Charlie Webster: ‘Diversity shouldn’t be a box-ticking exercise – women deserve a voice in sport’

Charlie Webster is a broadcaster and writer, a campaigner on social issues, and is a keen Ironman and triathlon competitor. You can hear her chatting about the EFL with Adrian Chiles on BBC Radio 5 Live on Chiles on Friday from 10:00 GMT.

“Do you actually like sport?”

You’re reading this on the BBC Sport website, so you probably do.

I have always liked sport for as long as I can remember but, for some reason, I have to prove I like it, despite having the knowledge under my belt from 15 years of journalism.

It’s a question that has always really got to me. And why does it contain the word “actually”. “Do you actually like sport?”

Considering I’m in one of three scenarios when I’m asked this question – watching, presenting or competing in sport – why am I being asked it?

I competed in sport growing up, competitive running, boxing and martial arts. It helped me mentally and began to teach me self-worth – but it wasn’t until I started my media career that I experienced blatant sexism.

My first job in sport was working in football media. I got constantly asked if I liked football, if I knew football.

“Why are you asking me? Do you like football?” is what I should have said, but never did. I wasn’t confident enough in myself.

I just used to say “yes” and then reel off a million reasons why, to try and prove it. The funny thing is I have three brothers who don’t like football, but because they are male, people assume they do, which is also annoying for them.

I can’t begin to tell you how demoralising it is to constantly get asked this question and how many times I’ve been hit on by an exec at least 10 years older than me, treating me as if you are a Tinder swipe.

In another job when I was younger, I was presenting live Premier League football and my talkback – the producers talking into your earpiece – was turned off, on purpose to try and get me to trip up and make it look like I didn’t know what I was doing.

Talkback isn’t used to give you knowledge, it’s to give you timings alongside directing you through different sections of the show. So, in any broadcast it is needed.

This wasn’t even hidden from me by the powers that be, I was outright told this had been done to me and then it was laughed about right in front of my face.

In those early days of my career I would dress down hoping it would help me be taken more seriously. I would join in with the lad banter and laugh at the insults that were directed at me in the hope I would be accepted. It was all about being at the kitchen sink and stuff like that.

The further I got in my career, the worse it seemed to get.

I sometimes turned up to work in my training gear.

Of course, I had plenty of time to have a shower and get ready before I went live on air.

On one occasion I walked in and was aggressively shouted at and told I needed to turn up like a woman should, with make-up and heels.

I once put my hair in a ponytail to present and was told in the middle of the live show, through talkback, that it wasn’t ladylike enough and women were there to look good.

When I first got involved in boxing. I initially got told “the audience aren’t ready for a woman to be talking about boxing”.

That was like putting a red rag to a bull. It made me feel so low and lonely inside, but I was determined to prove that theory wrong.

I loved boxing, was brought up with it and had trained in it since I was a teenager. I did go on to present boxing – I was even the first woman globally to host a heavyweight world title fight.

There is a lot of this is unconscious bias in the industry. “The male must know what they are doing, the female must be there to make up the numbers,” seems to be the message.

It’s rarely the public I got most of the sexist comments from, it was people within the industry at a senior level who are very good at box-ticking, but internally harbour gender bias.

Even some women in higher up positions either turn a blind eye or instigate sexism themselves.

One of the few women in a decision making position at a network used to call the female presenters “seals”, like they were only there to perform. Again, not just behind our backs but to our faces.

Surely anybody with business sense would lift up the people who work with them or for them, not degrade them?

It isn’t about blaming men or women, it is about changing attitudes, so we don’t limit any young person’s potential and future.

The industry has changed a lot since I first started, there are more female sports broadcasters, and playing competitive sport is a more sustainable career pathway for women.

Seeing women in these positions is important, because it makes it normal.

But diversity shouldn’t be a box-ticking exercise, which I know for so many it still is.

A fixation with numbers and percentages of women in the industry has now taken over as the measurement of success, but what about supporting progression and elevating women once they are in these positions, rather than giving them a hard time for being there.

I want more authenticity in diversity, so inclusion and growth of talent become the focus, rather than hitting targets.

It’s International Women’s Day but we need to use every day to make changes that improve prospects for people across the board.

Giving a voice to one person doesn’t mean it cancels another out.

We also must remember that gender bias goes both ways. Telling a boy to “man up” can have a detrimental effect on their decision making and mental health.

Sport at a young age drives future leaders – 92% of female CEOs in the Fortune 500 played organised sport. Yet less than 1% of corporate sponsorship money globally goes to women’s sport.

It’s a wonder that nobody clever enough has managed to join the dots yet.

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