#JustWatchUs: female Olympians issue challenge

On the 125th anniversary of women's suffrage in New Zealand, a new generation of trailblazers has emerged - Olympians committed to making change for women and girls in sport. Suzanne McFadden and Sarah Cowley Ross, one of those trailblazers, report.

The #JustWatchUs movement has begun.

It’s been spurred by a team of Kiwi Olympians who, although their athletic careers may now be over, still want to make a difference for other women, and young girls, involved in sport in New Zealand.

The band of 18 sportswomen, who competed in Olympic Games between 1992 and 2012, have just become the first graduates of the Women’s Sport Leadership Academy (WSLA) in New Zealand.

The academy is the brainchild of the New Zealand Olympic Committee, who want to help female athletes make the sometimes-fraught transition from high-performance sport into sports leadership.

Head of the NZOC, Kereyn Smith, sees it as “part of the solution” to the distinct lack of women in key coaching, managing and governance roles across sports (netball being the rare exception to the rule).

Over the past 18 months, the women came together in workshops to learn the 'key behaviours' of leadership. Divided into four teams, they also worked on special projects - researching the main issues affecting modern-day women in sport.  

They delved into coaching, governance, high performance and visibility of women in sport (how they are perceived in, and treated by, the media), and came up with their recommendations for change.

As you might expect from a cluster of champions, it became quite competitive. And their results were world-class. 

The idea for the academy came off the back of a Kiwi victory – when the NZOC received the esteemed World Trophy for Women in Sport in 2015 for its work promoting sportswomen in New Zealand. Funding from that award helped establish the WSLA programme. The graduates are now part of an international WSLA network of 230 sports leaders from 42 different countries.

The academy's mission here is to capture the exceptional talent and international experience of New Zealand’s ‘retired’ female Olympians and help them transfer their skills to new roles as leaders - be it as coaches, managers, mentors or on sports boards.

Olympic heptathlete and high jumper – and LockerRoom columnist - Sarah Cowley Ross is one of the inaugural 18 graduates; and part of the team that investigated improving the media coverage of New Zealand sportswomen.

Their research revealed that in New Zealand, male athletes typically receive 60-70 percent more media attention than their female counterparts. It's around the same proportion internationally. 

But, in the lead-up to, and during, the 2018 Commonwealth Games, New Zealand sportswomen commanded 60 percent of media coverage. “This gives some hope that, with the right kind of action, the balance outside of Games time could also begin to shift,” two-time Olympic long jumper Chantal Brunner says.  

As one of their actions for change, the group created the hashtag #JustWatchUs. Cowley Ross explains why:

“If we cannot see her, we cannot be her.”

I grew up wanting to be a Silver Fern. Netball was my first love - because netball was what I saw on TV. I wanted to be part of the action. I wanted to be Bernice Mene when I grew up.

But, for two weeks every two years, I thought I’d struck gold when the Olympics and Commonwealth Games were broadcast. I was mesmerized by the track and field athletes; in particular, as a 12-year-old watching Chantal Brunner in the 1996 Olympic long jump final.

The day before, I’d watched Bulgarian Stefka Kostadinova soar 2.05m to win high jump gold. I saw this gazelle-like creature and thought 'wow', but I couldn’t really relate to her. But when I saw this Kiwi long jumper the next day, I knew it was possible.

Twenty-two years later, and I’ve been working with Chantal on the WSLA visibility project - which has consumed us far more than we imagined when we first signed on. We all thought we’d write a report, present something pretty cool and be done with it.

But what has transpired for us all is a commitment to seeing this through. To see change. To empower others to make change and collaborate with our thinking.

Visibility is much bigger than just giving women the coverage that their athletic performances deserve.

It’s about empowering young girls to have heroes like Chantal and Bernice. It’s about the future health and wellbeing of our young girls participating in sport. It’s about more than sport and I feel very strongly about that, as someone who was empowered through sport.

We’ve had the good fortune to team up with design agency Eighty One. We approached them to make a short video highlighting the alarming statistics around visibility to show at our graduation presentation. When they looked into it more closely they, too, realised they could play a bigger role in change.

Together we’ve developed a campaign featuring some of our top sportswomen telling their own great stories.

We’re asking people to #JustWatchUs, and in doing so, support women’s sport.

We’ve developed the “Support Women’s Sport” brand, as part of a wider campaign to drive awareness of the issue. 

It would be easy for women to take the lead in increasing the visibility of women in sport in the media. But let’s be clear: Men, we need you too.

We know you also enjoy watching the feats of our incredible sportswomen, so we need you to be vocal in your support. We need you to call out media organisations when they use an image of a sportswoman pictured with her partner or spouse - because she’s nine times more likely to have that happen than any sportsman.

There’s not just a quantity issue but a real quality issue as well.

Among the other proposals from the graduates was to promote more women coaches, by running female-only coaching programmes, and giving women more opportunities to gain the experience they'd need to earn pinnacle coaching roles.

The group who explored a better balance of women in sports boardrooms recommended that it be made mandatory for all national sports organisations to have a minimum of 40 percent representation of each gender on their boards by 2022.

Change is also needed to “create a high performance culture and environment that enables female athletes and coaches to thrive”. The women investigating high performance suggested that change could come through creating a national ‘strategic advisory for women’s development’ and a women’s advisory panel, to ensure the voices of female athletes and coaches are heard.

Their work isn't over yet. The groups will now take their recommendations directly to the appropriate organisations - like High Performance Sport New Zealand - as they continue to advocate for change. 

And who knows? Their ideas may also be reflected in the government's new policy framework for women and girls in sport, expected to be revealed next month. 

2017-18 WSLA Graduates:
Kim Archibald, Olympian #1068 – Hockey
Nicky Austin, Olympian #891- Rowing
Tina Bell-Kake, Olympian #595 – Hockey
Chantal Brunner, Olympian #692 – Athletics
Cath Cheatley, Olympian #1009 - Cycling
Shane Collins, Olympian #604 - Hockey
Megan Compain, Olympian #775 - Basketball
Sarah Cowley Ross, Olympian #1134 - Athletics
Aly Fitch, Olympian #708 - Swimming
Kirsten Hellier, Olympian #673 - Athletics
Hannah McLean, Olympian #932 - Swimming
Nin Roberts, Olympian #946 - Hockey
Ali Shanks, Olympian #1085 – Cycling
Beth Smith, Olympian #922 - Hockey
Jackie Smith, Olympian #847 – Softball
Heelan Tompkins, Olympian #964 - Equestrian
Tania Tupu, Olympian #769 - Basketball
Robyn Wong, Olympian #975 – Mountain biking

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