Desperately Seeking Diversity

There are no formal barriers to women entering the profession, and laws should ensure equal opportunities once they have, so why are so few choosing to join the sector? By Dr Andy Carmichael, Sportsturf Academic 

Attend a sportsturf event and there is a distinctly familiar feel to the audience. We are lucky to enjoy a tight-knit and supportive industry, but must acknowledge that it lacks diversity. This matters, not only because diversity advances our development as a social group, but from an employment perspective it has been shown to lead to better decision-making, recruitment and retention.

Research commissioned by the GMA in 2019 (Groundsmanship: Sport's Vital Profession) reported that the problem was recognised and of concern to participants. We know we have issues with people entering the profession - particularly those from younger age groups - but more than that we have a situation where 51 per cent of the UK population are women, but merely 3 per cent of our groundstaff community are female. This compares with women comprising 11 per cent of the military, 12.5 per cent in construction and 17 per cent in farming. None of these figures are ideal and representative, but they make 3 per cent look woefully small and something we urgently need to address.

Stereotypes and perceptions of gender appear to play an important part in this. Amy Sullivan, a member of the grounds team at Whitgift School in Croydon, undertook research relating to the recruitment of women to the profession for her BSc in Sportsturf Science and Management. It is the first of its kind. A quick search of an academic database revealed 103 research papers on the subject of 'women, sport and coaching' in 2021 alone, so it is not that studies of sport are ignoring gender, it is more that turf management has always had to battle for recognition within discussions of sport and that representation is then magnified many times for the position of women in the sector. Amy's results identified there were no significant differences in the ways women entered the industry compared with male staff. What was relevant was the impact of stereotypes, perceptions and attitudes, both within and outside the industry.

Invisible Barriers

No formal barriers exist to women in the profession, but that does not mean there are no impediments. The image of grounds management, the language used, the marginalisation and 'othering' of anyone who does not fit the imagined profile of a 'typical groundsperson' all work against recruitment. The wording of job adverts has been found to reinforce stereotypes, with sectors dominated by male employees often using words associated with masculine images - 'groundsman' as is still used in some embarrassingly outdated job adverts, for example.

Rather than emphasising 'hard physical work', Camille Le Lay, who works for iTurf Management at the Stade de France and Le Mans stadia, told Grounds Management editor Karen Maxwell that the qualities she feels are essential in her job are "a positive mentality and an open-minded approach", adding that "any woman with that mindset and a willingness to learn can flourish in this job".

Being aware of this, addressing it and making sure that potential applicants see that the work can be done by people who look like them is crucial to change. As John Ledwidge, head of sportsturf and grounds at Leicester City Football Club, said in an interview with Karen: "The club has a policy they hold in high regard around equality and diversity, but applicants tend to be white males. Work in Football in the Community in areas of Leicester is predominately Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME), and we hope that the school links that offer a pool of diversity could bring opportunities to show what we're doing, but we need role models to be advocates".

Karen agrees and says how important it is to "shine a spotlight on people from diverse backgrounds and abilities to encourage a wider segment of the population to consider a career in grounds management". She notes that more women work within the agronomy, marketing, sales and administration side of the industry, so there is clearly subject appeal, but that has yet to translate to representation on the turf.

Equal Opportunities

Emma Cowdrill, women and girls' development officer at Ageas Bowl, has been working to address that. She has just booked 10 female students on a GMA Level 1 online cricket course as part of a young leaders programme called the Vipers Champions. Emma is keen for them to experience (and get qualified in) many cricket-related areas.

"These girls are passionate about the game and I do not want to lose them from cricket, so by giving them as many opportunities as possible, I hope they will find their niche whether just as a hobby or as a career," she says. It is a great idea, with positives for all: 10 possible future turf leaders and highly visible role models who help their clubs with pitch preparation. And if they are all lost to us as England internationals, they will still possess great insight and understanding of the role.

Nothing was more visible than the initiative taken by Troy Flanagan, director of golf maintenance at San Francisco Olympic, venue of this year's women's US Open. He recruited 29 female members to the event maintenance team, half of the total.

This kind of effort is something Pam Sherratt, turfgrass specialist at the University of Ohio, applauds and would like to see more of. Clearly this was not just a gesture - such a prestigious tournament requires highly skilled people to provide optimum playing conditions.

Inclusion is Key

It is also necessary to ensure that people do not simply point at a recruitment choice and feel they have 'done their bit'. As Pam explains: "Representation matters, but so does inclusion. Having a token girl on the team doesn't mean anything if she's not treated professionally and her opinion isn't respected. That goes for any minority group in the industry''.

She highlights how the US is trying to change this: "There are only 3 per cent women in the US sportsturf sector, but I feel we are treated very well and encouraged to take leadership roles. The Sports Turf Management Association (STMA) board has had two female presidents and has women speaking at its annual conference." One such example is Nicole Sherry, head groundskeeper at Baltimore Orioles, who is current director of facilities on the STMA board. Pam adds: “Can the same be said for the UK sportsturf sector? Is there a clear effort to make sure minority groups are represented at conferences, on boards and in leadership roles?"

The Next Generation

The turf sector is not alone in this in sport, and sport is not unique in society in perpetuating this inequality. A look at our elected representatives highlights this.

Dr Alex Culvin, academic at Salford University and former Women's Super League professional, summarises the problem: "Football, at all levels, is still not a taken-for-granted activity for women in England." The sportsturf industry can acknowledge and address the issues raised and we have a generation of inspiring people in high­ profile roles who have shown they are keen to raise issues. What a result it would be if we could add the following to Dr Culvin's quote: "...but sports grounds management is."

The GMA is committed to continuing to analyse employment levels and looks to include workforce development in its upcoming strategy.