Workplace lessons from the pitch: how innovation in the workplace can challenge our preconception and biases

An undoubtable public perception shift has occurred over the past couple of years towards supporting women’s football as a professional sport.

Nothing more easily identifies this than data.

  • Nearly 2 million spectators turned up to watch the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australian and New Zealand stadiums and, online, over 2 billion people were set to watch, nearly doubling the 1.12 billion who watched online in 2019.
  • In Australia, the Matilda’s semi-final match against England’s Lionesses became the most watched program after the historic move of the Channel 7 news program to allow for broadcasting the Matilda’s match against France.
  • As a UK comparison, on BBC One, the final match between Spain and England attracted a peak audience of 12 million viewers which was higher than the men’s Wimbledon final earlier this year (peaking at 11.3 million on BBC One).

Why the bias?

Bias against women’s football likely developed or was exacerbated because women’s football was banned for a large part of the 20th Century, a fact of which many fresh followers of the sport are probably oblivious.

Women’s football was banned from around the 1930s as it was thought to be ‘quite unsuitable for women’, that women were ‘incompatible’ or because of ‘medical reasons’. The bans spanned the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Germany, Brazil and Russia until they were largely lifted in the 1970s to 1990s. From being a banned sport to having around 2 billion people watching a world tournament, including with leading LGBTIQA+ players on the pitch; women’s football has undergone quite the resurgence despite having to build up talent, support and public interest from ground zero.

From being a banned sport to having around 2 billion people watching a world tournament, including with leading LGBTIQA+ players on the pitch; women’s football has undergone quite the resurgence despite having to build up talent, support and public interest from ground zero.

Lifting the ban on women’s football was only one factor that changed public perception. It took dedicated advocates to build talent, leagues and support. The exponential increase in spectator data shows its popularity is generating momentum which led to calls for increase in pay, sponsorship and cup winnings (the FIFA Women’s World Cup this year came with a prize of US$110 million whilst the FIFA Men’s World Cup 2022 drew US$440 million).

What can innovation and AI do to shift bias and perception?

During the FIFA Women’s World Cup, an innovative advertisement campaign (the ad) for Orange, a French telecommunications company and sponsor for the French team, utilised AI to alter football highlights to portray key players from the French men’s football team ‘Les Bleus’ but was actually highlight footage taken of the women’s team ‘Les Bleues’. The ad then reveals this to the viewer with an aim to promote women’s football as being as technical and exciting as the men’s game.

This ad is a fairly untapped example of how AI can change visual representation to challenge preconceived bias and perceptions. Whilst the ad proved divisive, with some seeing it as perpetuating bias by comparing female players to male players to prove its point, the ad was unique and challenges the viewer to question their preconceptions. Whether you’re a fan of the ad’s strategy or not, it got the public talking about women’s football and equality.

What can we take away from this perception shift around women’s football to create a diverse and inclusive workplace?

Bias in society and our workplaces can be extremely difficult to shift, is often culturally embedded and usually slow to change. Visual representation is powerful. Seeing your female national football team compete at a women’s world cup with the support of billions of people watching online (and around 76,000 in person) creates persuasive visuals of a diverse and inclusive sport.

Transferring that process to the everyday workplace having a diverse leadership, a variety of representation across levels and roles creates a similar environment of inclusivity. We set out below some examples for workplaces to increase inclusive representation.

Spotlight on sexual harassment; the non-consensual kiss

More controversial than the AI advertisement was Luis Rubiales, the former head of the Spanish Football Association, kissing Jenni Hermoso on the mouth, whilst presenting her with Spain’s winning trophy. When Ms Hermoso confirmed the kiss was not consented to, his actions, as a man in a position of authority, not only in Ms Hermoso’s place of work, but also on a global stage, was met with immediate public frustration and media condemnation as unacceptable behaviour. Around a month on and Mr Rubiales has resigned from his role and the Spanish Football Association apologised for Mr Rubiales’ behaviour.

The attention shift this incident caused is disappointing as it detracted from the countless positive stories and milestones achieved by women’s football with record breaking viewership, industry support, social media enthusiasm and of course, that the Spanish team won the World Cup. Mr Rubiales’ action, at a pivotal moment of
Ms Hermoso’s career, put sexual harassment of women in workplaces literally in the spotlight. It also generated a dramatic outburst of public commentary about the issue of sexual treatment towards women in football, women in sport, and women in the workplace and has been coined by some as Spain’s #MeToo movement (#SeAcabo which means ‘it’s over’). Ultimately, Mr Rubiales’ eventual resignation demonstrates the powerful phenomena of public accountability.

The AI advertisement and the non-consensual kiss were aspects of the FIFA Women’s World Cup that taught us how representation can draw out bias and equality issues on a global scale which otherwise might not come to the fore.

To improve inclusivity and representation in your workplace, here are some practical suggestions

Innovation to build inclusive workplaces is generated by forward-thinking ideas internally, drawn from a diverse range of perspectives and leadership being willing to trial and adopt new policies, approaches and processes.

Who is hired to work at a company, what events that workplace offers and sponsors and who an organisation promotes and elects to leadership are clear indications of inclusivity. If your organisation is not attracting a diverse pool of applicants, it can be instructive to question why that is the case. Is there work to be done in terms of public perception or reputation in terms of inclusivity?

An obvious example to take from the FIFA Women’s World Cup for a workplace to be more inclusive would be to arrange box tickets for client and staff events to different gendered sporting events. Similarly, engaging a variety of speakers for work events with representation across gender, culture, race, age, sectors, disability and neurodiversity, sends a message to staff that a workplace is inclusive.

Other options to consider are for employers and businesses to:

  • Ensure policies are gender neutral by removing gendered terminology.
  • Review flexible working and parental leave policies to provide support to a variety of caring and parenting situations.
  • Consider ‘flexible’ or ‘floating’ public holiday policies where staff have the option to take some or all public holidays on different days to more closely align to their individual and community religious or culturally-important days; rather than need to be strictly tied to the region where the workplace is located.
  • Provide some workplace events focused on activities other than around alcohol/ provide non-alcoholic options and other activities at events serving alcohol.
  • Keeping up-to-date sex discrimination and sexual harassment policies and training is always recommended. Beyond that, having a diverse leadership can shift the narrative and create space for candid conversations.

Challenging bias and perceptions in the workplace can come from taking steps to diversify representation, and adapt events and policies where momentum can generate a hyperbolic shift to then attract diverse talent and create an inclusive workplace.

Kennedys is a global festival partner of Dive In whose 2023 theme is 'Unlocking Innovation: the power of inclusion'.

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