Dana Johannsen

Dana Johannsen is a NZ Herald’s chief sports reporter

The grass ceiling: NZ women sidelined from governing roles

NZOC secretary-general Kereyn Smith said there is still a long way to go. Photo / Greg Bowker
NZOC secretary-general Kereyn Smith said there is still a long way to go. Photo / Greg Bowker

There is no need to issue a spoiler alert here for it will come as little surprise to most - there won't be many women featuring in the Herald's sporting power list this week.

Despite the notable achievements of our female athletes in 2012, when it comes to sport's governance and management, it seems women are being sidelined.

The numbers are troubling.

Have your say: Why are women lacking in sports boardrooms?

An audit of 55 national sporting organisations found that most sports (89 per cent) have less than 50 per cent female representation on their boards, while just over half reach the target of 20 per cent representation set by the International Olympic Committee.

The huge imbalance is something the NZOC has been trying to redress since 2007, but there are limits on what they can do. Given the NZOC is not a funding body, it doesn't have the levers to demand change - its role is one of advocacy.

NZOC secretary-general Kereyn Smith said while it has made small gains in recent years, there is still a long way to go.

"Twenty per cent is a modest target, and we certainly see that as the bottom line, not that aspirational target by any stretch of the imagination, but as you can see it has taken some time even to achieve 20 per cent," she said.

Having women actively involved in sports management and represented in decision-making goes beyond any issues of tokenism and quota-setting.

A growing body of international research has highlighted the need for diversity on boards for effective governance.

The research, therefore, suggests New Zealand sports are doing themselves a disservice.

"Sport still has that old boys' club mentality," said Peter Miskimmin, chief executive of Sport NZ.

"Part of it is to educate chairs and boards that they have to be far wider in their perspective."

One of the worst offenders is rugby.

It is our national sport, a game for all New Zealanders if you believe the marketing guff. Yet the caretakers of our national game are almost exclusively male.

The NZRU has never had a woman on its board, and around the country only a handful of women have managed to secure a place at the boardroom table of their provincial unions. But it is too few, too seldom.

The "deplorable numbers" prompted the Human Rights Commission to launch a campaign last year pushing for female representation on the NZRU board.

Launching a measured attack on the sport, the author of the 2012 census report into women's participation, Dr Judy McGregor, described rugby as the "last bastion of chauvinism".

"Sport's governance is a critical area for female representation - given its significance to our national identity rugby should be a leader, not the last bastion of chauvinism," said McGregor.

The role of women in sport is an issue that has gathered momentum around the globe in the past 12 months. Buoyed by the unprecedented success of their female athletes in London, there has been a strong push in the UK to ensure the legacy of the Games does not pass them by.

An all-party parliamentary group meeting before the London Olympics considered the state of women's sport, with the lack of female sports executives held up as a critical area for improvement.

Miskimmin believes there is a growing recognition here, too, of the importance of gender balance in sport.

"I think there is a seachange going on right now," he said.

"Previously I think it used to be kind of a politically correct-type statement, but I think genuinely now organisations are seeing the value in having women involved in decision- making."

Where there has been any resistance to change, it is generally around the idea that setting base targets for gender representation will lead to females being appointed ahead of more skilled and qualified male applicants.

This argument doesn't wash with Miskimmin.

He said recent response to the women in sport mentoring seminars run by the NZOC and Sport NZ, which unearthed a wealth of highly skilled female business leaders wanting to contribute to sport's governance, proved there are no problems on the "supply side".

Where the challenges exist is on the "demand side".

A lot of sports have been hamstrung by their own constitutions, which don't make it easy for women to go on boards. Most old constitutions have used an electoral system, whereby to get on a board candidates have to get voted on. This system tends to favour men, who look within their own networks to fill roles.

"Typically, women have not fared so well in that process - going to AGMs, putting themselves up there, doing the lobbying to get themselves voted on, is something that women don't necessarily gravitate towards," said Miskimmin.

As sports change their constitutions, allowing for a more even ratio of elected and appointed directors, it will provide more opportunities for women to be placed on boards.

Miskimmin said league and swimming are two sports that have recently revisited their constitutions, on the back of a wider review into the state of their respective organisations, and have been able to achieve better diversity on their boards.

Tomorrow
We look at why rugby - described as "the last bastion of chauvinism" - has so few women involved at governance level, and what moves the NZRU is making to remedy this.

- NZ Herald

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