The only man or the invisible man

I believe women and other individuals from minority groups are often forced to play one of two roles, either ‘the only man’ or ‘the invisible man’. I’ve experienced both in my career and I can tell you they are energy draining, soul destroying roles. These roles don’t benefit the actor (the employee) or the show (the business). I appreciate that a performance requires a leading protagonist and a hugely talented supporting cast. I’m aware of the fact that not everyone wants to be a leading lady or take on the role of best actor, but the invisible man is not the same as being in the supporting cast and the only man is certainly not the same as the leading man.

I believe we’ve lost our way with diversity and inclusion. We seem to look at it as a recruitment exercise or a marketing campaign. The result is we may look diverse from the outside but how inclusive does it feel on the inside? Let me share with you my experience of being ‘the only man’ to help explain this a little more.

Twice now I have worked with organisations in The Netherlands who wanted to develop their international educational programs. I came on board to help them develop English curricula and they built teams of International lecturers to deliver the programs. The language of the program was English, which meant meetings and teaching was all conducted in English. Eventually the international staff were replaced with Dutch staff and slowly the culture changed. Rather than speaking English because that was the language of the programme, people would check to see if I was in the room and I became the reason the meeting was conducted in English – oh Donna’s here we have to do the meeting in English. I appreciate they were including me by doing this because by then I was the only none dutch speaking person in the meeting, but by offering to speak English because of me rather than because of programme, I become the why. And the point is I am replaceable but your core reason, the DNA at the heart of the WHY shouldn’t be replacebale.

Being the only man is a huge burden to bare. It’s a weight that many of us don’t want to carry. We are more than the minority category which you assigned to us. It’s great that you’ve hired a person of colour but don’t expect them to teach you how to be an antiracist – unless of course that’s explicitly why you hired them. And don’t get me started on the hypocrisy that women can’t coach men’s teams because they’ve never played men’s sports, but sure go ahead and promote your latest male head coach of you’re women’s national team!

In all my years of research I have yet to have a conversation with any white straight able bodied man who felt they were only given the board position or promotion opportunity because of their gender. WHY? Because why would they? The system has been built for them. Systemic racism and sexism has for decades tipped the balance in favour of white able bodied men. I’m not asserting blame, I am simply pointing out the fact that our experiences are different. And because our experiences are different we need to create different systems.

In my opinion targets and quotas are one way of tipping the balance back towards a more level playing field. Research shows that 30% is the minimal target to prevent the only man role from playing out. So for example if you’re focusing on increasing gender representation in any given space, team, board etc you should aim for a 30:60 representation.

The invisible man is the role played by many of us who find ourselves in organisations that aren’t inclusive. This isn’t limited to those of us from minority groups. I’ve seen many white, straight, able bodied men burn out in organisations that fail to see the human employee. That fail to listen to the voices of their employees. If you’re not hearing the stories of those working for you, you are either not listening or you have created an environment in which people do not feel safe sharing their stories.

As humans we are hardwired to connect with others. Even the introverts amongst us don’t want to feel invisible. We want to feel seen, heard and valued. Where and how in your business do you offer opportunities for people to share their stories and experiences?

Two years ago I lost out on a career changing promotion. At the time it was a devastating blow. I had worked my entire career for that one opportunity. One of the leaders in my organisation spoke to me afterwards and explained that all my hard work and contribution to the team and the organisation had not gone un-noticed ‘I see you’ were her exact words. And in that moment I felt seen. I felt valued. I felt like all the years of hard work had been acknowledged and were worth it. At least now they see me, maybe next time….That moment of connection was followed by deathly silence for two years. Needless to say I no longer feel seen or valued….I’m back playing the role of the invisible man.

This isn’t about ego, this is about recognition. It isn’t about title, it’s about opportunity. It isn’t about hiring diversely it’s about listening to this diverse voices. You won’t create a diverse and inclusive organisation by simply hiring the only man or the invisible man. You will create an inclusive culture were everyone thrives if you:

  1. Connect to your WHY and embed that in your organisational DNA,
  2. Create an inclusive culture where everyone feels valued and safe to share their stories,
  3. Hire a diverse workforce but don’t hire diversity in and of itself

Connect to your WHY and value D&I

It’s okay to not be perfect. It’s okay to get it wrong as long as you are willing to try again to get it right. It’s okay to be a beginner.

All too often I see the fear of failure holds so many people and businesses back from creating a diverse and inclusive organisations. And I get it. “What if I say the wrong thing and offend someone?”, “If I include that person am I excluding someone else?”, “I’m a small business, I’m not hiring anyone else so how can I be diverse and inclusive?”, “It’s something we want to look into, but we just don’t have the budget at the moment.”

These are all valid points and ones which I have seen over and over again, so if any of these resonate with you, you are not alone. The topic of diversity and inclusion can feel like uncharted territory with no clear starting point or final destination and with nothing but obstacles and pitfalls along the way. But here’s the thing I have travelled this path with so many organisations and teams and individuals over the years, I’m rather a seasoned traveller my friend so let me be your guide. And trust me when I say it is a beautiful journey and most definitely a destination worth heading to.

First things first we’re going to throw the business case out the window. Looking for the bottom line rationale will never get you where you want to be. There’s more than enough evidence out there for the business case. Proof that diverse and inclusive organisations are more innovative, thriving businesses. Places where employees want to be and customers want to connect with. But people don’t connect with the business case, and D&I is all about people.

So now we’ve let go of the belief that the business case can be our road map, we need another type of navigation system. Our compass for our journey my friend is our WHY. Why do we care about D&I? Start with your personal why. There’s no right or wrong, no winning golden ticket answer. just sit for a minute and think of your ending to this sentence…..

I care about Diversity and Inclusion because………….

What’s your story? You don’t need to share it but you do need to listen to it. Stories bring things to life. As much as we look for the 5 star ratings it’s the comments underneath we turn to. If I hand out a collection tin, you don’t simply hand over your money without asking me what I’m collecting for. The ‘why’ I rate a restaurant or the ‘why’ I’m collecting money are what leads you to take action. My why for D&I is because I believe my daughter should have the same experiences in life as her brothers. My why drives me and grounds me at the same time. Its my true north that keeps me on track. 

No man is an island. No business exists in isolation. Even if you’re an entrepreneur doing everything in your business by yourself, you’ll have clients or customers. Even if you’re Micheal Jordan the best player the NBA has ever seen, you need to be a part of a team to win championships. So alongside your personal why, connect with other peoples why. Not everyones, but those in you inner circle of influence. Your colleagues, your team mates, your customers or clients. As humans we are hardwired to connect. Even the introverts amongst us don’t want to feel invisible. We want to share stories, we want to find connections. Listen to the experiences of those you care about. Connect the dots to these stories and you will find the why.

Now chances are you will at some point say the wrong thing and offend someone, at which point you come back to your why. You apologies for the offence, you learn from the experience and you come back to your why. If you have 10 seats around the table and you want to invite someone new to the conversation, then yes one of the original 10 will have to give up their seat. Come back to your why. And remember not letting one type of person take up all the space is not the same as exclusion. And diversity and inclusion is not a hiring exercise, so even if you are a one man or one woman show you can still create a diverse and inclusive business, unless of course you only want to sell to the person in the mirror in which case you keep doing you my friend.

Now I know I told you to throw the business case out the window but I am going to finish by talking numbers. Once you connect D&I to your why, you will start to truly value it. The more you value it, the more you want it. At this point you need to treat it like any other business unit. Not a project you give to HR but a stand alone business unit with the resources and KPIs and bells and whistles and accountability you assigned to every other aspect of your business. And for now if you are at the point of looking into it, you got this far my friend for free, so hats off to you. You have started your journey, you are on the right path and I’m here with you every step of the way.

Routines, Rituals and Real Life

Anyone with small children will relate to the number of times you have to repeat yourself.

Every time my youngest (who’s 5) goes to the toilet he wants to skip the steps of using paper, flushing and washing his hands. Which are clearly unacceptable shortcuts by anyones standards and so the other four members of our family are constantly reminding him every time he heads to the toilet and again every time he leaves. One day (soon – we hope) it will stick. This routine will become something he does automatically without having to think about it. Although it may take us longer to break our routine of reminding him!

The point is our daily lives are filled with routines that become second nature so we no longer know we’re doing them. I know you cleaned your teeth today but I bet you can’t really remember doing it. Overtime we learn the steps to get a task completed and then we move to autopilot. How many times do we say “it’s easier for me to just do it rather than have to explain it”?

For many of us our routines of getting up, eating breakfast, brushing our teeth, taking a shower, getting dressed, and going to work, are not meaningful parts of our day, but it needs to get done so we do it. However rituals are viewed as more meaningful practices. With rituals we often associate symbolism and a real sense of purpose.

Harrison possibly explaining to Buddy the fundamentals of his toilet routine

It’s not just our homes that are filled with routines and rituals. Our workplaces are too. I’m not talking about the cheesy google hits of 10 daily routines to get you from check out to CEO. I’m talking about the everyday stuff. From the moment we walk into an office and are greeted by a receptionist or navigate the signage to find our way around, we enter a world of rituals and routines. Weekly meetings. Getting timecards stamped. Performance reviews and promotion opportunities. How project teams are formed. How lay offs are handled. The rituals and routines, the daily behaviour and actions of people within an organisation determines what is expected to happen in given situations, and what is valued by management. They lay the foundations of ‘how we do things around here’ in short they are part of the DNA of your businesses culture.

The way the rest of our family react to Harrison’s unique and hopefully short lived toilet routine, sends him the repeated message that his behaviour is not acceptable. The same can be said of how we react to routines in the workplace. In theory therefore it should be easy to call out exclusionary behaviour, right?


The problem is the routines are so embedded we don’t notice them anymore. As a consultant, when I work with organisations I bring a fresh pair of eyes and the question ‘why?’. Take a simple weekly 8.30am all staff Monday morning meeting. Why? It’s great to start the week off with a bucket full of positive energy and motivation but do you have to do it at 8.30am, the time most parents need to drop children off at school? I once worked for a national football association who gave each new board member a gift, why? To show their appreciation and to welcome them to the board. Amongst other items, the gift contained a man’s aftershave, why? Because their was the unconscious assumption that all board members would be men. Not exactly welcoming or an authentic way to show your appreciation for your new female board member.

I appreciate not everyone is able to work with an external consultant so let me lend you my fresh pair of eyes. Below you will find a very simple check list to help you start to see the rituals and routines in your organisation in a new light:

  • When do you schedule meetings? Is it at a time that everyone can attend?
  • Who records the minutes of the meeting? Is it the same person every time? why?
  • If you provide gifts for new employees or clients are these gifts appropriate for everyone or can you have a selection of choices for different people?
  • If you celebrate public holidays, which ones and why?
  • Do the images displayed around your workplace or on your website show one type of person?
  • Do people eat lunch at their desks or do they eat lunch together? why?
  • Do you have a hard start and end time to the working day or do you offer flexible working hours?
  • Are people sending emails outside of office hours? Why?
  • Who takes care of the none work stuff, like remembering it’s someones birthday, sending a get well card….?
  • Why, who and how do you celebrate achievements and wins?

However you do these things, who does them or even the why you do them will say a lot about your culture. If there’s a woman in your team, chances are they take the meeting minutes and they take care of the none work stuff but chances are women are absent from your organisation images. What kind of work-life balance are your promoting if people eat at their desk and send emails after work hours? These simple routines send the message that there is no ‘off work ‘ time. Structure work days and early morning meetings send the message that work is rigid but we know that life isn’t.

The rituals and routines in our working days evolve over time to the point where we stop noticing them but they are incredibly impactful and they are the lifeblood of our business culture. So please take a moment today and ask yourself ‘Why do we have these rituals and routines?’, ‘What do they say about us as an organisation?’, and ‘Who are they serving?’.

For more actionable tips and resources to help you create a Diverse, Inclusive, Value-packed and Equity driven culture please sign up for my weekly blog and follow me on Instagram for a daily dose of D&I and updates and links to freebies.

Three steps to putting out the fires of EXCLUSION


In the English language ‘Value’ is both a noun and a verb. We use it to denote the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something. We use the word value a lot in business. but we tend to put more emphasis on the verb rather than the noun. We use it to estimate the monetary worth of something. When I work with organisations on D&I projects one of the first barriers I face is a lack of buy in from the top because they start by wanting to know the business case for D&I in other words ‘how much is D&I worth to my bottom line’?

There is a wealth of research out there that demonstrates how organisations with gender balanced boards out perform those with homogenous representation around the table. Or how organisations with a diverse and inclusive culture attract the best talent. Or how customers and clients are choosing to engage or not with organisations based on their D&I initiatives. I can show you the research that supports the business case of creating a diverse and inclusive organisation but I’m not going to, because I’m not interested in the monetary worth of D&I, I’m interested in the human value. I’m not a quantitative person, numbers don’t work for me. Numbers won’t change a culture. Numbers take you down the tick box route of counting difference as opposed to understanding it. If you have to count the number of black employees, or women in your organisation your organisation is not diverse. However I am not naive. Alongside my PhD I have an MBA, I understand how business works. I get that the importance of the balance sheet. I’m just saying this is not the starting point. People are the starting point.

In an interview for DIRECTOR last year marketing expert and leader Mary Portas discussed how putting people first is the key to her success in business:

“It’s a better, more profitable business. It’s a more creative place, a more joyful place. We retain staff, employees put forward people to work here. They speak highly of the company. We’re delivering better work. Honestly, it’s affected all levels.”


It’s not an either / or choice. Putting people first isn’t a price you pay for profits. It’s the starting point for business growth. Remember value is used to denote the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something. If you don’t think people are useful to you either as employees or customers / clients then feel free to stop reading this blog right now. If you are only interested in the opinions of people who look like you and sound like, then feel free to make all your business decisions in front of the bathroom mirror. But if you’re still with me and you value people, then let’s talk about which people you value.


In 2018 UEFA (the European Union for Football Associations) launched a campaign to promote diversity, inclusion and accessibility in European Football. European clubs, national teams and star players backed the campaign which was designed to rid the game of discrimination. The #EqualGame campaign was to all intense and purpose a social media success, spreading UEFA’s vision that everyone should be able to enjoy football regardless of who they are, where they are from or how they play the game.

“The campaign was created under UEFA’s Respect initiative and designed to spread the positive spirit of inclusion, amplify a clear and uplifting message about the benefits that football brings to the community; show how the game can be enriched by greater diversity; and explain the European football family’s role to make the sport open and accessible to all.”


UEFA certainly value the impact of a social media campaign but they do not value diversity and inclusion. A positive spirit and uplifting messages don’t cut it. If UEFA truly believed the game could be enriched by greater diversity all the decision making positions wouldn’t be filled by people who look alike, middle to mature aged white men. If there’s no diversity in the rooms where your decisions are made, there is no diversity in your organisation, full stop.

A year after this campaign was launched we conducted research with elite coaches in football. Coaches who had played at the top of their game winning Olympic and World Championship titles before transitioning into a coaching role. Coaches who lead their national teams to victory. Coaches who also happened to be women. Coaches who told us of their experience of sexual harassment, of racism. Coaches who were told they could never coach an elite men’s team because they had never played men’s football. The same coaches who were then loosing out of top level coaching jobs for women’s teams because male coaches saw these roles as stepping stones to higher profile jobs in men’s football.

Two years after this campaign was launched we conducted research with decision makers in football, board members of national federations. We interviewed men and women from 7 associations in Europe. All white, able bodied, middle to mature aged individuals. We didn’t ask these board members any specific questions about women’s football but our respondents were incapable of separating women from women’s football. The perceived value of women IN football was therefore solely measured by the perceived value of Women’s Football – because heaven forbid women might know anything about finance or marketing or have any knowledge about football in general. This women for women rhetoric is limiting and insulting and absolutely not in line with UEFA’s desire to “show how the game can be enriched by greater diversity”.

You cannot put out statements supporting D&I if you only value one type of person. Football values white able bodied, sis gender men. Football does not value women. At best it is starting to see some value in women’s football but this value is consistently limited to the business case of whether or not football played by women brings in a return on investment. Football does not see women as people who have anything to add to football. One board member we spoke to who was the first women to be appointed to her associations board of directors explained how she had been labelled a ‘dark horse’ during the recruitment process. Despite having an impressive CV and extensive experience in corporate finance, the fact that she was a women made her an unexpected contender judged unlikely to succeed.


Simply putting out statements related to D&I or running D&I campaigns are all too often an act of performative allyship or at worst hypocritical lip service. If you really want to create diverse and inclusive cultures you have to value people. You have to put people first. Personally I feel like we’re at risk of developing D&I fatigue. In an attempt to react to social pressure, organisations are desperately putting together statements of support and appointing heads of diversity, or creating roles for people and culture leaders. Hashtags are trending and people or busy doing. But what if in our rush to do something we end up doing nothing. Nothing more than running a ‘successful’ media campaign.

So before you run your next D&I campaign or release your D&I supportive statement ask yourself this: How much do you value D&I?

If you believe you value D&I. If you are willing to put people first. If those people don’t all look and sound like you, you’re ready to take these three simple steps. Steps that will help you avoid D&I fatigue and move you beyond D&I lip service. Steps that will change your culture for the better.


The opposite of inclusion is exclusion. Exclusion is a fire fuelled by the ‘isms’ racism, sexism, ableism, ageism…these fires spread systemically throughout organisations. They therefore require a systemic approach to distinguish them. If you limit your D&I discussions to the HR department only you will never distinguish the fires. If you value people, if you value inclusion you have to go all in. With every decision that is made ask yourself ‘who am I excluding’. Of course you can’t please all of the people all of the time but you also can’t please one type of person all of the time.


How do you show others what you value? If you value people. If you value diversity and inclusion how do you show that? If you pay men and women differently you clearly do not value their contribution equally. If the headshots of your board members or department heads all look the same, you are sending a message that this is the type of person you value in these positions. It’s human nature to want to share our best bits. By all means share the story that you have created a 5 year plan to increase diversity hires but if you are not willing to address the pay gap these new employees will experience while they work for you, you need to hold off on that press release and return to step 1.


Check if you’re doing what you say you’re doing. Sometimes we can’t see the wood for the trees because we’re too close to the situation and our best intentions are lost in a fog of our own unconscious bias. Get feedback. Work with external parties, D&I consultants who bring a fresh pair of eyes and see things differently. Who pick up on cultural artefacts, or micro aggressions, unconscious bias, or exclusionary policies. Work with internal stakeholders, reduce silo mentality and engage with reverse mentoring. You may be developing a diverse workforce but how included do they feel? Is there equity in you career development structures? In reverse mentoring a junior team member enters into a ‘professional friendship’ with someone more senior and they exchange skills knowledge and understanding. I am by no means saying that it is the job of individual groups to education those in positions of power and privilege but I am encouraging reflection and growth and open communication.

D&I is not a nice to have anymore, it is a need to have. People centred organisations are the ones who will not only survive but thrive. If you need the business case argument to motivate you to step up and make a change its out there. But will always fall short and barely scratch the surface unless you take a people focused approach. These three steps will keep you on track and will change how you approach and engage with D&I, they will help you put out the fires of exclusion for good.

Why we need to change the story if we want to resolve the conflict.


We make sense of the world through stories. We consume stories through 24/7 news outlets. We teach our children right and wrong, what is good and evil through the fairytales we read them before bedtime. We are all characters in the story of our own life but many of us do not feature in the bigger stories because they are all too often filled with only one character.

The stories pouring out of the news outlets and social media platforms this week, the headlines that have eclipsed the global pandemic of Covid-19, are all born from the senseless murder of George Floyd. The 46 year old black man who died in Minneapolis on May 25th 2020, after a white police office Derek Chauvin, knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds whilst he was handcuffed face down in the street, telling them he couldn’t breathe. This is not the first time a black man has died at the hands of the police and this is not an incident solely associated with the police or with America. This is simply another headline in the ongoing story of systemic racism.

We need to stop writing the same headlines to the same stories. We need to learn from these stories.


Research tells us that every story has five elements: the plot (beginning, middle and end); the characters; the setting; the conflict; and resolution. In order for us to find a resolution we need to address the other elements of the story.

For too long the settings of our stories, be that sport, politics, education, business….have lacked diversity. The characters have all been cut from the same cloth and the addition of any new and different characters often contribute to the conflict in the story. When I read a novel, unless I am told otherwise, I picture the character to look like me, my default assumption is that the character will be white. This is then reaffirmed when the book is made into a movie and so I don’t challenge this assumption when I next pick up a book. This is not okay. I was recently listening to a podcast in which the hosts read a story. A new character, a doctor was introduced, and it was quiet a way into the scene in the hospital that the doctor was introduced by name and the co-hosts all acknowledged their own unconscious bias because the doctor was a woman and they had all assumed the character was a man, because doctor equals man. This is not okay.

The most successful and well loved stories have more than one character. Even Tom Hanks in Castaway had Wilson! Whilst Harry Potter is the main protagonist of JK Rowlings much loved books, there would be no story without the antagonist Voldemort and least we forget Harry would have died in book one if it hadn’t been for the intelligence and quick thinking actions of Hermione. But not only does a successful story need more than one character, it needs diversity in its characters.

This week my colleague Dr Leanne Norman from Leeds Beckett University and I delivered a webinar to over 200 people from around the world based on the research we have done with women coaches in football (if you’re interested, the full webinar recording is available on my website). For too long the lead protagonist in football, the only character in football has been the white able bodied man. This is not to say that their story is not valid or valued because it is. But to only tell the story of football through one characters voice, is not okay.

To help disseminate the findings of our research project I created an infographic. I could not find images of women coaches or players to use in my infographic. These characters are literally missing. These women are invisible. This is not okay. After searching the internet and image banks looking for women coaches and players and coming up short, I contacted a graphic designer friend ( and asked if she could create some bespoke images for me.

Leanne and I were overwhelmed by the positive response to the webinar which poured out during the webinar chat and on social media platforms, but one of the comments that stood out for me was this one:

Thanks for using coloured figures! I am Indian and this is the first ever football presentation where I actually feel represented and included! Thank you!!


I see a lot of positive stories coming out following the tragic death of George Floyd. Global organisations donating money to fund projects for minorities and releasing headlines in support of anti-racism movements. I love NIKEs ‘For once, Don’t Do It.’ campaign, a call to action to call out racism. But for this to be more than just a twist in the plot, this narrative needs to come out of an organisation whose executive board is not made up of a sea of white faces. Alongside donating money to support projects for minority groups, the same organisations need to develop a clear and accountable recruitment strategy to employ individuals from minority groups within their organisations. As Peter Drucker the famous management consultant once said ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’. Including a variety of characters in our stories is incredibly important but we can’t just add different characters without changing the story. We don’t just need strategies for inclusion we need to create inclusive cultures.

I come back to my round peg square hole analogy. The pegs being employees and the hole being the organisational culture. Stop trying to add square pegs into your round hole. Change the shape of your hole! Don’t let your response to Mr Floyds death be an opportunity to sprout platitudes. Let it be an opportunity to learn and re-write the story. To change the narrative. To create an inclusive culture not just an inclusive headline. We don’t need a twist in the plot we need a different ending. So my call to action today is this….When you listen to a story do you ask yourself, whose voice is missing? When you’re telling a story through a presentation or inform graphic, ask yourself whose story am I telling?

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.