Changing women’s sport, from playing field to board room

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Applying a modern prism to the great global sportsfest that is the Olympic Games can lead you down many paths. One of them will be questions about diversity. Another will be about how that diversity applies to women in sports’ leadership roles. And another will appear to be simpler – but no less significant – about women’s sports uniforms.

If the Olympics reveals anything, it is how much progress we have made on these issues during the usual four-year cycle between the Games. This time, because of the pandemic, we have five years to reflect on. And thanks to research from Victoria University, we also have a notion of what progress Australia has made and how much further it needs to go.

Susan Alberti (left) and 
Professor Clare Hanlon (right)
Photo credit: Victoria University

Earlier this year, VU released the results of a national survey of 727 girls on what they thought about the clothing they were expected to wear while they played sport. Several months after that survey, A Guide for Action was released, to help sports organisations attract and retain women from culturally diverse backgrounds in sports leadership roles.

Viewed separately, the sports’ clothing question seems potentially easier to fix than the culturally diverse leadership issue, but taken together, the landmark research has triggered discussions, locally and internationally, about women and sport that would not have been had a decade ago.

The research on what young girls feel more comfortable wearing when they play sport will come as no surprise to women all around the world who have struggled to enjoy sport while wearing skirts and unisex T-shirts that don’t fit them.

“Qualitative research suggests that feeling self-conscious in sport uniforms may be one reason why adolescent girls drop out of sport,’’ the report observed. “This [report] is the first national study to adopt quantitative methods to determine girls’ preferences for sports uniforms. We found that girls need to be provided with flexible options of uniform styles that are made from comfortable material and designed for girls.

“Findings from this study could enhance school and sport club uniform policies for girls when playing sport or being physically active to assist with their confidence, feeling comfortable and readiness to participate.’’

The report, entitled What Girls Want in Sports Uniforms, identified the clothing priorities for girls aged from 12 to 18 who were playing sport – shorts, T-shirts and dark colours, clothing that fitted them properly, and was made from stretchy and breathable material. Three quarters of the respondents said they wanted their sports uniforms to make them feel ready to play. A further 61 per cent didn’t want uniforms with a unisex design.

The findings became an international talking point, and the Victorian Government formally encouraged sporting clubs and schools to look at the research findings. But it was the second piece of research involving 221 women from culturally diverse backgrounds in sports leadership roles that provides an insight into some of the other barriers to diversity in sport.

The Susan Alberti Women in Sport chair at VU, Professor Clare Hanlon, said the leadership research from VU’s Institute of Health and Sport, had been warmly welcomed within the sporting industry. However, it revealed there was work to be done.

“Sport needs to start showcasing how culturally diverse and how inclusive they are and to showcase women from culturally diverse backgrounds in their senior leadership teams.’’ Clare said.

Photo credit: Victoria University

“[The report] shows us that sport needs to increase its inclusive workplace culture: it needs more women from culturally diverse backgrounds, so they don’t feel they’re a token,’’ Clare said. “They need to increase women in senior leadership, in strategic decision-making, and recognising that their lens is really important to further drive the organization in to the future.’’

The study surveyed women from culturally diverse backgrounds who aspired to be, had been or were currently in sports leadership roles, ranging from coaching, team manager, committee member, or in a voluntary role at community sport. The survey found that the majority of women who currently lead in sport are dissatisfied. Some aspiring leaders also identified issues they believed would be impediments for them taking on the roles.

The research underpins the Guide’s approach to the five strategies to help retain and attract more women from culturally diverse backgrounds to sporting leadership: to even the ‘playing field’; strengthen workplace culture; build support and opportunity; increase visibility of women from culturally diverse backgrounds and welcome women from culturally diverse backgrounds.

Clare explained that the post-Olympic period was a good time to capitalize on the achievements of those athletes in Tokyo to create opportunities for them to become leaders in sporting organisations, by taking on board or committee roles. “That is the key example of what organisations can do post-Olympics to start to develop the confidence and the expertise of these women as leaders,’’ she said.

“We need to increase our focus to strengthen career pathways for women from culturally diverse backgrounds to lead and to continue in the sport,’’ Clare said.  “We don’t want women dropping out. We had some of those women dropping out and as a result these women surveyed had no interest in returning.’’

She said there were barriers for many women from culturally diverse backgrounds taking on sports’ leadership roles, but many women had persisted and become important role models.

“They do appreciate the barriers and they appreciate where they are now,’’ Clare said. “I want to put haloes over all of them because how they got there is incredible and what they have achieved to date – and they’re continuing to achieve – by helping others, mentoring others, and being advocates. And the more people they have to assist them the better.’’

The evidence shows that there are marked benefits for organisations with women from culturally diverse backgrounds in leadership positions. “It becomes a no brainer as to why aren’t we doing this,’’ Clare said. “There’s more understanding and more evidence that we should be doing it, but we need to learn, and we need to act. And the more organisations that do act and do showcase, the more others will take note because sport is a competitive industry, and they will follow suit.’’

The next steps for A Guide for Action are to seek funding to help organisations embrace the approach to leadership.

“We want implementation,’’ Clare said. “Let’s create interventions so other organisations can see the success and follow suit. Let’s create case studies of success, that’s what this next stage is, to promote to the wider audience.’’

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