Sports Integrity Initiative: FIFA, Gender and Corruption – Everything is fine today, that is our illusion

Over the past few years the fight for equality between the sexes in sport has been gaining momentum. Arguments in favour of increased investment, sponsorship and media coverage in women’s sport are now being heard on multiple platforms and the efforts to implement appropriate practices are increasing. 

While the on-field fight is an important one, an area in which less fanfare is made, but in which there is arguably even greater inequality, is the one found behind the scenes, beyond the glamour and glare of the spotlight – those of the sports administrators. Traditionally these roles draw little attention anyway; a smooth operation should appear as though there isn’t an administration in place at all. However with the onset of the FIFA corruption scandal, the administration of the world’s most powerful sports governing body has tumbled headfirst into the limelight.

Women, women, where art all the women?

As the contestants – all male – line up to have a stab at the top job at FIFA and take over from an incumbent shadier than a cheap erotic novel, a question that should have been asked long ago starts to arise. Where are all the women?

“There’s no getting away from the fact that the whole business of sport is dominated by men,” explains Clare Connor, the only female member of the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) Cricket Committee. “In cricket, the vast majority of national and local decision-makers are men, and often men of similar ages and backgrounds who have trod the same path as each other to get to where they are. For sport collectively to progress, diversity is clearly essential – diversity of age, gender, skills, and experiences.” Connor is right, and the sentiment isn’t exclusive to cricket.

Moya Dodd is the Chair of the FIFA Task Force for Women’s Football, and one of just three members of the FIFA Executive Committee. Last month she submitted a detailed plan on how to increase women’s participation in football. Within the proposals was one key line. “Better gender balance,” read the document, “will deliver improvements in critical aspects of football’s governance by creating … a culture that is less prone to corruption.” It’s a bold call, and one from which it is easy to provoke a knee-jerk reaction. More women, less corruption. Simple.

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A number of ‘corruptibility’ studies which have examined whether any correlation exists between the number of women in a field and the levels of corruption appear to suggest as much. One such study foundthat a higher share of women in the labour force is associated with lower levels of corruption perception in a country. Another study found that there was a negative relationship between the share of women in parliament in a country and corruption.

It would be easy to conclude, perhaps, that women are more ethical than men – that more women on the board of a sports governing body, such as that of FIFA, would lead to less corruption, simply by being women. If it was Stephanie Blatter at the helm, rather than Sepp, would FIFA be in the crisis that it finds itself in in the first place?

The fairer sex?

Further research, predictably perhaps, suggests that the answer is less black and white – that there are a wide range of factors that contribute to this inverse gender-corruption correlation. A number of studies in social and behavioural sciences have found women to be more risk averse, more inequality averse, more cooperative and altruistic than men, and that a women’s voting behaviour is more closely associated with social issues. The hypothesis is that this all, indirectly, has an affect on corruption. One such study suggeststhat it is the liberal democracies themselves – the system, not the sex – that lead to greater participation of women in a government which by its design has more limited opportunities for corruption than a more gender-biased one.

More recently, the Internal Growth Centre hypothesised that the types of policies enacted by women were different to those enacted by men, and ‘could be the potential channel through which women as parliamentarians [positively] affect corruption.’ Their findings appeared to be corroborated when they found that women in clerical positions did not affect corruption rates. It was only women in policymaking positions that had an effect.

It’s likely therefore, that, while it’s a nice thought, women are not the fairer sex. The policy-making hypothesis delivers an intriguing argument. Here is a sex who, in the world of administration both inside and outside of sport, have been on the receiving end of prejudiced practice and years of suppression. There is an element, perhaps, of a woman’s immediate instincts and priorities being to right those wrongs and pursue the more altruistic practice of benefiting the minority and the suppressed, because that’s the position from which they come.

In time, therefore, women who do make it into these positions of power may well become just as susceptible to corruption as their male counterparts. The qualities and characteristics that drove them to those positions of high office in the first place, after all, should differ little to the men. The difficulty of course, is that not enough women have occupied such positions for any meaningful length of time for us to determine whether the novelty factor is just that – a novelty.

Not better, just different

Catherine Ordway, Professor of Practice in Sports Management at La Trobe University, Melbourne, disagrees on the whole with the policy-making hypothesis; she doesn’t think that the gender and corruption correlation has anything to do with women’s suggested different characteristics. It’s not because women are ‘more moral or nurturing’ Ordway told the Canberra Times, but because ‘diversity on boards tends to break up ‘group think’ – the more diverse a board in the gender, culture and backgrounds of its members, the broader the mix of ideas and creativity.’ More diversity, less corruption, in Ordway’s opinion.

“Noting too that diversity is much broader than gender, the diversity conversation often gets reduced to gender as it is easier to count,” Ordway told the Sports Integrity Initiative. “Gender equity alone won’t create diversity of thought, but it serves to send a strong message about the role women play in society and in decision-making for our communities.”

Moya Dodd’s submission to the Chair of the FIFA Reform Committee, entitled “FIFA, football and women: why reform must specify inclusion and investment” channelled a similar sentiment. ‘Diverse groups make better decisions than homogenous groups because they are more broadly informed, they benefit from the complementary styles and capabilities of both genders and they benefit from a greater range of perspectives and ideas, thus spurring innovation and problem-solving effectiveness.’

‘Correlation does not equal causation’ is an oft-used warning in the world of scientific studies. More women on the boards of sports organisations won’t solve all of its corruption problems for the mere fact of being women. The reasons for the correlation are likely a mixture of factors, as most things are. 

‘Because it’s 2015…’

Newly crowned Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, was asked earlier this month why he’d chosen equal numbers of men and women to constitute his new cabinet. The answer was simple, ‘Because it’s 2015’.

Professor Peter Donnelly, the Director of the Centre for Sport Policy Studies at the University of Toronto, disagrees entirely with the idea that more women in international sporting federations would reduce corruption levels.

“I don’t have anything positive to say about this proposition,” Donnelly told the Sports Integrity Initiative. “I think it’s just another stereotype – and other example of essentialising women, in this case as a force for good. Every time I think about this, I think about Maggie Thatcher, or the Queen of England whose very presence is anti-democratic and justifies inherited privilege.”

However while Donnelly disagrees that the mere presence of women will reduce corruption levels, or “any other type of malfeasance”, he strongly advocates equal representation of women in high level administrative positions. Women, according to Donnelly, should become at least 50% of all sport leadership positions, simply because he believes that “human rights and equity guidelines and regulations need to be honoured.” No more, no less.

“If gender equality was realised, we would be in a position to know if things would change – but we wouldn’t know if it was causal; perhaps the very fact of working towards equality would mean that features of good governance were being honoured.”

“The more I think about this, the more I realise that it is impossible to impute causality to the fact of adding women. It seems far more likely that the fact that a male dominated board actually took steps toward adding more women (usually) meant that they were more sensitive toward holding more inclusive views.” Donnelly’s argument corroborates one mentioned earlier in this piece – it is the system, not the sex, that is the real drive towards gender equality and lower corruption.

Business as usual

So far therefore, there is disagreement as to whether more women lower corruption levels. What is clear, however, is that more women in positions of power is a must. Politics aside, perhaps where the drive to get more women on boards is at its most vocal is in the world of business. In 2011, the UK government published a report into female representation on corporate boards – the Davies Report. Davies, acknowledging that ‘corporate boards perform better when they include the best people who come from a range of perspectives and backgrounds’, challenged FTSE 100 boards to have a minimum of 25% female representation by 2015. Targets, accompanied by exposure and peer pressure, ensured this target was met.

According to the Credit Suisse report in 2012, ‘Gender Diversity and Corporate Performance’, companies with at least one woman on the board outperformed stocks with no women on the board by 26%. In 2010, McKinsey and Company found that more gender-balanced executive committees outperformed companies with all male executive committees by 41% in terms of return on equity and 56% in terms of operating results.

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Sports governing bodies are no different to financial corporations when it comes to applying these figures. They are businesses in their own right, the main difference being that they’re more in the public eye – these figures might be even more applicable as a result. Performance, innovation, creativity, higher share prices, lower risk of bankruptcy – all reasons, anti-corruption aside, that bodies like FIFA need more women.

Everything is fine today, that is our illusion

‘One day everything will be well, that is our hope. Everything’s fine today, that is our illusion.’ FIFA would do well to take heed of Voltaire’s words. There are just three female members of FIFA’s 26-strong Executive Committee. Only one is a full member. The other two are co-opted for ‘special tasks’. Before 2012, there were no female members. Just two of the 209 Member Association Presidents are women.

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FIFA, a non-profit organisation, buoyed by the success of the 2014 World Cup, generated a record USD$2 billion in revenue last year. FTSE 100 companies were challenged to have a minimum of 25% representation of females on boards by 2015. FIFA had no such scrutiny, and it shows. Some of the most powerful posts in FIFA are held by those who played the game at the highest level, by the likes of Michel Platini and Ángel María Villar. However, if ever there was an opportunity for change, it has arrived. Until very recently, most female elite players were amateur, combining their on-field commitments with other professions and often university qualifications too. It means, therefore, that there are now a significant number of elite women players who are more than qualified to hold such positions. Moya Dodd herself qualified as a lawyer. As did the current England international, Eniola Aluko. This is knowledge and expertise currently untapped.

So whilst the business of sport is still dominated by men as Clare Connor believes, she’s optimistic, “I’ve been in sport either as an international cricketer or in administrative leadership roles for over 20 years now and I believe this is the most likely time for significant, potential change. The issue is being written about and discussed more than ever, and in the right places. In England, future government funding for sport will be correlated with good governance, primarily board diversity. I think we will see dramatic change in the next 4 years.”

In Dodd’s FIFA submission, quotas are proposed, to ensure ‘inclusion in decision-making’. ‘The Reform Committee is respectfully requested to recommend an immediate 20% presence of women on the FIFA Executive Committee’ and a long term target of 30%. ‘In an ideal world there would be no need for quotas,’ says Dodd. ‘Because you’d have well-functioning, merit-based systems providing equal opportunities. But quotas are useful if you think that those systems are not working or not working quickly.’

Some have gone further. Only last week Athlete Ally, a non-profit organisation ‘focused on ending homophobia and transphobia in sports’ published a letter, signed by more than 100 ‘pro athletes’, directed at the head of FIFA’s Reform Committee. In it the organisation requested that the committee ‘recommend an immediate 30% presence of women on the FIFA Executive Committee’. The rationale? Similar to Dodd’s original proposals: ‘Numerous studies give evidence that diversity delivers better decisions.’

Another route is public pressure. High profile proponents of more women involved in FIFA decision-making includes David Ginola, former French international and one-time FIFA Presidential-hopeful. In January 2015 he argued for the men’s and women’s World Cups to be held together, and has been vocal on social media in his support of Dodd’s proposals. Name-and-shame style systems, as used by the Australian Sports Commission, which names sports boards with fewer than 20% women on their boards are other methods to ensure reform.

Change is coming. It’s needed and it’s welcomed. It’s slow and frustrating, but it’s on the radar, finally. The FIFA corruption scandal could be one of the best things to have ever happened for gender equality, as it has highlighted the need for change. It has given advocates of increased female representation an opening – an avenue to exploit and to capitalise upon. The last few months have shown that the most powerful sports governing body in the world require, and may not survive without, a fundamental restructure. Whether it be for reasons of integrity, performance or diversity – or simply because it is 2015 – any meaningful rebuilding process must include more women and a more significant role for those women to play.

• This article was originally published in the Sports Integrity Initiative internet journal on 23 November 2015. To access the original, please click here.

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