(Photo: Getty Images)
By Isabelle Westbury
“The business of sport is dominated by men.” Clare Connor, director of England women’s cricket at the ECB and the only female member of the ICC’s Cricket Committee, wasn’t spouting feminist opinion when she made this statement, merely a simple truth. The Women’s World Cup is just around the corner and with reports of record ticket sales, the state of the women’s game on the pitch is arguably in a healthier state than ever before. But what of those off it?
Professional county cricket remains the preserve of male players. Behind the scenes however a small handful of women play a vital, unseen role in its operation. They are few and far between, working in a world dominated by, as Connor notes, “men often of similar ages and backgrounds who have trod the same path as each other to get to where they are”.
Not that these women consider themselves a discriminated-against minority, nor that they might be in any way remarkable, or different even to their male colleagues. Lisa Pursehouse, the quietly effective chief executive of Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club, is philosophical about her role.
“I’ve always said that I don’t think that there is any such thing as ‘just a woman’,” remarks Pursehouse. “Just as there is no such things as ‘just a man’. We are all different, and our gender is just one element of that.” That Pursehouse, and other women working in county cricket, is automatically defined by her gender appears almost a source of frustration.
Somerset’s Polly Rhodes, despite a hint of pride in being the only female 1st XI scorer in the first division, agrees. “Being a female scorer does not define me,” explains Rhodes. “I am a scorer.” There is something very Serena Willams-esque about this defiance – her famous reply to a reporter who had referred to her as “one of the greatest female athletes” was simply: “I prefer the words ‘one of the greatest athletes of all time’.”
Women who succeed in male-dominated worlds often find themselves something of reluctant role models. “To be honest, I’ve never really thought of myself as a role model, or a pioneer,” explains Pursehouse. “Mick (Newell, the Nottinghamshire director of cricket and with whom Pursehouse is in a relationship) has always encouraged me to be aware of it, but my natural stance is that it just does not matter. It doesn’t matter to me – I work hard, I deliver and I don’t do it on my own, as I’ve got a great team of people around me. I’d be quite happy if no one knew who I was in all honesty.”
Pursehouse’s experience in sports administration spans more than 25 years. She is well aware that administrators only tend to make headlines when things go wrong. The irony is that she, reluctantly or otherwise, as the first and only female CEO in first-class county cricket, must be visible if others are to follow her lead.
Kirpal Bidmead is the new legal services director on the supervisory board at Derbyshire, appointed as part of the county’s revised governance structure. Bidmead came to Derbyshire already used to thriving in what is a traditionally male domain – the legal profession. Head of family law at local firm Flint Bishop LLP, she had the luxury of entering cricket administration refreshingly unfamiliar with its “pale, male and stale” reputation.
“For this role, as with my firm of solicitors, I didn’t really care if I was the only woman,” remarks Bidmead, in whose firm ten of the 23 partners are now women. “It was just a matter of who was suited to the job and to get on with it. What I did appreciate, however, on joining Derbyshire was that at the AGM, for example, a couple of hundred people came in. There were only two people who were not white and about seven or eight women. And most of the women were with their partners, so they had not come independently.
“So that, at least, is what I hope I am doing,” explains Bidmead, who is of Indian descent. “Appealing to the women who saw me at the AGM, to the one 18-year-old young man with a Pakistani background – that they can do what I am doing, too. I don’t think I’m a trailblazer – I fell into the role – but it’s just that to me, why can’t we, why shouldn’t we – women, minorities, etc. – normalise the fact that we can do these roles, too?”
Pursehouse, on the other hand, argues that sometimes the dearth of women in sports administration is over-exaggerated, arguing that there are in fact “more women in cricket, and its administration, than people actually believe there are”. When Pursehouse came to Trent Bridge in 2011, the five-person senior administrative team consisted of three women – Pursehouse as deputy chief executive, alongside a female finance director and a woman as head of community sport.
Pursehouse concedes, however, that this was probably an exception, not the rule. Among the smattering of women that do have roles in county cricket, they tend to populate marketing or hospitality roles, aligning to societal gender stereotypes.
Nevertheless, all of Pursehouse, Bidmead and Rhodes are adamant that gender discrimination is scarce and that, in reality, there are few barriers to women carrying out sports administration roles effectively.
Pursehouse notes that cricket is in fact a very amenable environment in which to work – flexible, encouraging of part-time roles and generally more easy-natured than many other professions.
Nevertheless, it remains that the female population is hardly reflected in sports, let alone cricket, administration. “The way to attract women, or any under-represented group, into administrative roles is to make cricket appealing to them in the first place,” says Pursehouse. “I think that this is where the Women’s World Cup could really help.” Seeing women on the pitch, and off it, and normalising their presence in all facets of the game is key.
“If you show, whatever you are, wherever you come from, if you see people like you doing something, then it sparks a light,” explains Pursehouse.
“There will be some of us that will watch the World Cup and think, crikey, I’ve got no sporting ability – like me – but they might think that, actually, they really enjoyed being at the ground, the people were friendly, their kids were made to feel welcome, they had a good chat with another spectator who they had never previously met.
“All of these lovely things that cricket does can create an environment that makes you, as a woman or anybody else quite frankly, feel that they’ve enjoyed it, and that this is something that they might want to work in.”
Bidmead offers that the reason the numbers of women in administration are a little slower to follow the rise in those on the pitch is because “the tide has only recently turned”.
She explains: “Give it time. Through history, the players have been male, so naturally they have been able to, once retired, go into the administrative side. Give it a decade, and more people will be coming through from the pitch – it will be a natural progression. At the moment, it’s just not on our radar.”
Government schemes have come and gone in the past, declaring leadership or gender balance initiatives, but change will only come when there’s a visible pathway. Most women in sport don’t want to be defined by their gender, are often fiercely against positive discrimination and are reluctant to be considered any different to those they work with. Yet role models they remain, and the Women’s World Cup only stands to create more.
Those working behind the scenes will inevitably be the last to have these pathways exposed, but a home World Cup, successfully executed, will do a lot to normalise the idea that women can succeed in sport, whether on the field or off it.