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Karren Brady kicking down doors

Karren Brady kicking down doors

Karren Brady has paved the way for women in leadership roles in football. But 30 years after she took over at Birmingham City, why are there still only a small percentage of women in roles like hers?

West Ham Vice-Chairman Karren Brady is one of the most high-profile women in football. 

She took over the running of Birmingham City in 1993, when she was just 23 years old. At the time, she was one of very few women in the football industry.

And in 2002, she became the first woman to hold a managing director position in the top flight of English football when  Birmingham City was promoted to the Premier League.

Karren Brady doesn’t give many interviews. But recently, she appeared on Steven Bartlett’s Diary of a CEO podcast, and talked about her early days working in football.

“Birmingham had gone into administration, there was a little ad in that said football club for sale and I thought ‘oh, that’s interesting’ and I got the details and I went to him and I said ‘look, there’s this football club for sale. You buy it and I’ll run it!’ And he was like ‘woah, football, very male dominated. You’ll have to be twice as good as the men to be thought of as even half as good.’ And I said ‘well, luckily, that’s not difficult…’”

Diary of a CEO

The rest, as they say, is history. 

Karren Brady has recently overseen West Ham’s successful move to the London Stadium. She says she’s always wanted to “kick down doors” to pave the way for other women to become successful in the world of football.

And now, she’s not alone. Port Vale, currently fighting for promotion from League Two, is owned by Carol Shanahan. 

“I did the thing that most women do when they start in a man’s world and you try and out man the men. So I drank more than they did, I swore more than they did, I smoked more than they did and I did everything more than they did cos I thought well I’ve gotta do this because it’s a man’s world, so that’s how success will be proved. And then you get to the point where you say, well actually, no, I don’t need to do this. Because I have everything I need just being who I am as a woman to be just as successful as they were.”

Jonathan Gullis

It’s clear that – thanks to women like Karren Brady and Carol Shanahan – attitudes towards women in the sport have changed since the early 90s. 

But how much have things really changed?

“At UEFA and FIFA we have the same objectives, which is to increase the number of female decision-makers in the game and to change that very male-dominated face of football that we have today. There’s been a lot of improvement, there’s more and more women on boards but there’s still a long way to go in terms of representation.”

FIFA

In 2018 FIFA launched a new strategy for women in the game. One of its main aims was called “govern and lead”  and it took 30 women from around the world on a leadership training programme.

But the problem of under-representation – when female leaders like Karren Brady have proven themselves to be more than capable – remains.

A year after that strategy was unveiled, Durham University’s Amee Bryan published a paper alongside the National Football Museum. 

She found that around 230 women work in a leadership capacity in football. 

And while 27% of workers in men’s league football are female, only 7% of directors are women. 

She concluded that most of these leadership roles are in commercial, sales, ticketing, and retail, all roles that are separate from the team itself.

Very few women have held senior positions in operations, football administration, and business development – essentially the decision-making part of the club – like Karren Brady at West Ham. 

“Hello and welcome to what is now fittingly known as the London Stadium, one of the most iconic sporting and entertainment venues in the country and of course the home of West Ham United Football Club.”

So what can be done to increase the number of women in leadership roles in football?

In an updated paper published last year Amee Bryan said that men’s club football is an “extremely gendered” industry. 

That football clubs have excluded women from core roles to maintain their masculine character. 

And the only way to change this – according to her research – is to involve women in equal proportion to men in footballing decisions. 

Until then, she said, women will only ever be accommodated at the margins.

It sounds like there  are a lot more doors to be kicked down yet.

Today’s story was written by Chloe Beresford and mixed by Ella Hill.