The appointment of Phil Neville as head coach of the England women’s football team has proven controversial. But what exactly is the controversy here? Is it that he is a man, coaching a woman’s team and the job should instead have gone to a woman?
Is it that he just doesn’t have the skills, knowledge and experience necessary? Or is it his tendency to tweet sexist, misogynist messages including a mention of wife beating?
If a woman had been appointed as manager of a men’s football side, many would likely argue that gender should not matter, and that what does matter is talent. This is one of the key debates in the drive to see more women in senior leadership roles, particularly when the discussion turns to female quotas. It should not be about gender, it should be about ensuring the right talent for the role.
On that premise, gender shouldn’t matter here either. Whether it is a woman managing a men’s football side or a man managing a women’s side, the focus should be on the skills, knowledge and capabilities of the individual.
If we say that a man can’t represent and coach a women’s team does that mean that women can’t coach men? What would that do for the advancement of women in the sports industry? Surely talent trumps gender as a qualification.
Putting gender aside, the next question is does Neville have the skills, knowledge and capability required for a managerial role?
His career history shows steady and logical progression. He has the expert background with a distinguished ten-year career as a player at Manchester United. He then began his coaching career in 2012 with England’s men’s Under-21 team, was considered for the job of Everton manager, and then moved to be first team coach at Manchester United, followed by a spell at Spanish side Valencia.
A managerial role is the next logical career step. And being a first time manager doesn’t necessarily make him “unqualified” for the post. In business, career progression often entails moving from a senior specialist role into managerial or leadership roles without any training and without the experience.
Being a talented high performer however, is not just about skills, knowledge and capability – it is also about behaviours. It is behaviours which differentiate talented, high performing individuals. High performance involves not just what you do, but how you go about doing it.
Almost as soon as Neville was appointed (and deleted his Twitter account), tweets he posted in 2011 and 2012 surfaced. One tweet read: “Relax I’m back chilled - just battered the wife!!! Feel better now!”
Another suggested he hadn’t addressed a previous tweet to women as he assumed they would be cooking, making beds, or looking after children.
It is this casual bias (or what some might call a sexist and misogynistic attitude) that could be perceived as making him inherently unsuitable to coach a high performing female football team – especially given the prominence of the #MeToo movement and the recent men only Presidents Club charity debacle. In that context, saying the comments were made in jest appears even less of a justification.
Words matter …
It is a reminder of the rapid demise of the career of Nobel Prize winning biochemist Tim Hunt. He, supposedly in humour, told an international science conference: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.”
Women have also stepped forward to cite how supportive Neville has been in their development. In particular, England forward Toni Duggan argued that Neville is the head coach England Women need to take them to the next level and cites his supportive attitude towards women.
So if he is not sexist, what about the tweets? Was it male bravado, or was he just playing to his base of followers? Alternatively, did a lack of emotional intelligence cause him to sabotage himself through an inability to control his impulses? In a desire to tweet something, just tweet anything? One thing is for certain, with the rise of the #MeToo movement, joking about hitting your wife has never been less funny.
Neville’s Twitter habit was in danger of eclipsing his skills and capabilities, casting doubts on his suitability for the role and sabotaging his reputation. With his Twitter account now deleted, the focus can now be on judging Neville by his results.
Unfortunately for Neville, high performance is never just about the result – it is also about behaviours. Skills and capabilities aside, it may be he simply does not have the temperament for the role.