For this week’s blog I caught up with Lisa Allan, newly elected Secretary General of the International Judo Federation (IJF), the first woman, and first Brit, to hold this position.
Originally from Edinburgh, Lisa, 53, is currently based in Budapest for her new role.
Having started her career as an organic chemist, she later moved into sports administration following a self-confessed midlife crisis where she realised her passions lay elsewhere. She originally worked for sportscotland before moving to London as part of the organising committee for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, where she was Judo Manager. Following that role, she joined the IJF as Events Director in 2013, holding this position until her election as General Secretary in May.
Lisa has been involved in the sport most of her life, having started out aged six at Tora Scotia Judo Club in Leith, Edinburgh. It was a family affair, with her father Head Coach of the men’s team in the eighties and her mother and grandmother also involved in Judo. Lisa took part for a few years but took a hiatus until she went to University.
She never really enjoyed competing but did her coaching and refereeing qualifications and spent many of her weekends volunteering. Her employers at the time, The University of Edinburgh, allowed time off for volunteering and sporting activities, which enabled her to do coaching and team management work with both Scotland and Great Britain. This is something she is extremely grateful for, with her volunteering taking her around the world with Team Scotland.
Lisa was Judo Manager for the Manchester 2002 Commonwealth Games and Assistant General Team Manager for the 2004 Commonwealth Youth Games in Bendigo, Australia, before becoming the General Team Manager for the Commonwealth Youth Games in Pune, India. She cites the experience she gained through this as what gave her the opportunity to make the transfer out of science, joining sportscotland’s Achieving Excellence team in 2005.
Lisa and I discussed how she has found being a woman working in a leadership position in sport. She feels fortunate in that, despite having worked in two fields that are historically very male-dominated.
She has never thought too much about the fact that she is a woman and doesn’t believe she has ever faced any discrimination: “I am a firm believer that the right person should be in the role, regardless of gender. It all depends on your personality, your character and your values about how you are going to do the job, and I want to do this job the best that I can with my experience and skills. I’m very happy to be the first female in this position but I know that I am not going to be the last,
“Studies show the more diverse a team is, the more effective it is. We share the world almost 50 / 50 male and female, alongside other genders, and we are better together. We have a theme at our association that we are stronger together and this has formed the base of our gender equality and equity conferences.”
Judo first appeared in the Olympics for men in 1964, with it not being introduced for women until 1988. Lisa explained that the sport’s founder, Jigoro Kano, was actually very forward-thinking and had lots of great initiatives to encourage women into the sport, but there is this competition gap, which isn’t really anyone’s fault, and they are still trying to catch up. Some areas of the sport are very gender-equal; the rules for men and women are the same, they compete on the same day with the same equipment for the same prize money and medals. Referees and Technical Officials are close to equal in numbers and there is a female in every team. Female referees officiate both men and women, as do male referees, something they are very proud of.
When it comes to participation, the gender balance of children is very good, but like many other sports they see a drop off in the number of girls taking part as they reach their teenage years. Within federations, there are less and less women in leadership positions as you work up the administrative ladder, but there has been some great work around the world to address this. The more developed world, (Europe, Canada, Australasia etc.) lead the way as this is a big agenda for them but the rest of the world, where culturally and historically it’s often not so easy, is catching up.
Lisa said: “We work closely with those federations to encourage them to have the right people in the right roles and we hope that they can recognise that a woman can be the right person. Our gender equality commission work hard on that and we are proud of the progress we have made. We now have a woman on the Board in Saudi Arabia, for example, and their women are competing on the world judo tour without headscarves. We have other areas though where we are not very diverse; we are very European, we are very white; so we still have work to do to open the sport to more diverse people and cultures,
“Covid has been a great opportunity for women, because I think it’s shown how they can cope in difficult situations, and now we are going to see a huge increase in the number of women in leadership positions. It’s also allowed men to realise that they can work from home and be there for the kids too. It’s changed the thinking of the world, and for the better in many ways.”
Lisa is visibly enthusiastic as we speak and is so clearly a woman passionate about her sport and about doing the best job she can in her new role. She is looking forward to the new challenge and is eager to continue the good work of her predecessor, but has aims to promote better communication and transparency, working more closely with their continental unions and member federations to give them the tools they need to grow the sport in their country.
Reflecting on her journey into the role she said: “I think I’ve been very lucky. I do know that I’ve worked hard but when I was working in science, only around 4% of the professors in chemistry were women but we had some really inspirational and influential women in science and working in my department.”
Then, when she moved into sport, the Commonwealth Games Association was being led by Dame Louise Martin, also an incredibly inspirational and influential woman, who gave Lisa opportunities at Commonwealth Games Scotland. Anne Marie Harrison was running the Scottish Institute of Sport at the time, so the Scottish sports scene offered many role models, alongside a number of Scottish woman CEOs and Chairs on boards within Governing Bodies in Scotland.
The support Lisa received from these woman had a profound effect on her own career: “Having had the ability to see strong women in those kind of roles, I knew that someone like myself could get there. Women in some cultures or some parts of the world don’t always see these role models, but there is nothing to stop them being the first. It’s about setting yourself goals and working as hard as you can to get there. Aim to be the best you can be and be better than you were yesterday.”
I asked her how it feels to now be one of those roles models herself that other people are now looking up to: “I’m really proud of that and it’s quite an emotional feeling that you can have this impact on other people. I want to do the best I can do and be the best role model I can be. The world is all about people and how you treat and interact with others is really important. I’m grateful because I’ve been treated really well. It’s now important for me to support other women, and other people generally, in judo.”
JudoScotland also have a new female CEO in Judith McCleary, so I reached out to her about what it means for judo having Lisa in post and why having women in leadership positions is important.
She said: “It’s so important to have women in leadership roles within sport. They often have a different viewpoint due to their understanding and lived experiences of the real challenges faced by women and girls participating. By recognising problems and creating solutions, women can often be the catalyst for change that a sport needs. Their presence and visibility as leaders can help to encourage other women and girls to step forward and to know that they’re valued,
“It’s Lisa’s warm personal skills and determination to positively influence society through judo that make her such an inspirational leader. All of us at JudoScotland are very proud of her achievements and are excited for what’s ahead.”
If you’re interested in pursuing a leadership role in sports, Lisa can be contacted at: email@example.com.