Simply asking people to dance is not enough. If you want to create an inclusive culture you need to expand your playlist.


My dad took me to my first football game, a match between Nottingham Forest and the local rivals Derby. I was 5 years old.  From that moment on I fell in love with the game and with sport in general. A few years later I realised that it was only the boys who were playing football at school, whilst the girls played netball.  I asked my PE teacher if I could play football and she said “No”.

“WHY”? I asked.

“Because that’s for boys”. She said. 

“WHY”? I asked. 

“Because boys like football and girls don’t like it”. Came her reply. 

“But I like it, so can I play”?

My PE teacher then clearly tried to shut down the conversation by explaining that it was against the school rules. Us Brits are fairly responsive to rules and I was a very law abiding pupil. I had never had a detention, I was never late for school and I always did my homework. I can see why she chose this strategy. But this felt like a rule that needed questioning. Realising I wasn’t making progress, I made an appointment to see the person I assumed made the school rules, the headmaster. This was the mid 80’s and his response was the same – girls don’t like football.  Although I didn’t realise it at the time, this was my first lesson in qualitative research.  There’s more to the data than the words that are spoken. 

My PE teacher and my headmaster had said NO I couldn’t play football because I was a girl. But there was more information in their response that I could work with. They weren’t using my sex as a physical barrier for participation. It wasn’t that they felt girls couldn’t physically play football.  They believed girls didn’t want to play football. In my mid twenties I really struggled with the economics classes during my MBA, but here at the age of 10 was my first lesson in supply and demand. Let’s just say that thanks to a rather impressive petition, by the time I left my middle school, girls were allowed to play football because shock horror, I wasn’t the only one who wanted to.

My experience of not being able to play football occurred nearly 40 years ago. And things have changed right? My dad took me to watch my first football game when I was 5 years old and by 7 I was told I couldn’t play. I took my daughter to her first training session at 5 and by 7 she realised she didn’t want to play. I never got the chance to be included in football, it took my daughter 2 years to realise she wasn’t included in football.


Sport is, for many of us, our first experience of organisational culture. Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” Whilst there isn’t a universal definition of organisational culture, and there’s an upcoming blog post on this, a common understanding is that “it’s the way we (organisations) do things.” Sport has a certain way of doing things. It is an institution that has been built by white able bodied men, for white able bodied men. My experience of wanting to play football as a child in the 80’s in England is an example of an inequitable organisational culture. Thankfully many organisations are becoming aware of what this means and they are trying to change their cultures to be diverse and inclusive places. Verna Myers famously said:

“Diversity is being invited to the party, Inclusion is being asked to dance”. Verna Myers

I wasn’t even invited to the party, but I daughter is invited. Technically she can join our local football club, she can train and play matches alongside her brothers. From the clubs perspective, the musics playing and she’s on the dance floor – job done. But music makes people move in different ways. You can guarantee that when an Irish jig comes on Micheal Flatley’s legs are going to do things that mine will never do in a million years. If the DJs playing 90s pop I’m in my element but anything from the death metal genre and I’m likely to look like a deer caught in headlights. For me Myers quote compartmentalises diversity and inclusion. There is an implied assumption that we will all dance to the same song.

When my daughter started playing football aged 5 alongside her 6 year old brother, I could see she was the only girl but the children didn’t see that. I remember thinking wow this is great, they don’t see her as different, surely that’s what we’re looking for in an inclusive culture. But this is like saying skin colour doesn’t matter. Which Reni Eddo-Lodge beautifully unpicks in her best selling book ‘Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race.’ Differences absolutely matter because they come wrapped up in privilege and power and these are things which most definitely affect our experience.

In the Netherlands, the youngest age category for teams is under 8’s and girls and boys can play together. When she was 7 the club suggested she played for their girls under 12 team, she would have barely reached her teammates waist! Instead we put her forward for the general tryouts and she was selected for the under 8’s first team. This would mean she would get a proper coach, the other teams are trained by volunteer parents.

During the first training sessions with her new team she did a great job, not the star player but her skills, physical strength and speed certainly put her mid to top of the mix. Two weeks later she was dropped from the first team because they had accidentally selected one too many players. The decision to drop her rather than any of her fellow male team mates was made by the male coach whose son was in the same team and a male board member responsible for the junior players who had never seen her play. The ability of the second team was leagues below that of the first team and this would mean she would no longer have a qualified coach. We appealed the decision, we asked the club to explain why she was the player dropped, they couldn’t provide any rationale. We asked if she could still at least train with the first team, they said no. She quickly became frustrated with her experience in the second team, she wanted more, she deserved more but the club wouldn’t give her more. She may have been on the dance floor but the music had stopped playing and she fell out of love with football.


Inviting people to the dance is not enough. We need to understand what that experience feels like. What do we experience when someone takes our hand and leads us to the dance floor? (anyone else singing George Michael’s Careless Whisper right now?) You may assume we feel grateful for suddenly being invited but what if we hate being the centre of attention and would sooner watch from the safety of bar?!?! What if we absolutely love to dance but you’re just playing the wrong song? As JLO explains the DJ’s gotta play your favourite song if you want to keep dancing all night long!

Organisations need to do more than invite you to dance, they need to invite you to add your song to the playlist” Dr Donna de Haan

My local football club didn’t see my daughter as a talented player, they saw her as a girl playing football. The men that manage the club, that make the decisions in the club have no idea what it feels like to be a girl in football. To be the square peg in the round hole. The men who manage football around the world have no idea what it’s like to be a woman in football. I will never fully understand what it’s like to be a man in football. But here’s the difference – football was built for men. Their experience is all that has shaped it. They are the round peg in the round hole. Until we start to take into account the experiences of the square pegs we will never create inclusive cultures.

So lets re-write the playlist and truly get this party started.

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