Encouraging more women into sports leadership roles

Directors of sport in independent schools are still predominantly male. Three women who have stepped up to leadership tell Melanie Anning what needs to change

The sporting landscape has improved dramatically for women over the last 20 years. However, there is still a long way to go to level the playing field. It is a testament to the gulf between genders that there are presently only 10 female heads of sport in co-educational secondary schools in the independent sector.

I asked three female directors of sport to share their stories and insights about what needs to change for more women to follow in their footsteps.

Fran Centamore, director of sport at Wychwood School, a girls’ school in Oxford, says: “Sport has traditionally been very male-dominated, so naturally, more men have filtered through to leadership roles. If people are going to feel inspired and confident to step up, they need to have a diverse range of role models to look up to.”

Centamore is in her fifth year of heading the department and is clear about the ongoing barriers women face. “The independent sector can emphasise employing leaders with elite playing experience. Male sport has had a much bigger platform for longer, so this can be a barrier to progression for those who haven’t competed at that level.”

Fran Centamore, director of sport at Wychwood School


Exposure to strong female role models is key

Centamore continues: “We often see male coaches and PE staff teaching girls, and male directors of sport in girls’ schools, but it is much rarer to see the opposite. We need more women teaching boys and leading boys’ sport.

“And if we’re to inspire girls to consider careers in sport and to take on leadership roles, they must be exposed to strong women who are involved outside of just those performing. We have to place value on and allow them to see that women can coach, referee, manage and lead within the sporting world.”

Centamore says she has been fortunate to have worked in PE departments led by excellent female and male colleagues. The top-down support she receives has made a “big difference” in delivering a successful sporting strategy.

“At Wychwood School, our head and directors genuinely understand the value sport has and are proactive in supporting me in my role. This is not something that I have necessarily experienced in all schools.

“It’s important to challenge stereotypes and not just promote traditional ‘girls sports’ to girls and ‘boys sports’ to boys. The England women’s rugby team is currently ranked number one in the world, yet the sport is underrepresented in girls’ PE programmes.

“We recently welcomed Wales and England Rugby 7s and 15s internationals Gemma Rowland and Jane Leonard to talk about their sporting lives. Experiences like this make a real difference, provide inspiration and instil confidence in pupils to help them step out of their comfort zones. Off the back of this visit, we now have 16 girls attending rugby club training.”

For Centamore, taking the step up to lead has been incredibly rewarding. “I’ve been able to adapt and develop a PE programme that aligns with my values to create positive change, hopefully inspiring young women to fulfil their potential in sport.”

Rebecca Watkins, director of sport at St Dunstan’s College


The face of sport is changing for the better

Rebecca Watkins, director of sport at St Dunstan’s College, a co-educational school in Catford, London, said: “At my first group meeting for local directors of sport, I was surprised at just how few females were there – three or four in a room of nearly 30.”

However, Watkins believes departments are improving. “Most are quite good at getting a gender balance. They know it’s essential for students to see role models who represent them.

“I was fortunate enough to go to a school where we played loads of different sports. I played netball for the West Midlands Warriors and at university played for Team Bath in the Netball Superleague.

“In my first job as a graduate assistant, I took on leadership roles such as head of hockey, acting head of girls’ games, all at the ripe old age of 22! These helped me to realise I had the skill set to lead. I joined St Dunstan’s as head of netball, became a house head, assistant director of musicals and a head of year. In 2019, I was promoted to director of sport.

“As a woman in this position, I can connect with boys and girls at all levels, which really helps drive the strategy across the school. It can sometimes be difficult for men to act as role models for younger girls in sport, although it’s not impossible. I’m a massive [Aston] Villa fan, so I can talk with students about how badly we played at the weekend!

“The fact I play a variety of sports and enjoy football and rugby helps me engage with all of our pupils.”

Watkins believes that the increasing number of high-profile female commentators and presenters in sport makes a difference. “Women such as Gabby Logan and Alex Scott have an impact, fronting major sports broadcasts. The face of sport is changing for the better.”

Watkins does not feel that she has faced too many barriers in her career. “I’ve worked really hard to get to where I am, but I’ve been lucky to be given opportunities both at my previous schools and at St Dunstan’s. I think society has come a long way in not underestimating women and their potential, and the schools I have worked in represent that to their core.”

Karen Andrew, director of sport and head of academic PE at Lancing College


Women show there are a range of ways to be a strong leader

For the last 11 years, Karen Andrew has led sports departments in single-sex and co-educational schools. A teacher for 23 years, she is a former England Rugby international, capped 42 times, including playing in the 2006 World Cup Final against New Zealand.

She is currently in her fourth year as director of sport and head of academic PE at Lancing College in Sussex. “I’ve noticed a real shift in recent years, but directors of sport are still mainly male and often retired top sportsmen,” says Andrew.

She believes that schools do want to appoint women but don’t receive as many applications. “Many would like a female DoS as the final piece in the puzzle of co-education. However, female applications are rare, and often none apply. I’m passionate about changing this and recruitment is vital.

“Early on in my career, many independent schools encouraged all academic staff to coach games, which clearly disadvantaged female teachers. We were in a minority to start with, and most lacked the confidence or skill set to coach a sport or team. This fostered a developing resistance from female staff and a lack of visibility of enthusiastic female sports teachers.

“I realised that I had a responsibility to promote women’s sport amongst the student body. I believe that the sporting experiences that we have at school directly impact the activities that we undertake when we leave. They lay the foundations for a healthy, balanced and active life.”

While she was head of girls’ games and assistant director of sport at Haileybury School between 2001 and 2011, Andrew set a goal of becoming a director of sport in a co-educational boarding school, which was “not a common thing for a female at that time”. It was in 2011 that she achieved this goal by joining St Edmund’s College in Ware as director of sport.

By 2014 she had relocated to Sussex to become the faculty lead in sport at Roedean School, which was her first time working in a single-sex environment. “It had its challenges but was thoroughly enjoyable, and taught me lots about female participation and how sport was a great way to raise confidence and build resilience.”

Andrew comments on her current role at Lancing College: “We are unique at Lancing with two female leads, as Kelly Edwards is my assistant director of sport. We are both strong women and determined to provide a curriculum that helps all our students to achieve their full potential, and creates a lasting and vibrant sporting ethos.

“Having women in leadership roles challenges stereotypes and shows there are a range of ways to be a strong leader. It’s important for boys and girls to see this as it opens up possibilities for everyone.”

“There must be no association with leadership positions being inherently male or female”

Encouraging change

What needs to happen in the sector to encourage more women into leadership roles? Andrew says: “A fundamental culture change is needed to increase the representation of women and bring greater diversity into sports leadership roles.

“This could be through mentoring schemes/levelling up the playing field for women and other underrepresented groups and the power of networks for women.”

Watkins wants to see an intentional shift in thinking around roles. “We do so much in schools to educate our students about things like the gender pay gap or women in power in politics. Sport is just another example. There must be no association with leadership positions being inherently male or female – why does a head of netball have to be female? Or a head of rugby have to be male? They don’t.”

Centamore agrees. “Obviously, I want to see more females leading sport. Ultimately, I hope there will be less emphasis on gender, and these types of discussions will no longer be relevant, as we’ll level the playing field between males and females in the sporting workplace.

In numbers

• 95% of the sport and PE leaders in GSA schools are women

• All but three single-sex girls’ independent senior schools have a female DoS

• Only 10 co-educational senior schools in membership of HMC have a female DoS

• All single-sex boys’ independent senior schools have a male DoS

Sources: Girls’ Schools Association (GSA), Independent Coach Education


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