Karen Rothery, Chief Executive of British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS), is on a flying visit to the BUCS Women’s Football Festival, hosted by York in March. She delivers an engaging keynote speech, drawing chiefly upon her own career and the “daunting” leap from the garment manufacturing sector to sport – an industry in which she had no previous experience.
Karen spends the lunch break picking the brains of York students. She exhibits delight upon hearing that Cass Brown’s successor as York Sport President is also a woman, and appears enthused at the magnitude of the upcoming Roses rendezvous with Lancaster.
The hosting of the festival was awarded to York thanks both to the success of its women’s football club and the work of club president Ellie Whittaker with Marie Curie, BUCS’ official charity partner for the next two years.
For Karen, who sat down with Nouse before jumping on a train back to London, it was a highly successful inaugural conference: “This day tries to crystallise the important messages about women getting involved in sport at all levels. We’ve had some really interesting speakers here today.
“The Sport England ‘This Girl Can’ campaign has been terrifically powerful in getting women involved in sport, and we’ve had some great examples this morning from Jo (Drapier), the campaign director, of how women can get around the fear of judgment and take part in sports they wouldn’t have otherwise.
Rothery’s primary engagement with York has been working with Cass Brown in her role as BUCS Student Director. She was effusive in her praise of Cass: “Cass is a really inspiring person. She’s just not let gender get in her way at all, she’s been our best student director of all the ones we’ve had over the last seven years, and a fantastic workmate actually. She is really focused on getting women involved in sport and doing a fantastic job.”
The BUCS mission is to ‘enhance the student experience through sport’, although Karen explains that, in fact, the impact of getting involved in sport at university goes beyond graduation and well into working life: “In 2013, we commissioned a piece of research with Sheffield Hallam Sport Industry research centre- we wanted to be able to evidence our anecdotal belief that we have held for generations that sport has a positive impact on graduate employability.
“We can now evidence that if you take part in sport, you’ll get a better job, you’ll earn more money throughout your career – significantly so – and you will have fewer and shorter periods of unemployment. From a graduate perspective, we know that employers are seeking out the skills you gain from playing sport… they are seeking out leadership, teamwork and empathy.
“They are looking for some of the softer skills you develop by playing sport at university. All round, its a great thing for students to get involved in, especially if they can take on leadership roles in sport, we know that employers are looking for those things. ”
Karen is clearly media-trained, but she speaks candidly and earnestly about her experiences throughout.
She makes a point of downplaying her own sporting prowess: “I’m not much of a sportswomen I’m afraid! I swam for a club as a kid and played hockey and netball for school but never aspired to be a great sportsperson.
“But the things I learned through sport have stood me in very good stead. That tenacity as an individual swimmer has impacted on my own career, and the sense of self-belief it has given me has been invaluable.”
Her brow furrows slightly as we enter uncharted territory; I put to her the notion that BUCS is inherently geared towards serving established sporting universities and ask her where York sits in relation to this.
“I hear that York is 39th in the BUCS table, so that’s no mean feat. I understand why people think that BUCS is all about the Loughboroughs and the Leeds Mets, but I can reassure you that we aren’t. We had our Nationals recently and there were students taking part from well over 100 universities.
“We now offer students the opportunity to take part as a novice alongside people who might be going to Rio… I went along to our trampolining championships at the Nationals and there were over 800 competitors, making it the biggest trampolining tournament in the UK.
“Even if you’d just started trying trampolining this term, you could still take part in a national competition.”
York student and Santander Elite Sports Scholar Steph Clutterbuck, who I interviewed for Nouse last month, came fourth in BUCS’ rowing nationals as a novice having taken up the sport just weeks before.
Steph has subsequently progressed into the GB U23 squad and is targeting Tokyo 2020. Karen is enthused by this example and at the end, asks me to send her on more information.
“We do likewise in lots of our sports. This, along with our investment of the £50 million provided by Sport England which is all geared towards boosting social sport, shows our commitment to participation as well as performance.”
From here, I explain the details of discipline and subsequent suspension of the hockey club earlier in the term.
Karen noticeably winces when I recount some of the details of the case, although the comprehensive response she delivers shows how seriously BUCS are taking such issues.
“I don’t think I ever remember being subject to anything directly sexist within my own career, but I do think it is a major issue.
“We raised this at our AGM, at Cass’ behest actually, and conducted a panel discussion with representatives from Stonewall and LSE, where they had also had a hideously misogynistic incident with their rugby team.
“The really interesting thing was that it was it was almost like an Alcoholics Anonymous situation.” she reflects.
“We talked about it on the panel and almost everyone in the room basically said ‘we have this issue at our university and we thought we were the only ones’.
“Anti-social behaviour around sport is not something that is limited to the Higher Education sector but we think we can start to address it, and I think it’s really important that we do.
“There are universities that have highly competitive clubs that create a sense of exclusivity through their high quality of performance. The money invested through Sport England can create new, more social formats for students in which these issues don’t exist. There is a way of doing sport that doesn’t create this exclusivity. University sport, is, and must continue to be, truly and entirely inclusive.”
In her speech, Karen issues somewhat of a rallying cry to fellow women in business and sport.
“We have just finished a recruitment process for our second BUCS Chair – I am not breaking any confidences when I report that of over 30 applicants, only one was a woman, who then pulled out before the process was complete. This was very disappointing, especially for an organisation with a 50/50 gender split, a woman CEO and 2 women on the board.”
She pauses, and states: “I feel like saying “come on, have some confidence and aspiration.
I think we should feel entitled to the top roles and act accordingly, do things in our own style, as women in business and sport, and not create our own glass ceiling by finding reasons not to pursue a career dream which are not to do with how good we are.” Karen Rothery is certainly doing things in her own style.