Women, sport & leadership

June 2017 has been a huge month for New Zealand sport. 

New Zealand cleaned up at the Women’s Sevens, the Black Sticks are dominating their pool at the FIH World League Semifinals, the British and Irish Lions Tour continues to take the country by storm, and Emirates Team New Zealand took the top honours at the America’s Cup yachting competition for the second time.

With this renewed focus on New Zealand’s sporting success, it’s a great time to take a closer look at the relationship between women, sport & leadership.

Myriad of benefits

It’s been established that great leaders often have a background in sport—and this is certainly true for women leaders. In fact, an EY study of American women CEOsfound that 94% of women in C-suite played sport and 52% had played sport at university level.

NZGW newsletter infographic June 72dpi 700px no logo

Sarah Leberman, Women in Sport Aotearoa (Ngā Wāhine Hākinakina o Aotearoa) founding co-Chair and Professor of Leadership at Massey University, notes that as well as helping to foster leadership skills, overseas research links women and girls’ participation in sport to life-long physiological health benefits, psychological benefits like positive self perception and healthy body image, and community involvement.

It’s for such reasons that girls’ and women’s participation in sport was acknowledged by the United Nations when it adopted it’s Sustainable Development Goals in 2015.

The UN specifically notes the importance of sport in promoting gender equality: “Sport can contribute to the elimination of discrimination against women and girls by empowering individuals, particularly women, and equipping them with knowledge and skills needed to progress in society. Sport can advocate for gender equality, address constricting gender norms, and provide inclusive safe spaces.”

Getting girls into sport—and women into sports leadership

Although studies have shown that girls’ participation in sport often drops off at higher rates than boys’ during their teenage years, Sarah notes that in the developed world women’s and girls’ participation in sport is actually improving.

The 2016 Rio Olympics serve to reinforce this pattern. For the first time there were seven countries with a majority women delegation in terms of athletes –Puerto Rico (66%), China (61%), Canada (60%), United States (53%), Bahrain (53%), Australia (51%), and New Zealand (51%). Overall women athletes made up 45% of the competitors.

However, the 2016 International Sports Report Card on Women in Leadership Roles paints a very different picture in terms of off-field participation by women. Men run thirty-three of the 35 international federations affiliated with the Olympics with women leading only two international sport federations.

This is reflected in the New Zealand experience: across the country’s 65 sports organisations and sports trusts there are just eleven women CEs and twelve women board chairs. And though there are 12 organisations with more than 50% women on their board and 24 with more than 50% of women in leadership and management roles, many of these are in areas traditionally coded as “feminine” like Marketing and Communications—a wider issue highlighted by Joanne McCrae in our blog post on the 2017 Deloitte Women in Boards report.

Why it matters

Having a diverse sports leadership matters for the same reasons that diverse leadership matters more widely—because it’s both the right thing to do and the bright thing to do. More diverse boards are linked to more innovative and successful businesses, and having leadership that better represents the make-up of our country in both gender and ethnicity helps build a society that is fairer and more equal.

And—like attracts like. If sports bodies are primarily lead by Pakeha men, that sends a strong message that sports is “for” that group. To get more women of all backgrounds involved and benefiting from participation in sport, its crucial to build a more diverse leadership, from team coaches to board chair.

What you can do

Sarah suggests three things that we need to do to in order to redress the imbalance of women in leadership.

“The first—and hardest—is to address institutional practices in order to make structural change. This involves questioning the embedded practices of institutions and the way that we organise both companies and sports bodies. Making steps to change institutional practices could include making sure there are women on interview panels or actively recruiting women to a board.

“The second is to question our unconscious biases and be aware about how these might be affecting our decisions.

“Finally, it’s important to recognise intersectionality when approaching the issue of women in leadership—not all women are the same, and we have to be mindful of the complexity of women in order to make change.”*

In addition, the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity (CAAWS) suggests 10 key ways in which men can support women and girls in sport:

  1. Speak up.
  2. Celebrate women athletes.
  3. Train and certify women coaches and officials.
  4. Recruit women leaders.
  5. Pay-it-forward and mentor.
  6. Invite women.
  7. Nominate women leaders.
  8. Communicate opportunities.
  9. Educate yourself and others.
  10. Promote women and sport leadership networks.

As a new organisation attempting to get traction, one of the challenges for Women in Sport Aotearoa is the need for more New Zealand-specific research and data in order to make evidence based decisions, provide leadership and advocate for change: all of which requires funding. If you’re interested in supporting or sponsoring the organisation, you can contact Sarah or take a look at the Women in Sport Aotearoa Facebook page.



*From Laura J. Burton and Sarah Leberman “Women in Sport Leadership: Research & Practice for Change”:

“The following conceptual model (Figure 1.1) has been developed to frame our thinking for the book. We acknowledge that there is an ongoing debate about whether our focus should be on structure or agency in endeavoring to increase women in sport leadership. Critical feminist theorists advocate for a focus on structure, whereas more liberal feminists argue that agency is of primary importance.

Figure 1.1 Structure Agency conceptual model for why women remain underrepresented in sport leadership for NASSM 4

We suggest that at this point in time we cannot afford to only focus on one, but instead we need to be active in both areas to reduce the gap between them as depicted by the space between structure and agency and the blue arrows in our model – showing an increase in agency and a decrease in structural issues. Institutional practices, gender bias and a lack of understanding about intersectionality are the three main areas we believe have not been fully addressed. These require further examination in order to close the gap between structure and agency, which once closed would ideally obviate the need to have the numerous leadership and empowerment programs for girls and women that exist today.

Structural change takes time and is often slow, whereas programs to increase agency can be comparatively fast and effective. The size of the boxes for structure and agency suggest that the progress in changing structures has been smaller than for agency. We also recognize that the comparative sizes will be variable both within and between countries. For example, in a country such as Norway that has quotas, the size of the structure box would be similar to that of agency. In the end individuals create the structures we are part of symbolized by the curving arrow on the left of the model. We need more women to be part of those structures to affect change. Facilitating this through programs that develop women and girls self-confidence, self-awareness, resilience and networks as well as social capital, are not about ‘fixing the women’, but about enabling them to seek those positions of power and authority within the sport sector.“