Sports bodies still largely boys' own territory

22:50, Jul 09 2013

You won't find mention of it in sporting history books or websites but 19 years ago the country's then top sporting body, the Hillary Commission, signed what was intended to be a watershed for the involvement of women in every aspect of sport worldwide.

It was hoped the 1994 international Brighton Declaration would eventually bed down change on the gender front and become central to how New Zealand's sporting organisations operate.

Legislation was also passed in the 1990s directly addressing gender equality in sport which spurred the formation of a much-lauded female-advancement charter and nationwide programme, Winning Women, rolled out by the commission to identify, target and support female leaders.

One woman with first-hand knowledge of both moves is New Zealand Olympic Committee (NZOC) secretary-general Kereyn Smith, whose 2011 appointment was hailed as ground-breaking. Smith was a general manager at the commission in the 1990s, when it signed the declaration.

Key to the Brighton Declaration is the notion that sport is an integral aspect of each nation's culture and, while women make up half of the population, female participation in sport doesn't reflect that.

Getting more women involved in sport leadership is considered vital to addressing the imbalance. More recently, discussion and research in the business sector has linked diversity around the board table to improved profits.


Despite the big push for women in the 1990s, Smith remains the exception rather than the rule. At policy level, New Zealand has never had a female minister of sport nor a chief executive of Sport NZ (of which the Hillary Commission was a forerunner).

Sue Edwards, chairwoman of the all-female New Zealand Synchronised Swimming board, says sports governance has been dominated by men who are mates. "It never bothered me. I'm pretty bloody-minded."

Hurricanes rugby director and shareholder Liz Dawson says her worth on sports boards has been questioned because of her gender, while Smith herself admits sport is still largely a male domain and women have to operate in that environment.

The latest figures from NZOC show 15 per cent of its 48 affiliated sporting organisations have no women on their boards, up from 10 per cent the year before.

But 60 per cent meet the 2005 International Olympic Committee target of 20 per cent female representation, up from 56 per cent in 2011.

NZOC and Sport NZ now have a joint initiative to increase the number of women on sports boards from the 27 per cent now to 33 per cent by 2015 and 40 per cent by 2020.

Smith calls the target realistic but history seems to be repeating itself when she talks about identifying, targeting and supporting future female sports leaders.

So have we stood still?

"Yes, we have," Smith says. "The problem is the lack of understanding of the benefits." Some sports appear less understanding than others: triathlon, weightlifting, shooting and rugby having no female voices at the board table.

The Human Rights Commission targeted rugby last year as part of a campaign for more women on sports boards. The New Zealand Rugby Union was stung by the criticism, an insider says, but its boss Steve Tew says: "We are challenged by it." Tew points out that two women, television producer Julie Christie and NZOC's Smith, were appointed to the union's governance sub-committees earlier this year.

It's not a seat around the top table but the union's structure means the two sub-committees oversee the code's important aspects, Tew says. "Personally, I don't think we are very far away from having a female director on the NZRU."

New Zealand Cricket has one female board member out of seven - Therese Walsh, a former NZRU chief financial officer. Chairman Chris Moller backs gender diversity, having seen the benefits of it, but not quotas.

"It must be based on merit," Moller said.

"NZ Cricket has no former international players on its board and it would be terrific if one or more of those was a White Fern. However . . . women must be prepared to put themselves forward for election."

A lack of female hands up for board roles is oft-cited; Smith says calling this argument a cop-out could be too strong, but it is a common excuse.

However, Sport NZ chief executive Peter Miskimmin claims a sea change is under way. He says sports bodies understand they need to rewrite their constitutions with an eye to diversity - not just gender - and change the makeup of boards to a mix of elected and appointed members.

But some question Sport NZ's commitment to change. A report last year by Kiwi academics Sally Shaw and Sarah Leberman (who manages the New Zealand female hockey team, the Black Sticks) exposed a undercurrent of ill-will towards Sport NZ from eight of 10 female heads of the 84 national sports bodies.

The report said Sport NZ's training was perceived as a macho world where men were given priority.

"Going into a couple of Sparc seminars presented by men with a mixed-participant group, but . . . the men were just taking, taking . . . I've never encountered that before," a female chief executive said.

Another said the main hindrance was the old boys' network and "trying to break into that network".

Miskimmin hasn't read the report but rejects the criticism.

"There is a growing awareness and importance of that gender-balance issue."

Leberman says the only way to change sports governance is to run a programme through the national and regional bodies that identifies and targets potential women leaders.

Sound familiar?


National sports bodies that fail to reach targets for female representation could have their funding cut.

Sport New Zealand chief executive Peter Miskimmin said the agency could "flex its muscles" if sports bodies that received government funding did not reach a target of 33 per cent female representation on their boards by 2015.

The targets have been set by Sport NZ and the New Zealand Olympic Committee in an attempt to increase the number of women involved in governing sports. So far 14 national sports organisations out of 48 have hit the target.

Britain and Australia are also considering linking funding to gender representation.


Liz Dawson (board of New Zealand Olympic Committtee, Hurricanes and New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing Board):

"I don't think I have missed opportunities because I am female. In terms of discrimination I wouldn't say in the pure sense of the word, but I do definitely feel that there has been times that my worth on a board has been questioned because I am female."

Kereyn Smith (secretary-general New Zealand Olympic Committee):

"I suppose in working in leadership in sport presently it is still largely a male-dominated world. Not just in New Zealand, but internationally as well. That is the environment in which we work. To be an effective leader in sport you have to be able to operate in that enviroment."

Sue Edwards (chairwoman of New Zealand Synchronised Swimming - all-female board):

"Going back to the 1970s, it was totally male-dominated. If somebody had been around for 25 years, they got their turn on the board, or managing, or took a position. It was absolutely jobs for the boys back then. There were very few females involved in governance."

Professor Sarah Leberman (head of school of management Massey University, Black Sticks team manager):

"It's not overt. It's not explicit. It's often how you interpret and read the situation. Part of it is how you view it - it's difficult. It's a really interesting question."

Robyn Cockburn (sports consultant):

"I have been asked some weird questions but in the main I suppose because of my experience and working in the industry for a long time, I have got credibility. There used to be a consultancy that was all men, and I tended to have all women, and sometimes I felt some jobs went to them, not us."


The inaugural Women of Influence awards has been launched by Westpac and Fairfax Media to recognise and celebrate women in all walks of life who make a difference to the lives of all New Zealanders.

The programme will identify the 50 most inspiring women of New Zealand in a broad range of categories; management & business, local & regional, entrepreneur, community service & social enterprise, innovation & science.

If you want to make a nomination go to http://engage.ubiquity before August 30.