The grass ceiling: Women under-represented as sport powerbrokers

By Dana Johannsen

Dr Judy McGregor.  Photo / Natalie Slade
Dr Judy McGregor. Photo / Natalie Slade

Nearly 120 years since the electoral bill granting women franchise was passed, women still can't get a vote at the NZRU boardroom table

The presence of just three females in this week's sporting power list reflects the grim reality that women are being sidelined from governance roles.

For the past four years the Herald has compiled a list of the top 25 biggest powerbrokers in sport, and every year we have lamented the lack of females in the ranks - this year we decided to ask why.

What has emerged from looking at the research into sports governance, and talking to women in the industry of their experiences, is there is a clear structural, cultural and attitudinal bias against women in positions of power and influence in New Zealand sport. We like to consider ourselves an enlightened nation when it comes to gender issues - after all, we were the first nation to give women the vote. But nearly 120 years since the electoral bill granting women franchise was passed, women still can't get a vote at the NZRU boardroom table. That is mirrored around the provinces, with just five of the 194 seats at that level occupied by women.

The glaring imbalance prompted Dr Judy McGregor, in her former role at the Human Rights Commission, to launch a campaign pushing for female representation on the NZRU board.

McGregor finds it "unacceptable" that women are virtually excluded from the decision-making at all levels of the game, lambasting New Zealand rugby as "the last bastion of chauvinism".

In an age when many contemporary sports organisations such as the NRL and AFL in Australia are making a point of marketing their games towards women and highlighting the value of females in their sport, the NZRU have shown themselves to be woefully behind the times.

Some of the feedback we've received on the topic has been instructive of the archaic attitudes that still exist towards women in sport. A common argument is women aren't interested in sport and therefore don't have the inclination, nor the necessary skills to contribute to the sector.

The response to the women in sport mentoring programme run by the NZOC and Sport NZ proves this is not the case. There are a wealth of female business leaders who are passionate about sport and keen to contribute.

What a lot of arguments also fail to recognise is that national sports organisations don't just govern the elite end of their respective sport - they are responsible for administering all levels of the game. Nor does participation refer to those who take part in the sport, it also includes sports consumers - the fans and viewers who buy merchandise and tickets. Many are women.

Sport NZ's research into the gender divide in sport found the predominance of men on sports boards can be attributed to the fact that these appointments come from a narrow base, often former representative players, who encourage similar individuals to offer themselves for positions. Being the only woman (or in a small group of women) in this environment can be challenging for less experienced directors and a barrier to others.

Peter Miskimmin, chief executive of Sport NZ, said the focus for his organisation, therefore, is to educate chairs and boards that they have to be far wider in their perspective.

In writing the Grass Ceiling series we made a deliberate decision to stick within the parameters of sports governance, but it is important to note inequality in sport isn't limited to the corridors of power. Sport remains a man's world in coaching, high performance roles and the media.

As many sports are slowly getting their act together in addressing the gender imbalance in their board-rooms, the next big challenge to administrators is addressing the lack of females in high performance and coaching roles.

- NZ Herald

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