership position at grassroots level, what advice or tips would you give them based on your own experiences and what you’ve seen?

Sarah Waite:

For me, my one piece of advice would be don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it, because you can. And probably the people that will tell you that you can’t do it, or you’re doing it wrong, that’s probably the better one, that you’re not doing it right, will generally be, unfortunately, males, because you are just faced with more males in the grassroots game than you are females. So, my advice would be to any female, is don’t take that, don’t accept it as right. That their view is right. You know you may not get it right all the time, but, keep going, keep persevering. There is a network of females in grassroots that you can tap into potentially.

For me, I have an unofficial network. I know all of my fellow females that are at similar levels to me in grassroots and we just connect, you know, Sarah, can I ask you advice? Or I ask them for their advice, because they can relate to my challenges. And that’s the critical thing. Don’t get me wrong. I have some fantastic male support, individuals that support me fully. But sometimes I don’t go to them with certain issues because they can’t relate to my issue. And I think that’s the thing. So yeah, my advice would be don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it, or you’re doing it wrong because you’re not.

Yvonne Harrison:

Yeah. And just to add to that, I absolutely support that. I think sometimes we can think it’s like a weakness to ask for help. And it really isn’t. Ask for help, particularly in these early careers, early times of being qualified as a coach and even throughout, and choose that network of pays wisely. Look at who is in your network, that does what you want to do really well, and actually ask them for a coffee and have a conversation with them. People are often flattered by that kind of thing, but are really willing to share as well and willing to share not only how they’ve succeeded and whatever else, but they’ll be really real about it. And the other thing is, particularly from a leadership point of view, everyone is a leader. You don’t need a CEO title to be a leader of an organization, and the strongest organizations for me are those that have leaders right throughout.

And if I’ve got an intern and they’re doing certain things on our social media, then tell me what we need to do, because, despite my best efforts, I’m not great at that, and I really value your opinion. And I think the best senior leaders are the ones that really embrace that. And you can find that at a core level. I think the other thing is, just keep investing in yourself. We can all be quite busy and we think, oh, we’ve got to do this and we’ve got to do that. And we’ve got to attend that meeting, but actually take some time out to listen to a podcast, go and watch somebody else delivering a session, to read that book, to go on that course, because that time is never wasted, and it’s really important. We almost kind of put ourselves to the back of the queue and think, oh, I’ve got to do this for them. And I’ve got to do this. Just take a little bit of selfish time every now and then, and invest in yourself because that, again, gives you the confidence to push on for that next thing.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah, that’s really true. I think as women, we’re probably the worst at doing that as well, aren’t we? Like you say, put yourself to the bottom of the pile. You’re always giving things to other people. And I think that’s the culture we’ve been brought up in, is that that’s what you’re meant to do, that it’s selfish to take time for yourself, but it’s so important if you want to develop and you want to go into those roles to make sure that you do invest your own time in developing yourself. Like you say, it can be listening to a podcast, reading a book, go on a course, whatever it might be, or also just getting together with those other people that you talk about surrounding yourselves with, be that face-to-face ideally, via WhatsApp, a call, whatever it might be and the importance of allowing yourself the time to do that.

Yvonne Harrison:

Yeah. The thing as well is to look outside of, and I appreciate this may be more relevant, not at a grassroots level, but to look outside of your initial organization, your sport even, at different leadership opportunities. One of the interesting things for me, I was 15 years in the same organization. I came in as a volunteer at grassroots level, and I left having been CEO for four years, probably quite a unique story in some ways. But actually looking outside of the organization, one of the things that I found was because you’re somewhere for so long, people could kind of have that perception, or I believed people would have that perception that you’re sort of a one-trick pony. Yeah, you’re successful, but you’ve only done it there. Can you actually do it anywhere else? So for me, there were times in my career where I looked at, okay, can I be on that committee?

Could I join a board? Am I good enough to join a board? What would I bring to a board? I’ve never been there to find out. And actually, it is about not just having that one-dimensional view of your organization or your sport, because actually, and for employers, in particular, to value that, because ultimately what you will find is, where I’ve helped people get onto other boards and other sports, they’re bringing really valuable learning back into the organization, should you choose to ask for it. Like how are you finding that? How’s that different to ours? What does that look like compared to this? I’m actually involved in a company called Board Connects, which is an online platform for non-exec directors or aspiring non-exec directors. And one of the themes of that is sport.

It’s about creating a community where you know what, you can learn how to define yourself in that non-exec director role. You can ask questions in a safe environment and start to develop yourself in a different way so that your career opportunities and your network expands, which again, I appreciate isn’t necessarily the same at that grassroots level. But from a career point of view, if people are interested in that, I think just having a bit of diversity in what you do, particularly being in the same organization for a long time, it can be really helpful as well.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah, that’s really good advice. And I think all of those sort of skills that you develop in your working life, if you are then involved in a grassroots club, it’s all helpful stuff, isn’t it, then transferring to those roles as well. Sarah and you talked earlier about how brilliant mums are at bringing the fun and engaging the kids. It’s because of all the skills that they bring from all the other roles within their lives, it’s not necessarily stuff that they’ve developed through football. So I think it’s important to not underestimate those other skills that you have that you developed from other parts of your life as well.

Sarah Waite:

Yeah, completely. I completely agree. You know, there’s not a mum in the world that hasn’t organized a three-year-old’s birthday party, right? Organizing six-year-olds on a football pitch is exactly the same.

Natalie Doyle:

That’s much easier after you’ve organized a birthday party. That’s for sure.

Yvonne Harrison:

Both of our kids’ birthdays fall within the space of two weeks of each other at the start of January.

Natalie Doyle:

That’s terrible timing that is Yvonne.

Right. Well, thank you both very much for giving up your time today. It’s been really interesting to hear your thoughts. And I think there’s a lot of great advice there, both for individuals who want to aspire to these positions, but also for clubs and organizations. And if you are involved in a club or organization, I think it’s important that you reflect on what sort of environment you’re creating within your organization and how you can try even harder and do the right things to make sure you can encourage women into those positions as much as possible. So thank you both very much for giving up your time.

Sarah Waite:

You’re welcome. Thank you.

Natalie Doyle:

I really enjoyed chatting with Sarah and Yvonne. Some really thought-provoking points I think. It’s true, there are differences in the environments in which they’re working, but there are also a lot of similarities in the challenges that they’ve had to overcome to get to where they are, and it’s been fascinating to hear about those journeys today. Lots of great tips as well for organizations and also for women who aspire to be in the positions that they’re in as well. And the importance of surrounding yourself with people who will support you and lift you up at those moments when you might have those moments of doubt and a bit of imposter syndrome that might creep in. So some really good advice there.

That is the end of Season 1 of the Sport Sister Podcast. And I’ve absolutely loved recording these conversations with some fascinating people over the last few months.

Thank you very much for listening to the episodes. Thanks very much to all of my guests, who’ve given up their time to chat with me and impart all of their knowledge and experience to us all. 

I’d love to hear your feedback. What episodes been your favourite? What topics do you want us to talk about in Season 2? What guests should we have on in Season 2, either in a professional capacity or as a grassroots pioneer? If you’ve got any recommendations, get in touch. 

You can contact us through our social media channels or also through the website 

Thank you very much for listening and we’ll be back again with some brand new episodes with some more fantastic guests at the end of the year.

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