"We should be supporting women to develop their careers" says UKAD Chief Nicole Sapstead

This International Women’s Day, themed ‘Press for Progress’, UKAD held a Q&A with their Chief Executive, Nicole Sapstead, in which she offers advice to young women on how they can strive in the workplace, attain their ambitions and challenge misogyny.

Where did your path to becoming a CEO begin? Did you always know you wanted such a high-profile role?

“The role of CEO at UKAD came up fairly unexpectedly, I was very happy in my previous role as Director of Operations, but suddenly the opportunity presented itself and I couldn’t let it pass me by.

“My predecessor and the Chair at the time were incredibly supportive and encouraging; and that helped a great deal to have my aspiration somehow validated by others I knew and respected.

“I’ll be honest, I didn’t ever contemplate making it to such a high-profile role. Whilst I am ambitious I’d convinced myself that I wasn’t cut out to become a Chief Executive. Some of that might have had something to do with becoming a mum a couple of years ago, and some of it might have been down to convincing myself that women don’t often make it into those types of roles, especially not in sport, so what chance did I have?”

What obstacles have you had to overcome to get to where you are?

“When I embarked on my career, the sport sector was very male-dominated. That’s slowly changing and there are sports where this is happening faster than in others. Only recently someone told me they found it inspirational that a woman was heading up UKAD.

“I’ve had to work hard, pay attention, seek out the opportunities, work late, and do things that were outside of my job remit tat the time to position myself for each step and role I’ve taken in my career.

“I’ve worked with people who have micro managed me and won’t delegate; I’ve worked with people who have treated others less than well. These are all obstacles to some degree, but it’s how you overcome them. Sometimes it has meant me sticking my neck out and saying something, sometimes it has been accepting that things won’t change and it’s time to move on. It’s always worked out in the end, whether by chance or design.

“We make our own path in life and sometimes it throws you a curveball. You can either duck it, catch it or let it hit you. If it hits you, you’ve got to get up and either stick to your path or dig another one.”

What do you think is the most challenging aspect of being a woman in a CEO role?

“For me personally it is the juggle of being a mum, which is an absolute priority for me and holding down a senior role at the same time. It is not easy for women to return to work after having a child; childcare is expensive and oversubscribed and many feel guilty about not spending enough time with their child/children.

“I also think as a woman in a senior role people think you’ll be more emotional. I beg to differ. I think women have far greater emotional intelligence than men. You need to be able to sense when something is off with your team or with an individual. I care if the people I work with are unhappy and facing problems outside the workplace. It’s OK to have an off day, to show disappointment, unhappiness or even displeasure. We are all human and if you appear human then you make yourself accessible and approachable to those you lead.

“I’m challenged by things that aren’t exclusive to being a female. Whilst I am a woman, that doesn’t define me. I think it’s fantastic that current Chief Executive roles of all sport arm’s length bodies are held by women; that in itself speaks volumes.”

What sacrifices have you had to make to reach your current position?

“Very few to be honest. My social and personal life has suffered on occasions. I’ve missed school assemblies and I’m an invisible parent as far as my son’s school goes but I think it is important that my son sees me going out to work. I like to think that the sacrifices I make have a limited impact on others."

Working not only in such a high-profile role, but also as a woman within a sporting organisation, have you come up against any particularly misogynistic views in your working life? How have you challenged them?

“I’m very used to walking into meetings now to find I am either the only woman or one of a few women in a room of men. It used to bother me; I used to find it intimidating, not anymore. Admittedly there is a resigned acceptance that that is often how it is in sport.

“We are all judged on our performance and our outputs, but somehow women seem to need to prove more. I am incredibly lucky where I work – we have a good balance of women and men working at UKAD.

“In the past I have come across sexism and ageism. I was once told when unsuccessful for a job opportunity that I was probably too young to take up the role. They didn’t use the word inexperienced – they used young. Two totally different things. They gave the role to a man who was only a few years older than me, with no more experience than I had. I was speechless and pretty angry – I think I still am!

“Another situation I shall never forget was about ten years ago when I met with a very senior male within a sport. There was one other woman in the room with me, along with male colleagues from either side. I opened my mouth to give an explanation and this man put his hand up to stop me speaking. He then turned to my male colleague for the explanation. Thinking I had mistaken the situation, another opportunity presented itself for me to speak, but again he raised his hand up at me to stop me.

“I remember my boss looking at me, silently telling me not to make a big deal of it, but also silently telling me to take no notice. I didn’t say anything. I was younger and didn’t want to make a scene. I wouldn’t stand for that today. I would absolutely challenge them, walk out and, if I could, I’d report them.”

“Where younger men are seen as ambitious and clever and given the benefit of the doubt, younger women are more quickly doubted in terms of their experience not being enough, so you are forced to work harder for credibility.”

How important is it for women to aspire to obtain such high-profile roles?

“It is vital that women see themselves as the equivalent to men when it comes to a career. Remember that when you make it to the top, and provided you have a supportive Chair and Board, you have the ability to change things from the top; to create a certain culture. For example, when I walk out of the office most days around 16:45 to collect my son from after school club, I hope I am sending a clear message to the team that there is a life to be had outside of work.”

UKAD’s board is currently made up of 70% women – how do you feel this impacts the dynamic of the organisation?

“Firstly, I think it is wonderful we have so many talented and successful women on our Board. I think it sends a strong message to the staff, and I definitely think it has also encouraged some members of staff to consider applying for non-executive Board roles themselves.

“We work across sports and as we know sport is diverse. It is important that the organisation and the Board strive to represent that diversity. Whilst we seek to have a diverse Board, we also have a skills-based Board and I think it’s fantastic that the skills we sought were met by so many women.”

If you had one piece of advice for women who have similar aspirations of working in a high-profile role, what would it be?

“Go for it!

“If you don’t try, you won’t know and, in my view, what’s the worst that can happen? To progress in your career don’t sacrifice your values or manners. I have met some women over the years who think they have to be aggressive, domineering, ambitious at all costs and selfish to get where they are. I think those women can do women a disservice.

“We should be encouraging and supporting the women we work with to develop and progress in their careers. It’s possible to balance parenthood with a senior role and I think if, as leaders, women promote areas like flexible working hours, working from home, compacted or reduced working hours, then it will encourage more women to attain their ambitions.”