Dana Abdulkarim: “it’s easy to convince yourself that you don’t belong”

Get on Board candidate, Dana Abdulkarim is an Associate Assistant Principal in a Secondary School in Sheffield. She leads on PE and the Personal, Social and Health Education curriculum. Dana has represented her county on sixty seven occasions in a range of disciplines and was the first hijab wearing Muslim woman to have represented England – in any sport.

Recently, Sport England carried out research into the area of diversity in Sports Governance and found that whilst women now account for 40% of board members funded by them or UK Sport, the recruitment of BAME women or women with a disability is still very low. 

We spoke to Dana about the pressure of being a ‘first’ and about her motivation to get on a Sport Board to effect real change. 

Tell us about your journey into sport.

I am a sportswoman. I have always loved playing all sports and like many other people, it all began at school.  I would play on teams at primary school and once I was at secondary school, my talent was spotted. 

I have representative honours in Football (Academy Centre of Excellence), Athletics, Hockey and Netball (County) and Rounders (England representation).  I am the first hijabi Muslim to have represented England in any sport and then took that love for sport into coaching and now teaching PE, which I’ve been doing for 12 years, again a first in the UK. I am a player and my journey has mostly been from the field of play and classroom.

Is it difficult being a ‘first’ at something like this? 

At times it has been hard. It’s easy to convince yourself that you ‘don’t belong’ in those spaces simply because there hasn’t been someone like you to gain confidence from. However, I don’t think I consciously thought about it. I just wanted to play. I love sport and I love teaching others to love it too, so my path into these areas felt obvious…even if I never looked like an obvious choice. 

I’m lucky to have come from a supportive family, who themselves were ‘firsts’ and had no one to lean on for guidance.  My teachers and coaches were mostly very supportive and would act as advocates to explain on my behalf to selectors why I wore a ‘hat’ and why I didn’t remove my tracksuit bottoms etc.  It did mean I needed to work with NGBs, my university or other groups to support them when I found myself faced with a barrier. Sometimes I had to navigate and lead my own leaders, something that initially, I was unsure how to tackle.  My only option was to speak up and educate. 

When did you first realise your ambition to join a Sports Board?

I’d had the chance to work alongside the Rounders Board during their restructure and movement to accredited coaching courses. I really enjoyed working with peers that cared about the sport in the same way that I did.  This experience made it obvious to me that the changes I’d initiated were at too small a level and therefore moving to a board position where I could have more impact was the next obvious move. I feel my insight could help support inclusive sport for all, rather than just in the sports where I’d had direct experience.

What has been your driving force when wanting to see a change in the sports industry?

My driving force for change is twofold – I know the difference sport has made on my life. In addition, I see the impact of increasing financial poverty in my day to day work. I witness young people who want to access sport but essentially, they can’t afford it. With the welcomed statutory health education curriculum that is adding to education (Sept 2020), it is even more important to facilitate opportunities to be active and then develop so many additional skills and attributes. I believe sport can be a vehicle for societal change, I see the consequences of our present sporting offer – we must creatively look at how we open up sport and activity. There is so much good being done, but it’s still not affordable. My students deserve more, all young people do and that’s a further reason why I’d like to get onto a Board – I want change and I see the lack of it on the front line. 

Many BAME women feel that even today, there are several barriers to their success. Do you feel that progress is being made? What more needs to be done? 

Progress is being made. BAME women are now being considered, seen and consulted in more areas than ever before.  But yes, there are still barriers. There are still conversations to be had, action to be taken and perspectives to seek out.  Some of the barriers are internal, within BAME communities, borne from a learned helplessness from many years’ of imposter syndrome and cultural expectation but there are many examples of BAME women challenging that with their visible progress and profile in their industries.  We need to continue to champion BAME role models and pioneers, celebrate their work and success rather than celebrate that they are ‘BAME’ – this takes away from the real impact of these women leading the line for us all. This is something the Get on Board programme aims to do – like-minded women from the BAME community, leaning and learning from one another as they aim for the top.

What do you think YOU can add to a Sports Board?  

I can add a ‘player’s perspective’. As someone who is keen and already sold on sport, I can flag up possible barriers and gaps. I am skilled at asking the right questions and can reflect and consider the ‘bigger picture’.  As a Muslim, I can also offer a faith perspective. I also have lots of education experience, in PE and know about the challenges faced by schools at the moment. I work at grass roots level so have up to date, relevant experience of the starting sector.  I think I can add passion to an organisation with a real aim to improve the health of the nation using sport as the vehicle. In my day job I practice the vision of ‘igniting a passion for lifelong movement’ – I think that could well be the central aim for a Board. 

How have you found RimJhim’s Get on Board Programme so far? 

I have been inspired by the women I am on the programme with.  The chance to really learn about sport governance and the online modules to support further development have been interesting and have added to my knowledge and understanding of the importance and necessity for such a role.  The programme has given me the opportunity to learn from a mentor, a unique chance to learn directly from someone within the industry. The opportunities provided to network, meet and talk to like-minded people have been invaluable. I am finding the programme beneficial in my search to secure a board role. 

The Get on Board Programme is funded by Sport England and is a ten-month senior-level initiative in conjunction with other partners to help prepare high achieving women for board-level positions within the sports sector. 

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