Headlines were made when Chartered Management Institute head Ann Francke said sports banter can exclude women.
Speaking to the BBC’s Today programme, she said: “They don’t follow those sports and they don’t like either being forced to talk about them or not being included.”
She is also quoted as having said: “It’s a gateway to more laddish behaviour and – if it just goes unchecked – it’s a signal of a more laddish culture … It’s very easy for it to escalate from VAR talk and chat to slapping each other on the back and talking about their conquests at the weekend.”
The suggestion that businesses should attempt to moderate or restrict discussion of sports because it promotes or encourages a “laddish culture” is ridiculous.
One of the main reasons anti-discrimination employment law exists is to try and ensure that individuals are treated as individuals in the workplace and are not judged on stereotypes, generalisations, assumptions or other matters that are irrelevant to their ability to carry out a job.
As a starting point, the concept that sports discussion is restricted to men and makes women feel excluded is itself based on the stereotype that only men like sports or are capable of discussing sports. That is flawed concept which suggests women are fundamentally different and less capable than men in this regard. Gender stereotyping of this kind perpetuates gender inequality.
There is no basis in employment law for restricting discussion of sport in itself. A discussion of the Six Nations, for example, does not constitute any breach of the Equality Act 2010. To suggest such discussions are a gateway to behaviour that could amount to discrimination is a huge leap for which there is no evidence.
The reality is that those individuals who may be likely to commit a breach of the Equality Act 2010 are those that already hold prejudiced views (consciously or unconsciously) about the other gender, the disabled, the LGBTQ+ community, pregnant women, religious groups and others with protected characteristics. Some may indeed be sports fans but that does not make all sports fans likely candidates to commit discriminatory acts.
As to ways in which an employer could restrict sports discussion, of course it could try by means of a workplace policy, but I suspect any employer who chose to do that would find themselves with a demoralised and incredulous workforce. Furthermore, how on earth is an employer supposed to police such a policy?
It is a given that employers should be vigilant for discriminatory behaviour in the workplace, to do its best to try and prevent it and to take action if it occurs. But the restriction of sports discussion is neither a reasonable nor proportionate means of prevention. In a rewarding and productive workplace, there has to be a level of trust that the vast majority of employees are sensible and moral individuals who intend to behave professionally.
In any workplace, any one individual will have interests in common with and will bond with some colleagues and not others. What is wrong with that? Is it not human nature?
Whilst some may enjoy discussing sport, others may enjoy discussing politics, travel, the environment, food, family life, art, religion, literature and many other things. There is no topic that isn’t capable of being discussed by both men and women. It is possible to argue that any such topic of conversation is theoretically capable of escalating into something which offends the Equality Act 2010, so why pick on sports fans?