Former WTA CEO, Larry Scott and Billie Jean King.In 2006, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) collaborated with the Women’s Tennis Association in a “landmark partnership” for global gender equality. It was the first time that UNESCO had ever partnered with a sports organization and it certainly appeared to be a considerable commitment by both parties. However, this “landmark partnership” never really lived up to its billing. First, barely anyone knows about it. Second, it doesn’t seem like any of the initiatives ever took place. This post intends to highlight, perhaps, the greatest attempt at corporate social responsibility that never was.
Venus Williams was apparently the driving force behind initiating this partnership. She drew her inspiration from attending an ESPY award ceremony in which “two Afghan women were honoured for starting a soccer program in their war-torn homeland.” From this experience, Williams saw the opportunity to make tennis a vehicle for creating change. In 2006, the partnership was announced claiming to “raise awareness of gender equality issues and advance opportunities for women’s leadership in all spheres of society.” Williams was named as the inaugural UNESCO Promoter of Gender Equality. In the years following, Vera Zvonereva (Russia), Tatiana Golovin (France) and Zheng Jie (China) were also named as Promoters of Gender Equality, and in 2008, Billie Jean King was named a Global Mentor for Gender Equality. The partnership launched with five key elements:
- Sony Ericsson (tour sponsor at the time) WTA Tour/UNESCO fund for women and leadership (original endowment of 200,000 Euros)
- Promoter of Gender Equality player program that uses WTA Tour players as role models to create awareness about gender equality global and nationally
- Mentoring, fellowship and scholarship programs to support women’s individual leadership opportunities (hosted through the Women’s Sports Foundation)
- Advertising campaigns
- Using existing UNESCO and WTA Tour events as fundraising platforms
In 2007, the partnership announced that it had selected five women’s leadership initiatives out of a possible 65 projects from 27 different countries. The following programs were selected to receive initial funding:
- Liberia: the creation of a women-only night school for 1000 girls, and provided training for disadvantaged women to staff the program
- Cameroon: to foster successful female politicians, businesswomen and athletes to organize gender equality events
- Jordan: teach women about their legal rights through 24 awareness workshops hosted throughout the country
- China: a program designed to increase the percentage of rural women involved in local affairs
- Dominican Republic: to help advocate for women’s political and social leadership through capacity building and training activities
Additional funds were also set aside for a program in India; however, no follow information was ever provided. All of these programs were to be implemented by UNESCO’s Division for Gender Equality in cooperation with a local organization.
When we look at the bare bones of this partnership, it certainly looks like a landmark partnership. Also, from a development perspective it should be acknowledged that the WTA did not try to force tennis into “new markets”, rather it looked to the local community and, supposedly, a more knowledgeable partner. But I spent two years of my life looking into this partnership and what I came away with was this: I don’t think the partnership ever left the ground. I say “I think” because I cannot know for sure. My communications with the WTA were short-lived and no one from UNESCO ever responded to my requests for information. If this was as important as it was touted for both parties involved, why doesn’t anyone know about it and why wouldn’t either party answer my questions for more information? If anyone from either UNESCO or the WTA would like to correct me on this I would be pleased to find out what actually happened with this partnership.
From the information I did gather about the in-field projects, it appears that UNESCO was operating on a number of, what were termed in its documents, “critical assumptions”. Well, we know what they say about people who assume. There were assumptions made about the women’s willingness to participate in such programs, assumptions about the community’s support, and assumptions about how empowerment would be fostered. Coming from a United Nations agency, I found these assumptions extremely problematic.
As for the WTA, I was unable to find any mention of the collaboration after 2010. Press releases were posted whenever a new Promoter of Gender Equality was named but there was never any follow up information provided about any of the programs or any mention of site visits made by players (which were requested in the implementation documents). I’m not sure whether this partnership is a bigger marketing disappointment or development failure. Either way, I think both UNESCO and the WTA owe us some answers. Sadly, this is a perfect example of the lack of transparency that we have come to expect with corporate social responsibility initiatives.
To read more about my research on this partnership you can check out a my poster presentation: Serving up change? CSR as a tool for social change?