Sport & gender: Breaking the glass ceiling in sport administration

Debbie Jevans
Debbie Jevans joined England 2015 Rugby as chief executive in October 2012

Normally when interviewing prominent figures from the world of sport there are two givens.

The first is that their back story will be available online so there is no need to ask about it. The second is that there would not be enough time anyway.

Debbie Jevans, the chief executive of next year's England 2015 Rugby World Cup was different - is different - which perhaps explains why the Guardian named her the most influential woman in British sport earlier this year.

A cynic might say that sounds a bit like topping a list of famous Belgians, Welsh World Cup heroes or English lacrosse legends, and Jevans would probably agree.

When the main funding bodies in British sport declared they wanted female representation of at least 25% on the boards of national governing bodies by 2017, Jevans did not mince her words.

"Is it ambitious enough? I don't think so," she said. "Surely we've got to be aiming at 50%.

"The talent is out there, the problem is that too often the default position is to see jobs in sport as male."

But the thing about default positions is they are usually triggered when something goes wrong - Jevans' life in sports administration seems to be an exercise in preventing that from ever happening.

Debbie Jevans career factfile
As Director of Sport for the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (Locog), Jevans managed 20,000 staff and a budget in excess of £160m and was responsible for delivery of all aspects of the sporting events, medical and anti-doping programmes.
Previously she ran her own sport consultancy firm, working with clients that included the International Tennis Federation, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the International Rugby Board, International Cricket Council and UK Sport.
Jevans is a member of the All England Lawn Tennis Club's Committee of Management and Championships Committee and sits on the UK Sport Major Events Panel.

A former junior champion at Wimbledon, Jevans had a professional playing career that probably went under the radar at the time but would earn her a fortune now.

Between 1979 and 1983, she played in 10 Grand Slam singles tournaments, with the highlight a run to the fourth round of Wimbledon that was ended by Virginia Wade.

She also played a lot of doubles, reaching the quarter-finals of the mixed doubles at Wimbledon in 1978. Her partner was Andrew Jarrett, a man she would later marry. He is now Wimbledon's tournament referee.

After her time on the pro circuit came to an end Jevans moved smoothly into the ranks of officialdom.

By 1987, aged just 27, she was director of the women's game at the International Tennis Federation, and four years later she became general secretary.

She then set up her own consultancy firm, working at one stage for the International Rugby Board in its bid to get rugby union back into the Olympics.

But the really big break, or brave move, came in 2003 when she joined London's bid team for the 2012 Olympics. Her job was to draw up the budget and strategy for staging the sports (not building the venues!), a job she saw through to glorious completion nine hard, but happy, years later.

Debbie Jevans
Debbie Jevans is a former professional tennis player who reached a Wimbledon mixed doubles quarter-final in 1978

Having managed 20,000 staff and a budget of £160m so successfully, it was not a surprise when she was given the chance to lead England Rugby 2015, an event that some claim is now the third biggest sports event in the world.

Yet hers is a name the vast majority of British sports fans will not know, a face they have rarely seen on television, a voice they have rarely heard on the radio.

And those previous six paragraphs of biography are pretty much all that is available for a woman who is well down the road to delivering her second global sports spectacular in three years.

"I'd much rather be judged by the work of my team than talk about me," she said when I tried to get her to talk about herself.

"A public profile isn't important to me. But I will answer personal questions. Or you can at least ask them!"

I tried for a bit - she is now amicably divorced from Jarrett, no kids, still plays doubles, born in Essex, lives in Chelsea, supports Leeds United.

But half of the stuff we know about people with important jobs is none of our business. What matters is that they can do those jobs. Jevans can.

"When I look back to the Olympics, what really made me happy was sitting in the stadium and just seeing how well everything went," is her greatest memory of the greatest summer most British sports fans can remember.

It went so well because Jevans and her team worked methodically from milestone to milestone - "proper milestones, not soft deadlines that can be missed" is how she describes it. She is following the same strategy for the Rugby World Cup.

We were talking on the morning the window for registering for tickets was opened. A week before it had been the announcement of the tournament's training venues. A week later it would be a series of events to mark a "year to go".

Now, a month on, Jevans is dealing with a problem she foresaw at least two years ahead. With demand for tickets, particularly England tickets, outstripping supply, the tournament risks being tarnished by cynical touts and their eye-watering prices.

Nobody can accuse Jevans of sleepwalking into this. She spent the first two years of her job cajoling the Government to grant the Rugby World Cup the same legal protection from touts that the Olympics enjoyed and football gets.

She failed, or was failed, but it is to her credit that she is not whining about it.

"We lobbied Government about that but they decided against any new legislation," she told me.

"They didn't feel it was necessary. We have accepted that and respect the decision."

Rugby World Cup
2.3m tickets are available for 48 matches of the England 2015 World Cup

What Jevans did next was to put in place a series of measures that should at least limit the scope for blatant profiteering, and make sure as many genuine fans as possible can get to the games without second mortgages.

If last month's public ballot for tickets is an indication of things to come, Jevans is very much on the case: calmly, quietly, but ever so effectively.

It is a style that, despite my earlier bad joke about the lack of influential women in British sport, is becoming increasingly, and better-late-than-neverly, common.

This year's magnificent Tour de France Grand Depart was understatedly engineered by another woman who earned her stripes with London 2012, Nicky Roche.

Last year's well-regarded Rugby League World Cup was partly run by Sally Bolton, whose next trick will be to organise the 2017 World Athletics Championships.

Throw Sport England's boss Jennie Price, UK Sport's chief executive Liz Nicholl and the Sports Minister Helen Grant into the mix and you have quite a sisterhood.

Not content with shaking up one male-dominated sport, Jevans joined the Football League's board as an independent director this summer.

"It's definitely getting better," she acknowledged when I asked about the progress so many talented women were making in the higher ranks of British sport now.

"But if I have a frustration it's that is has taken too long. It's great that people have been overt in their statements about equality, but it was frustrating.

"We're getting there, though, and not just in sport. It's happening at FTSE-100 companies and in 'male' industries like construction. So the tide is turning."

Soon, the likes of Jevans will have washed away the last vestiges of a world where administrators were always, to paraphrase the former England rugby union captain Will Carling, boring, old, windy and male.

Jevans is speaking at the Transforming Sport conference at Lord's on Thursday, 30 October.

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