International Women's Day

'It's amazing to see young people inspiring positive change'

By Mark Orlovac 8 Mar 2024
Ruth Shaw, Premier League Charitable Fund

Premier League Charitable Fund Chief Executive Ruth Shaw OBE on how she is helping to deliver transformative communities programmes across England and Wales

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To mark International Women's Day on 8 March, we have spoken to five female leaders in football to learn about their experiences and inspirations.

We conclude the series by hearing from Ruth Shaw OBE, who was appointed Chief Executive of the Premier League Charitable Fund in 2018.

Before joining the PLCF, Ruth spent 20 years in government and in December she received an OBE for services to football and gender equality in the King's New Year's Honours list.

Tell us about your background

I was born and grew up in Lancaster and went to the University of Nottingham. In 1999, I moved to London and started working for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport as a graduate trainee.

I had a wide variety of roles. I didn't really have a career plan, I picked interesting jobs that I thought looked challenging and that I could learn from.

I did keep finding myself in football! I spent a year at the National Football Museum, I joined the board of Women in Football and I also sat on the Premier League's equality standards panel.

Equality has been something that's been really important to me through that journey.

I'm the eldest of four sisters and come from a family with a lot of strong female role models. Always making sure that things were fair and that everyone had equal opportunities to be whatever they wanted to be was something that I grew up thinking should happen.

I wanted to create those opportunities for other people.

What does your job entail?

The basics of the role are being accountable for the charity's money, activity and people, making sure that the money we get from the Premier League is well spent on projects that have a positive impact on communities as well as making sure our team of 24 people are achieving their potential, working well, delivering well and enjoying what they do. 

There's loads of variety and no two days are the same.

Why did you want to do this role? 

This is something I care about. I was interested in the charity sector and knowing the power of football and the opportunity to do good work was really appealing.

I am constantly impressed and blown away by the work that's going on in communities and the participants in our programmes. It never fails to amaze me seeing young people having positive impacts on their communities, speaking up, questioning, sharing their views and just trying to change the world.

Disability Football Festival, Preston

There's also the club community organisations and the staff, who are the trusted adults for those young people and who might be the only constant in some of their lives.

There might be 90 magical minutes on the pitch but this is all day, every day, every week of the year that these young people are doing things in their communities and that the staff members are supporting them.

If we can play a part in that by designing and delivering national programmes or sharing good practice or funding that activity, then it's just really impressive to see what a group of committed hard working, talented young people and club charity staff can deliver on the ground from ideas and inspiration that starts with a really small team in the centre. 

I feel a lot of pride for the team and what they do.

Why is this role important to you? 

It's really motivating and inspiring. I love what I do and there's not a day where I don't want to go to work. Every day I'm excited about the team I work with and the work that we get to fund and deliver.

It energises me and I feel like we're making a difference. It's important to do something that drives you.

The power of football to bring about social change is almost unparalleled. Young people who might otherwise not access a service or have an opportunity, will engage in one of our programmes because of football.

We have an opportunity to do something transformative. 

Who are your inspirations?

People who take on difficult challenges and do that with integrity. People who tackle tricky problems or speak up, speak truth to power; people who have been underrepresented or unfairly treated but want to take a stand and do something about that.

The Michelle Obama quote, 'when they go low, we go high' is one of my favourites. Always be true to yourself and have your values and try to make things better by standing up for that, for yourself and for other people.

I would also say people who've been the first. Such as Jacqui Oatley MBE being the first female commentator on Match of the Day or Rebecca Welch, the first female referee in the Premier League.

Those that have done something that has put them in the spotlight but they've opened a door for others.

How important are female role models in football?

If you're the first or the only, you could be the sole voice in a room and that can be difficult. You may not be heard.

Knowing there are other people who might have had that experience, you could speak to, who you can watch and learn from are important. You can't be what you can't see.

It's about challenging perceptions and stereotypes around who football is for. That could be about female role models or people from diverse ethnic community backgrounds. We've got to make that more usual to be seen, not singled out or held to a higher account, for it to be the norm.

For football to be the best industry it can be, it needs to access all the talent.

Do you regard yourself as a role model?

I heard someone say once that we are all role models, the only choice is whether to be a good one or a bad one.

Ruth Shaw, Protect the Planet 2023

I think about how to model good behaviour, how to be the kind of leader that people would want to follow and aspire to.

But it doesn't mean you're infallible, it doesn't mean you have to be perfect. Part of being a good role model is being open about when you get things wrong, where your weaknesses are and what you're doing to improve them.

How has the landscape changed for women in football?

It's much better than it has been. There are more women in senior leadership positions on the pitch as well as off it.

There's still quite a long way to go but it's positive. There's a lot of powerful changes happening that are making it much more likely that a future generation will think it's possible for them to be in whatever role within football they would choose.

I want to encourage people who might not think football is for them to think about all the different roles and opportunities there are in the game. You could be an amazing chief executive, finance manager, steward or journalist.

The theme of International Women's Day 2024 is inspiring inclusion, how do you do that in your role? 

Everything we do is about creating an inclusive culture and creating opportunities. The best ideas, work and experiences come from diversity of thought.

It's vital we create a culture where people can question and challenge, there's an equality of voice, that we are not being fixed about one way of doing things, and that we aim for continuous improvement.

PL KICKS Tournament U16Girls 25JUL23-4375

It's about how to make people feel they belong, regardless of how long they have been in the job or their seniority. Creating an environment that people can be their best selves in and achieve their potential is key to how we work as a team.

There's a saying that, talent is everywhere but opportunity is not, so this work also takes place in the programmes we deliver to level the playing field, create opportunities and help people achieve their potential, whether it's physical, mental well-being or in employment, education and training.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Get feedback and listen to it.

The most transformative points in my career where I've become a better leader, colleague or person have been on the back of feedback.

It might have been feedback I didn't like at the time but listening to it and understanding that my perceptions are not the same as other people's is important.

If people give feedback with the aim of assisting you, then you should really value it and use it.

More than 100 club charities are supported by the Premier League via the Premier League Charitable Fund to create positive sporting, health, personal and education opportunities for children, young people and the wider community.

To find out more about our work, click here.

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