- Top officials in sport depend on a ‘ground crew’ at home

Doctoral candidate Hanne Sogn believes male dominance among top officials in Norwegian sport is still a problem. The hectic working day in which top officials have to be available 24/7 is one of the biggest challenges.

Top officials in sport have extremely demanding working days where many different considerations and tasks have to be juggled. That’s why the proportion of men is so high, writes Sogn. Illustration: Colourbox.

"My message is that we have to stop focusing on women; fix the system instead!

Hanne Sogn has clear recommendations for Norwegian sport in her doctoral thesis. In it, she asks the question: Why do men still have the most power and influence in Norwegian sport?

Hanne Elisabeth Sogn is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Sport and Social Sciences.

Was secretary general

That was the question Sogn was addressing when she started work on her doctorate in 2018. She has herself been one of the exceptions in Norwegian sport.

A female secretary general.

For six and a half years in the Norwegian Basketball Association and a year as a deputy in the same position in the Norwegian Climbing Association. 

She didn't think too much about the fact that she was a rare commodity. Until one day she was presented with the cold facts.

85 per cent of the elected top officials were men. Here we are talking about those who are often called president of their federation. But there was no more lighthearted reading among the administrative (secretary general) or top management of branches of sport.

“Why there aren't more female secretaries general? I guess it's because it's a round-the-clock job. There's something about that: it's a round-the-clock job.”

Politically elected top official (man)

The proportion was between 70 and 85 per cent in all groups. 

Sogn wanted to find out about this problem, and so the doctorate eventually came about. 

Has interviewed close to 40 managers

In recent years, this doctoral candidate has been deeply involved in Norwegian sport. She has participated in and observed meetings arranged by NIF (the Norwegian Confederation of Sports). Followed the day-to-day activities of many of the top officials. And not least interviewed almost 40 both current and former top officials.

“I'm afraid that being a leader in Norwegian sport is so all-consuming that the wings don't stretch.”

Politically elected top official (woman)

Both women and men.

Parish started by asking some relatively new top female officials. What was it like being leader of a male-dominated organisation?

“I was actually a little surprised by the response. None of them thought it was a problem. They didn't think about it critically.”

Something that Sogn admits she did not do herself when she was in the same position. 

Lise Klaveness is one of the few women at the top in sport. In 2022, she was elected as the first female football president in Norway. She came from a job as a top football manager.

Measures for women have not worked

These answers made their mark on her ongoing work. For here we were not necessarily talking about a bad culture or many examples of discrimination and abuse of power.

Sogn believes that sport has shown that they are willing to take gender equality seriously. During the period she has worked on her doctorate, a number of measures have been initiated to both educate and equip women leaders.

The male leaders that Sogn interviewed also wanted a change and could see that there is a need for a better gender balance.

Attitudes are not the problem as Sogn sees it.

“The position and culture are based on the fact that they have been dominated by masculine logic for many years. They have created the premise for how the organisation works. It is this masculine logic that I found as a problem to explore closely,” explains Sogn. 

“How many hours a week? I don’t want to think about that. I actually listed for the chairman of the nomination committee last time, what it takes. 35 – 40 working days. Where you are tied up all or part of the day, meetings with the control committee, international, NIF, board meetings, some of it will be at the weekend. Not all day always, but it takes a lot of time. It really does. In the course of a week? It has to be an average calculation anyway, but as I mentioned, I don't want to calculate this, because then I would be completely shocked.”

Politically elected top official (man)

Must be available 24 hours a day

That is where the overwhelming day’s work for a top official in sport comes in. Common to all branches of sports that Sogn followed were the demanding days with long meetings, travel and an expectation to always be available.

“The working day of a top official in sport is extremely hectic. They must be available 24/7. It is often crisis-oriented and unpredictable. Telephone calls come at almost any hour, day or night. There is a lot of travelling, and there are always meetings with NIF, local associations and other special federations,” says Sogn and summarises:

“The optimal top official has few obligations at home.”

“She (his wife) was crucial in many ways. She got involved in FAU and so on, but she's always taken on a lot, a disproportionate amount of responsibility. I don't think I would have been able to do as much as I did, without her. I don't think so. How to solve it, that both get to use their resources, it's not easy.”

Politically elected top official (man)

It is these everyday logistics that have eventually become the consistent theme in the doctoral candidate’s project.

A key question has been: who is it who can be a top official in sport with this intense everyday work?

“The top officials I interviewed were very dependent on having a ‘ground crew’ who could take care of things at home.”

Sogn asks whether it is then possible to get as equal and diverse an organisation as sport so wants to have.

“Far from everyone can or wants to have this ground crew. The result is that it is a very homogeneous group that can be at the top of Norwegian sport.” 

Many power struggles

The complex organisation of sport also comes into play here. A top official has to pay attention to many different stakeholders. Towards elite sport and with it the commercial market, the great breadth, children and young people and volunteers.

In simple terms, these different groups rarely have the same goals.

“Although we may boast a lot about the way Norwegian sport is organised, it can also be a great challenge to have everything gathered under the same umbrella. Precisely because all these considerations make the working day of a top official so demanding,” says Sogn. 

In her thesis, she describes an organisation that is very protective of sport being democratic and based on the good values of sport. At the same time, the culture is strongly marked by power struggles between the different elements.

Therefore, they themselves are helping to establish a power structure that best suits a male leader. Or reproducing an orthodox masculine way of being, as Sogn writes in her thesis.

Five messages for sport

These are precisely some of the points that Sogn wants to convey in her thesis. She hopes that sport will gain even more knowledge about the barriers that still exist for women, and also for more gender equality-oriented men, who want to get to the top in sport.

“Sport has been interested in my perspective and willing to listen. The hope is that what I have found out can also have an impact in the future," says Sogn. 

Here are five points she hopes that sport will reflect on and look at specific measures for.

  1. Become more aware of sport’s own ways, practices and priorities. Everyone contributed to this system continuing. The kind wife who acts as the ground crew also supports the commitment and let her husband travel 250 days a year. Or the leader who always makes himself available and answers the phone at all times. 
  2. What kind of top officials do we recruit? Are they leaders who are ready to live the values of the sport or are they more taken up with other values?
  3. The way sport is organised and built up. Having so many different interests gathered under the same umbrella creates many conflicts. This makes the working day of a top official very demanding and at times even full of conflict.
  4. How the many meetings are organised. Sport has a culture of having many meetings, right across organisational levels. Can these be organised differently and become more digital, for example? It would help a lot for the leader of a local association in Troms to be able to attend digitally, instead of spending two or three days traveling to Oslo.
  5. Discuss and look at top officials’ working days. According to Sogn, this is largely something that was shaped in the past, based on the circumstances of a middle class man. 

On 2 February, Hanne Sogn defends her thesis “The course of the game! An institutional ethnographic investigation of gender, power and governance in sports organisation in Norway”.

The disputation is open to the public.