Gareth Southgate and identity politics

The England manager is the best since Sir Alf Ramsey but his flirtation with identity politics is a problem and risks undermining his position.

England manager Gareth Southgate has recently said there are not “enough” women working for him. His comments were made at the Royal Television Society’s Cambridge Convention where he was appearing alongside Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, but not Bill.

The apparent paucity of women is adduced from the fact that 2 out of his staff of 40 are women. He further noted that within the Football Association itself, the share of female employees stands at 38 per cent which he thinks is “very diverse”. He recounted a conversation with his daughter:

“Oh that’s good is it dad? – I had to say, ‘good point’”

This would imply he thinks the share of women ought to be as high as 50 per cent. That was certainly how it was taken by one commentator. There are though two compelling reasons why this is not true.

Firstly, men and women have different priorities. We know from the work of sociologist Catherine Hakim that around 20 per cent of women are focused on careers, 20 per cent on family, with the remaining 60 per cent preferring to strike a balance between the two. By contrast, about half of men are focused predominantly on career and the other half prefer a balance. A statistically negligible number of men give priority solely to family.

What this means is that among employees, around 27 per cent of those focused solely on work will be women. Since reaching the top of any profession usually entails dedication at the expense of family, then it is reasonable to expect women not to be participating in proportion to their population share. Note that such a figure is in line with (albeit slightly less) the share of FTSE350 boards at 34.3 per cent.

Second, we also know from psychology that men and women tend to be interested in different things. One meta-analysis by Rong Su, James Rounds and Patrick Armstrong concluded that “men prefer working with things and women prefer working with people” resulting in greater male preferences for the fields of engineering, science, and mathematics. This will translate into the potential for disproportionate participation in any given occupation.

Of the gender balance, Southgate says “we haven’t got that right with my team” as though he was not picking it on the basis of anything other than merit. Given the huge imbalance between the men’s and women’s games in terms of prestige, interest, quality, and history, it is to be expected that its elites will be male.

Since working for the FA is a prestigious thing, then it is also reasonable to expect that it will be staffed by people more focused on career than family. That the observed 38 per cent is greater than the expected 27 per cent female can be attributed to the fact that the occupations likely found within the FA may be dominated by women. My own analysis of the Labour Force Survey shows that around 70 per cent of human resources staff are women, as are 68 per cent of physiotherapists, 62 per cent of public relations professionals, and 73 per cent of sports coaches, instructors and officials.

The true expected number of how many women the FA should employ is, however, unknowable by sociologists, but is likely less than 50 per cent. The consequences of pushing it to this level will be either choosing less qualified and less able women once the supply of appropriate appointees has dried up, or continuing to not meet the target, giving the false impression that the FA has a ‘women problem’. This would be creating a rod for its own back, potentially alienating the women and girls the FA is so desperately keen to attract.

There are two great misconceptions that are obviously false, yet dominant in elite discourse. They are that any walk of professional life ought to resemble the proportions of the census on any given demographic variable, and if not, then elites can make it so while offering no loss in productivity. That this is just a new twist on the centralised ‘planning’ that underwrote so much of governance from 1945 to the time of the Thatcher government, that proved so inefficient, is seldom appreciated. Perhaps Southgate might ask his diversity and inclusion experts if they know how many women the FA should employ and if they are sufficiently knowledgeable to second guess the regular methods of hiring?

Southgate is an expert in football, obviously having studied the game sufficiently to reach high levels of success in management. But his comments show that he is naively prepared to venture into matters of sociology, riven with divisive identity politics, to which he has evidently given nothing like the levels of consideration he would demand within his own area of competence, namely football. This is worrying in that he continues to push the slide from what ought to be a point of national unification into one of division, as identity politics further sinks its teeth into the game, and particularly when he is sharing forums with figures as polarising as the Clintons.

Southgate’s participation is at the expense of other opportunities. He could instead have met with supporters who are excited about the team and want to know about his plans to win the world cup, not about how many women he ought to employ. The problem for Southgate is you have prawn-sandwich supporters who seek to ‘own’ the team as emblematic of their favoured political ideals. Before the Euros he wrote his Dear England letter, for which he was widely praised. But he failed to notice the highly patronising tone of the title, and that the trope stems from (I think) slam poetry, usually as way into chiding white people (Dear white people…). His letter also gave carte blanche to his players to engage in the politics of “equality, inclusivity and racial injustice”, without realising that these words often signify much more than the things we can all agree on, that they can be divisive, and that the players are often ill-equipped to engage with high-profile politics. He may win plaudits among the Guardian-left but if it means alienating his core-support, then he may regret it.

Richard Norrie Written by:

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