Emma McCracken recently graduated from the University of Stirling with a Business Studies degree. For her final year dissertation, in which she received a 1:1, she chose to focus her research on diversity within football clubs across the UK – specifically at a board and executive level.

As discussed at our 2021 Conference: The 51% Club, we addressed the issue that despite Scotland’s population being made up of 51 per cent women, there is a serious lack of representation for minority groups across all boards.

So when we came across Emma’s research we jumped at the chance for her to write something for us about her research and her findings on the benefits of running a football club that has a diverse board and operating systems within their communities.

Before starting my research, I knew that football had become a lot more diverse on the pitch. With a significant increase in ethnic minorities playing professionally, as well as the growth of the women’s game, with more professional teams and media exposure. As a business student, I was interested in whether this was reflected further up the clubs, at the decision-making level.

I quickly found that it was not.

Before conducting my own research, I read as much existing literature on diversity at the top decision-making level as I could find, across a variety of industries. This allowed me to illustrate that other industries have identified the issues that occur with homogeneity in running an organisation and have become enlightened to the fact that diversifying their boards and top-level decision-making teams, can strengthen key areas of business performance.

Any board that features a homogenous structure is not setting up the organisation for maximum success. Appointing multiple people with identical characteristics would indicate similar experiences, views and opinions, meaning issues are only seen from one viewpoint, which is not likely to result in the best organisational decisions, practices, or outcomes.

Women make up 51 per cent of Scotland’s population. This should be reflected in top-level positions within football and yet we just do not see it.

To research these issues, I wanted to hear from professionals, working in the football industry at both club level and as part of a football association, about their experiences and views on diversity at the decision-making level in football clubs. I felt this would give me the most authentic insight into the value of diversity at this level, and really support my research.

My research involved gathering qualitative primary data from individuals who have been successfully appointed to top-level positions. I spoke to those in minority groups in these positions, and individuals with expert knowledge in the field working towards diversity in the football industry.

Through online interviews, with professionals working in a variety of positions in the Scottish Football Association, the Scottish Professional Football League, the English Football League and the Scottish Women’s Premier League.

From these interviews, key themes emerged from each discussion that were then later analysed and compared with one another. This is where I found that there was a general consensus amongst those interviewed regarding what the main problems are, and how they need to be addressed.

To keep this brief (as my dissertation was 16,000 words), the main points of the discussion focused on Barriers within recruitment, Social engagement with communities, Decision-making at board and executive levels, Networks, and Organisational culture.

It was strongly agreed upon that it is vital for boards and executive-level members within football clubs to have individual understandings of what diversity brings to a club, and how to support it. In relation to recruitment, my findings showed a board that demonstrates they value and understand the positive impact that a diverse range of people has on a club by having a variety of different people represented on their board will encourage a more diverse range of people to interact. This would support and encourage different perspectives, to create a welcoming culture in the club.

Processes such as ‘blind recruitment’ can encourage this, where identifying factors such as name, gender and ethnicity are removed from applications and CVs to remove personal bias and encourage a greater pool of candidates. Research in this area indicates that if those at the top level of management and decision-making are not aware of the impact that stereotypes and personal biases have on those around them, then they themselves are creating barriers to advancement when hiring people into the club. A blind recruitment process eliminates the chances of unconscious biases and stereotypes impacting decision-making when identifying the person for the role, and aligns with club values for a diverse environment.

Another key topic of conversation in interviews related to community engagement from clubs in their local towns and cities. Many had reason to believe that having a diverse representation of genders and/or ethnic minorities at board and executive level in football clubs, had positive impacts on the club’s social engagement due to the authenticity of understanding how to engage with diverse groups within the community.

However, it is important to note here that whilst a diverse representation at this level is very important, many of those interviewed emphasised the importance of a shared responsibility amongst all members of the board and executive level personnel, to commit to driving diversity and show that the club are doing all they can to promote a diverse and inclusive culture.

This can impact the financial performance of clubs. It found that those who do value equality, diversity and inclusion through the makeup of their workforce. the actions that they take and the engagement of fans and communities that they achieve, is a club that is going to attract more commercial partnerships looking to sponsor the club, as EDI is fast becoming a main focus within businesses across multiple industries.

As previously mentioned, there were a lot of shared beliefs and opinions amongst those I interviewed on how they felt diversity at the top level of management and decision-making impacted a football club. In addition, I drew many connections between the reasons why having a diverse team of board and executive members can have such a positive impact on various key performance indicators.

Boards are responsible for making big decisions that impact the success of a football club.

Those interviewed strongly emphasised that having a diverse range of personnel at board and executive levels, who understand the issues and challenges, and who can provide an authentic perspective on how to address certain matters, is extremely important to making the best decisions. Similar to earlier discussions, it was reiterated that there needs to be collective awareness across top-level club management of what diversity means.

It is important to add that it was acknowledged in many discussions, that not all clubs can achieve diversity at board level, due to the size and scope of their club and the location in which they operate. However, many of those interviewed highlighted the importance of boards making an effort to connect with the right people, who are going to be able to support understanding and advise decision-making, and show that as a board they are willing to do what it takes to have a club that works for everyone.

Football clubs have to create a culture that is welcoming for all levels of involvement. Whether that be at the community or supporter level. Or at the top executive level of management and decision-making.

A constant finding in my research through conducting the interviews was that a board has a responsibility to implement an inclusive culture. Meaning they themselves must understand what diversity means and what it looks like in a sporting organisation. By doing this, they can illustrate that not only do they know the importance of diversity, but are aware of the value that it has on the performance of a football club. Only then will they attract a diverse pool of talent that will help to improve the key areas of business performance previously discussed.

Brentford FC operates as one of the UK’s most diverse football clubs. Their 2021 Gender Pay Gap Report displays this. Their aims and values align with the research outcomes discussed above and they are an incredible example of how all clubs should be run.

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