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Why women must lean into the sports board table

Is the drive for NZ sports boards to reach a quota of 40 percent women by 2021 a realistic goal if women don’t put their hands up? Fair Play’s Zoe George asks female sports leaders

Women need to “lean into the table and participate” for changes to be made to the make-up of New Zealand’s major sports organisations.

In 2018, Minister for Sport Grant Robertson made it clear that sporting bodies who receive more than $50,000 in government funding must hit a quota of at least 40 percent women on all of their boards by the end of 2021, or risk losing their funding.

There’s an argument that there aren’t enough women qualified, or interested, in being on sports boards; or some women may doubt they would have much to offer to a board.

But Jan Dawson disagrees. She’s the former president and board chair of Yachting New Zealand.

Yachting NZ’s board currently has five women on it, surpassing the government’s quota of at least 40 percent women on boards.

Dawson says women must place more value on themselves. “It’s about working out what your value is, what your point of view is and then leaning into the table and participating,” she says.

“If we sit back and don’t participate, then people won’t value what you have to say. Everybody has the opportunity to give an opinion and is encouraged and valued for that opinion.”

Dawson comes from a business background (she's currently chair of Westpac NZ and deputy chair of Air New Zealand) and says it’s beneficial to have specialist skills to bring to the table.

“The whole thing about a board is the group of people with different skills and opinions,” she says.

“Diversity is not just about gender or race or age. It’s about the way you think. Different life experiences teach you to think and approach problems in a different way.”

The goal is to diversify those sitting in decision-making positions to better reflect those who participate in sport. And it’s not just women - those with diverse backgrounds including ethnicity, gender and sexual identity, age and disability also need to be considered.

In November, Women on Boards New Zealand hosted a panel discussion tackling this issue.

The keynote speaker was Karen Skinner, New Zealand Rugby’s head of respect and inclusion. Her role came out of a 2017 review addressing the culture surrounding the sport, and she says it’s imperative that rugby creates a “welcoming culture”.

“Making sure that we have a really welcoming culture where everyone can thrive is part of making sure we can address those challenges and embrace the future,” she says.

“From the chair of our boards, our CEO, our provincial union leadership, club leadership… we’re seeing lots of people lean into the change, that I think is needed.”

The nine-member NZ Rugby Board still has just one woman, Dr Farah Palmer, who was also the first woman in 124 years.  

But Skinner says NZ Rugby is working hard to address diversity. The government’s quota has been a benchmark to ensure the organisation is “moving fast enough”.

Women often make most of the financial decisions in households and decide what activities children participate in, Skinner says, which has a direct impact on the sport. About 80 percent of women control a household’s discretional spend.

“Ensuring we have more diversity of thought, diversity of skill and demographic diversity on boards is a really important part of our change programme,” she says.

“There are lots of really significant reasons why we need to ensure that there's a woman's voice at that governance level, because they are so influential in the decisions that are impacting our sport.”

NZ Football president Johanna Wood. Photo: supplied

Among the other leaders contributing their voice to this topic is New Zealand Football president Johanna Wood. She’s the first woman to hold that role, and the first female on the Oceania executive. She’s one of six females out of 36 who sit around the FIFA council table.

She came into leadership via a career in education and through the club route. She says organisations need to grow their own female membership to get more women on boards.

“You've got to look at your own member association, increase the number of women there and then there would be more women who would be available to stand for some of those other council roles,” she says.

“[Quotas] are part of the solution going forward. You’ve got to keep looking at what’s right for now.”

For women who want to step up, there are a few key skills to have. “You have to be a good listener and have a pretty high EQ,” Wood says.

"You have to respect everybody's position, because everyone looks at the world from a different world view. From their perspective, they're not wrong. You have to perhaps present them with some evidence which challenges that perception.

“You don’t have to be radical. You have to be smart to make changes.”

Former board chair of Wellington Cricket, Sally Morrison. Photo: supplied

Someone who has been challenging perceptions is Sally Morrison. She was the first female to be elected board chair at Wellington Cricket. She’s just stepped down after nine years serving on the board.

She says there’s been a real push to engage with more women, including not charging women to play cricket this summer. The organisation has also just unveiled an honours board for women in changing rooms at the Basin Reserve.

They’ve taken a “purposeful view” of what equality looks like in cricket.

“What we can do is control how we treat women in our system,” she says. “What we have created at Cricket Wellington is an environment where everybody feels like they can add as much value as they bring in the sport.”

She says women often undervalue themselves and their contribution. “It’s [something] women struggle with,” she says. “We need to talk about SHE. She the surgeon. She the chair. She the director. She the firefighter. She the police officer. As a society I think we expect to see men in these roles.

“That in no way is putting down males… we need to lift up women, because women have a huge amount to contribute.

“If we want our sport to thrive and survive, then it's about being inclusive of the ideas of women.”

Sports academic Toni Bruce says women are less likely to put themselves forward for opportunities. Part of that is the societal expectation of seeing a man in high ranking positions.

“If you're looking out there and you're only seeing men or white men in charge of sport, then you don't necessarily see a place for yourself,” she says. “We need to have people who are in women’s corners, who are going to support them, encourage them, mentor them, shoulder tap them for opportunities.”

But it’s more than just engaging with women. “It’s actually making sure that boards reflect the diversity of the people who play that sport,” Bruce says. “We really don’t want to replace ‘pale, male and stale’ boards with ‘pale, female and stale’ boards. We need ethnic diversity, socio-economic diversity, we need youth voices.

“If they don’t get… voices around the board table that actually represent those who are involved in the sport, then that’s not really going to take us very far forward.”

*Also on Fair Play this month we discuss media coverage, research into rugby and netball fans and we bring you an update on the toilets at the Basin Reserve. Fair Play is made in association with RNZ, LockerRoom and WiSPSports.

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