Female leaders in Australian sport

esherry_thDr Emma Sherry

Email: e.sherry@latrobe.edu.au 


This was originally published on SportBizInsider Thursday 28 June, 2012. 

Females may represent 50 per cent of Australia’s population, but a report this week from Women on Boards found that Australia’s national sport organisation boards have a long way to go to reach gender balance in the boardroom.

Participation rates for males and females in sport and recreation on-field is surprisingly equal, with the most recent ABS data showing that in 2009-10, 26% of the population aged 15 years and over had participated in some organised sport or physical recreation.

The participation rate was similar for men (28%) and women (24%). There were also similar proportions of men and women participating in some non-organised physical activity (52% for both). Although the professional male sports (i.e., the football codes and cricket) may dominate the media sport coverage, these statistics show that participation in organised sport for the general public is largely equal between the genders.

What is not equal, and is not surprising to many of us working in the Australian sport industry, is that women are more rarely found in the senior roles of sport management and sport governance. A recent survey undertaken by the Australian Sports Commission, and reported this week by Women on Boards of Australia’s National Sporting Organisations, found:

• 23.4% of all directorships are held by women

• 17% of NSOs do not have a woman on their board

• 44% of NSOs have 25 per cent or more of directorships held by women

The Women on Boards report noted that as of the start of 2012 there were 470 directors on 64 funded national sporting organisations of which 110 or 23.4 per cent were women. This represented only a 0.6 per cent increase from 22.7 per cent a year earlier.

On a more disappointing note, of those women who have reached senior leadership roles, only11 per cent of Presidents and 19 per cent of CEOs were female in 2012, down from 19 per cent of Presidents and 22 per cent CEOs in 2011.

So which NSOs are well-represented by female board members? The Women on Boards study identified the following 13 NSOs with a minimum of 40% female directors: Netball Australia (100.0%), Australian Athletes with a Disability (80.0%), Skate Australia Inc (66.7%), AUSRAPID (62.5%), Australian International Shooting Limited (60.0%), Ice Racing (50.0%), Pony Club Australia (50.0%), Special Olympics Australia (45.5%), Australian Lacrosse Association Ltd (42.9%), Badminton Australia (42.9%), Riding for the Disabled Australia (42.9%), Softball Australia Ltd (42.9%), BMX Australia (40.0%).

The predominance of traditionally female sports and disability sport organisations is immediately apparent from this list, and with the exception of Netball Australia, there are no high-profile sport leagues represented.

Female representation at board and CEO level has historically been found in the traditional female sports. Anecdotally, as this is an under-researched area, female leaders are also more commonly found in those sport organisations that have a lower-profile or community focus, as evidenced by the proportion of disability sport organisations identified earlier.  In a similar vein, the 2004 Australian Golf Club survey also found that the lower-fee (i.e., less exclusive and prestigious) golf clubs had higher female board member representation.

 Want to be a female leader in the sport industry? It appears your best bet may well be a traditional female sport with a low profile and small budget!

As well as listing those NSOs that were well represented by female leaders at board level, the Women on Board report also identified those without any female board members: Australian Fencing Federation, Australian Karate Federation, Australian Rugby Union, Blind Sports Australia, Bocce Federation of Australia, Cricket Australia, Judo Federation of Australia, Motorcycling Australia, Rugby League – Australian Rugby League, Rugby League – Australian Rugby League Development, Tenpin Bowling Australia. It is not surprising to see a number of high profile sports represented here, and that includes the most traditional of all, the gentleman’s game of cricket.

In parallel with the call for gender equity on boards of listed companies and government authorities, the call for greater diversity on sport boards is being answered. In slow, but sure, steps, a number of sport clubs, leagues and governing bodies have begun to address this imbalance. Organisations such as the Australian Football League have led the way with female appointments to the Commission and elected female club directors. More recently female directors have been both appointed and directly elected to the Cricket Victoria board. As the cohort of experienced female sport administrators grows, so too will their appointment to the governance of sport.

Australian Rugby League also took a major step forward in January, after these figures were determined, by appointing millionaire businesswoman Catherine Harris as a commissioner under their new governance structure.

Although 2011 saw only a small increase in female board representation within NSOs, the future does not look bleak for female sport leaders. Under the direction and guidance of the Australian Sports Commission, many of these sports are moving towards more independent and diverse boards, which increases the opportunity for appointment of appropriately skilled and experienced female directors.

Emma Sherry is a Senior Lecturer at the La Trobe University Centre for Sport and Social Impact (CSSI).