A heavyweight group including former All Blacks great Fergie McCormick and Labour MP Louisa Wall wants the New Zealand Rugby Union to change its archaic male-dominated structure and put a woman on its board.
The campaign by the Human Rights Commission will be announced tomorrow in "Census of Women's Participation 2012", a biennial report examining women's representation in professional and public life.
Rugby is one of seven sports without any women at national governance level, and of the 194 board positions in provincial rugby, only four are held by women.
Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Dr Judy McGregor says in the report: "Sports governance is a critical area for female representation - given its significance in our national identity, rugby should be a leader, not the last bastion of chauvinism."
Farah Palmer, who captained the New Zealand women's rugby team to three consecutive world cups in 1998, 2002 and 2006, said there were many women capable of holding their place in the NZRU pack.
"There are definitely women in the business and corporate world who could take on the role as an independent board member of the NZRU. There are also women who are heavily involved in the management side of the game that could step in to that board role and provide a greater diversity of perspectives."
Louisa Wall, MP for Manurewa and New Zealand women's rugby player of the year in 1997, has tried twice for top rugby governance positions. She wanted a seat on the NZRU board, and more recently tried for a seat on the Blues board.
"I had been a member of the Hillary Commission and I was encouraged by Sir Brian Lochore to put my name forward for the NZRU without success. I didn't even get an interview for the Blues board. It is such an old boys' network." Wall said the NZRU must invest in the women's game at all levels if it wants to succeed when rugby returns to the Olympics at Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Former All Blacks great McCormick, who coaches the Linwood women's rugby team, supports a woman's voice at the table. "Women don't get much of a say. They don't get the recognition they deserve," he said. "I'd dearly love to see a woman on the NZRU board. But she'd have to stand her ground."
Ann Sherry, the former head of Westpac in New Zealand, and now chief executive of cruise ship line Carnival Australia, was the first female director on the Australian Rugby Union board.
At a time when rugby has become big business, boardrooms need to reflect the sport's diverse interests, she says. "The reality now is that the game is extremely professional; that requires a change in the governance as well." She believes she has a perspective of the business that would have been missed by men.
Donna Grant, who this year became the first woman on the Warriors board, said there had been some outside comment about her role and relevance to rugby league, but inside the boardroom her presence had been invaluable.
"I feel that being a woman is very important in the role that I have. As a woman you take on board other perspectives, and you see things differently, and that is what makes for a robust board."
The NZRU has a diversity clause in its constitution, said chairman, Mike Eagle. The constitution says the board should not consist of more than nine board members and must include one Māori representative and two independent directors. From 2012, the NZRU Appointments and Remuneration Committee (ARC) must "have regard to the gender, ethnicity of players and the need to reflect the whole of the New Zealand Rugby community generally".
"Since 2007 we have sought applications for five independent directors and have received 180 applications, 24 from women," Eagle said. "The recruitment of an independent director is governed by the ARC and aims to select the best person for the role, irrespective of gender. The addition of gender to the ARC considerations will hopefully encourage more women with senior directorship experience to apply."
In 2011, 14,950 women registered to play rugby and $2.6 million went to women's rugby in 2011. This reflects 3 per cent of NZRU investment in the game. Of 83 corporate staff employed by NZRU, 38 are women.
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