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Donna Fraser, former UK athlete, on equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace

Donna Fraser Rullion InterviewAs the issue of equality dominates the media, the subject of how to create and maintain a level playing field for all employees remains at the forefront of all successful businesses.

What learnings can be taken from the world of sport, an industry that struggles with its perceptions of equality while at the same time taking great strides to open its doors to everyone, from every walk of life?

We spoke to Donna Fraser, former GB athlete, who’s recently taken on the role of Equality, Diversity and Engagement Lead at UK Athletics. This follows 19 years working with EDF Energy, where she was Chair of the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Network.

Tell us about your role.

I am the Lead for Equality, Diversity and Equality at UK Athletics, as well as the Vice President. Both roles are hugely rewarding and very interesting. I find that the two positions work hand in hand in many ways - the skills I need for one, complement those I need for the other.

No two days are the same, as I’m managing a series of initiatives and programmes in and outside work (Donna is also a Breast Cancer Now Ambassador, a Support Sport Through Sport Patron, a Committee Member of ‘The Olympians’, a Trustee for Sussex Cricket Foundation the London Marathon Charitable Trust and recently the Women’s Sport Trust). I’m very lucky to work with so many inspiring people and travel a great deal; I wouldn’t have it any other way.

It sounds challenging!

I’m happy to get up early to get it all in - it’s the athlete in me! Plus I’m passionate about all the organisations with which I’m involved, so time isn’t an issue.

"I now see everything from a different perspective and think that having been there, means I can relay information about initiatives directly to everyone, from the athletes to the audiences to the business partners".

You competed from the early 90s (Donna was a sprinter competing in four consecutive Olympic Games). How has this experience helped you in your current role?

As an athlete, I was focused on sport at the highest level. It was always about the competition and the next event; I didn’t take much notice of the wider organisations within which I was competing. The fact that I have that experience though, gives me a good insight. I now see everything from a different perspective and think that having been there, means I can relay information about initiatives directly to everyone, from the athletes to the audiences to the business partners.

Tell us about some of the initiatives.

We’re not perfect, but there are great changes being made. For example, the Sport Governance Code was put into place in April of this year, to which all governing bodies have to adhere. It instructs that a target of at least 30 per cent of boards should be made up of females. The end of October was the deadline to meet the requirements of the Code and this is now being assessed. I’m taking this further by working to meet a new direct action plan that takes us all the way up to 2020. It will look at how we all perform in recruitment and inclusion and give clear guidance and strategies.

"Lots of organisations are making great moves forward in ED & I by stating their values, which is great. The important thing though, is to demonstrate those values and make sure that they don’t just become words".

What sort of guidance?

Lots of organisations are making great moves forward in ED & I by stating their values, which is great. The important thing though, is to demonstrate those values and make sure that they don’t just become words. We have three pillars that we’re focusing on right now - E&D, Cultural Awareness and Learning & Development. We have put in place a vast range of activities, either hosting our own events or harnessing external ones such as International Women’s Day. We’ve had training programmes and produced factsheets on real people in the organisation to show the faces behind the different demographics. I’m a real fan of using people for people - it makes everything much more relatable.

Have you faced any challenges?

It does take time to earn people’s trust, but this is to be expected. It actually provides an opportunity for me to really get into organisations and meet with everyone, to understand their own personal needs and assess how we can work with them to meet those needs.

"If a person doesn’t feel they fit, then they cannot bring their whole self to work. Without bringing your whole self to work, you’re quite simply not fulfilling your potential".

Why is inclusion so important in the equality and diversity space?

If a person doesn’t feel they fit, then they cannot bring their whole self to work. Without bringing your whole self to work, you’re quite simply not fulfilling your potential. It’s that simple. And it therefore makes it a factor that affects professional performance as well as being about basic human decency.

How do you manage to make everyone feel included?

It’s important to look at all nine protected characteristics - age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, marriage and civil partnership, and pregnancy & maternity. We’re creating bespoke programmes for them all, involving as many people as possible and collaborating with as many other organisations as possible. For example, our work around disability has involved extensive disability training, involvement in the World Para Championships and a great deal of work around mental health awareness. We’ve just achieved the Disability Confident Level of ‘Leaders’. We’re quite proud of that!

What do you feel you brought from your time at EDF Energy?

I’ve always had an athletic mindset and when I joined EDF Energy I realised I had a lot of transferrable sports skills. I was there for almost two decades, and learned many skills around organisation, pitching, negotiating skills and managing a bigger team, to name a few. Where EDF Energy stands in ED & I is amazing, so it was a wonderful place to work and learn. I’m so grateful for my time there.

"Athletics will not last forever and the transition into the ‘real world’ can be hard".

What advice would you give to younger athletes you work with at UK Athletics?

My parents used to always tell me to have something to fall back on and I’m so glad I heeded their advice. I try to tell the younger athletes to keep that brain going. Athletics will not last forever and the transition into the ‘real world’ can be hard. There’s a Performance Lifestyle Programme in UK Athletics, which encourages young people to develop and build on other skills to support post athletics careers.

What do you think the athletics and wider sports industries need to do to improve their ED&I offering?

We’re endeavouring to drive change. This needs support though; so many sports are covered in a negative way by the media and it’s such a shame. There’ll be more money in women’s football, for example, if there’s more media coverage around the sport - but then the media doesn’t want to cover it as there is more money in men’s football. We have to see it to be it, so the media does have a responsibility to inspire the next generation of athletes. In the long term, it shouldn’t be referred to as men’s or women’s football or sport - it should just be sport. There needs to be diverse visibility and I don’t think that ‘s the case; we still have some way to go.

What advice would you give to others looking to improve their ED&I offering?

It’s all about communication, collaboration and connections. You first have to communicate with your audience to see how they feel and what they need. I really value the power of collaboration and learning from others, making valuable connections so we can share best practice and make progress. I spearheaded the first evening of all networking for Breast Cancer Awareness for example, and it really demonstrated the power of collaboration and learning from each other.

"There are so few black and Asian coaches and they don’t get the recognition, so the exhibition showcases the unique relationship between the coach and athlete by getting behind the scenes".

What else have you been proud of in your present or previous roles?

I’m hugely proud of something we are doing with Black History Month; we’ve created a wonderful photographic exhibition that is touring the UK. This has come off the back of a conversation with an ex-athlete who is now coaching. There are so few black and Asian coaches and they don’t get the recognition, so the exhibition showcases the unique relationship between the coach and athlete by getting behind the scenes. The aim was to show the public the side of sport they don’t always see, featuring a number of black and Asian coaches. A wonderful benefit of this was that we included a lot of female coaches too! The exhibition launched last week and will be held at City Hall after a tour of the UK.

How would you like future athletes to discuss your contribution?

In one sentence!? That I helped to spread the joy of sport and communicate the diversity within it, encouraging more people from all backgrounds to join in.

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