Marina Go: 'Why Sport Needs More Female Leaders'

‘Why sport needs more female leaders’: Marina Go

Sport needs more female leaders and there are many reasons for this but no more compelling than the need for a drastic change of culture. Recent negative events involving cheating, violence towards women and public displays of disrespect of women by players, fans and administrators, have highlighted that a number of traditional male-dominated sports organisations are out of touch with community values and expectations. And that will ultimately prove disastrous for those sports without an urgent intervention.

Something has to change.  The entry of more women can only help to transform cultures that have been shaped by boys’ club traditions, forged over decades of male domination of sports administration.

Sport is about winning. Fans are passionate about the teams they follow and winning makes up for everything. Passionate fans attend games and livestream matches, they buy merchandise and memberships, and they voraciously consume media about their chosen sport and team. Sponsors sign up to sports because they want to reach those fans in a positive, passion-filled context. This can surge when a team is winning and shrink when it isn’t. So it takes courage, clarity of thought and strict adherence to governance principles to choose long-term sustainability over a fast-fix win on the weekend.

Blind passion can often cloud the judgment of far too many sports leaders, particularly those who have been in and around a sport for decades. Some in sport refer to it as a version of white line fever: when the team crosses the line onto the field of play, far too many male leaders seemingly lose their minds and become schoolboy fans again with all the exhilaration and devastation that comes with it. The thrill of the win and the desire to avoid the pain of a loss can lead to a ‘win at all cost’ culture if there aren’t at least of couple of rational heads in the executive team and around the board table to rein it in. The addition of women can help address this phenomenon.

The expectations of the community have changed dramatically. We no longer want our sporting teams to win at any cost. We now care very much about how they win.

Cheating isn’t ok. Cutting corners unfairly to gain an advantage, suspected backroom mates deals, promises made via handshakes on the golf course, under-the-table payments delivered in brown paper bags are being openly questioned by increasingly vocal sports fans. All of it serves to add to the growing lack of trust of those in charge of the sport. The only way to re-establish that trust is to ensure that this kind of behaviour is stamped out of sport and that means having the courage to make tough decisions. Behaviour that lacks integrity in sport is invariably associated with talk about one person being beholden to another or fearing someone else because they apparently know where skeletons are hidden. The fastest way to short circuit this situation is to bring in new leaders with no previous baggage, including women, the vast majority of whom do not operate like that.

Violence against women won’t be tolerated. Consider the backlash against rugby league’s hellish off-season. Women are backing away from a game that is gaining attention for the  incidences of alleged violence towards women by a minority of players. The community expectation is zero tolerance. Mothers are signing their children up to rival sports. The potential loss to the sport in terms of player talent, fans and sponsors is vast. There are a handful of female leaders and a small number of men in the sport who can be counted on to speak out against this behaviour. If the numbers of female leaders tripled then it may matter less that the majority of men in the game remain silent on unacceptable player behaviour.

Diversity is now expected. The call for more female leaders in sport has been relatively consistent for the past decade but it is only in recent times, with a number of high-profile sportsmen behaving badly, that the drums are starting to beat loudly. The boards of most major sports do not resemble anything that could be considered gender balanced, even as most claim to have a strategy to grow female participation, female fans and female leaders.

Every sport competes with rival sports for the hearts and wallets of communities, but sport also competes with other forms of entertainment for their fans’ time. To be successful now and sustainable in the long-term, sports organisations need to make sure that 100 percent of their potential audience feel included.

In my experience of chairing Wests Tigers NRL club for four and a half years, I know that it takes considerable determination to focus on the benefits of diversity when it hasn’t been a priority in the past. The challenge almost always falls to the woman on the board to care about and try to resolve in some meaningful fashion. In order for diversity to become a real part of the plan it needs to be embedded in the strategy and owned by the men on the board too. The executive team needs to be measured against diversity goals and rewarded for achievement in this area.

I don’t just believe that every sports board needs a female director, I am in the ‘more than one’ camp because two of more can at least share the diversity load and also ensure that both are included in decision-making committees etc by calling out any exclusion of the other. It’s much harder to put your hand up to ask if you can be included than it is to recommend that a fellow female director be included. Women on boards notice when there is a gender imbalance through the organisation and will focus the CEO on the need to address that.

Women on sports boards and in leadership roles change the tone around the board table because most men are better behaved in a business setting when women are around, although I will never forget a meeting with a group of very senior men in rugby league where I, as the only woman in the room, was asked to leave so they could discuss one man’s “happy ending” at a massage parlour. I refused to leave the room and so the incident wasn’t discussed at that meeting, potentially saving a couple of men from themselves and a few others from having to pretend that they would be comfortable listening to it.

It has never been more important for sports organisations to build a culture where men and women can co-exist with respect. Sports stakeholders and the community are increasingly demanding this. That invariably means having visible male and female leaders, ideally in equal numbers, with good men standing up and calling out every incident of poor behaviour towards women in their club and sport.

The world has changed and sport needs to change too. The next cycle of broadcast deals will challenge the business models of major sports that have relied on media dollars for the past few decades. The decentralisation of media over the past decade has changed the landscape for media rights and those who do not significantly alter their thinking and execution will be left far behind.

There has been a noticeable shift in attitudes towards sport in the past few years as millennials have come of age and found their voice on social media. Sports fans are largely prioritising integrity above winning, and have become vocal in holding their sports to account.

Cricket’s ball tampering and rugby league’s off-season from hell attracted much public criticism but also revealed challenged cultures within those sports. Cricket Australia proactively investigated its culture, determined that change was necessary and both CEO and Chair resigned. The sport is actively demonstrating its commitment to diversity with a clear strategy for increasing the numbers of female fans, players and leaders, and is currently recruiting for a third female director for the Cricket Australia board. The NRL has announced a cultural review to be led by Australian Rugby League Commissioner Professor Megan Davis with the results due at the end of the year.

Richmond Tigers Chair Peggy O’Neal has led the cultural transformation of her AFL club. I was fortunate to have joined Peggy on an Australian Institute of Company Directors trip to Uluru last year at which Peggy explained how Richmond developed the club’s Reconciliation Action Plan: the only sporting club in Australia with a RAP in Elevate status. The commitment to the Indigenous community is real. The club operates an Indigenous Centre for Youth and Indigenous player pathway programs for young men and women. The club celebrates the successes off-field as well as on-field.

In 2016 when Eddie McGuire made his Caroline Wilson drowning comments on Triple M senior Richmond players took a public stance against such behaviour and threatened to boycott the radio station. “The club is pretty strong in its stance and our club is a real leader for supporting women’s rights,” Richmond player Jack Riewoldt told AFL360 at the time. I have no doubt that having a woman leader at the club, supported by strong male leaders, has positively impacted the values of those men at that club. No other AFL club’s players took a stance against this behaviour and no other AFL club has a female Chair.

The board of Rugby Australia appointed its first female CEO Raelene Castle in January 2018 and she has recently taken a strong public stand against one of rugby’s best-performing players in favour of the sport’s inclusive values. The Rugby Australia board until recently boasted three very strong women so it’s no surprise that in appointing Castle to lead the sport out of its challenged state, they were clear about the need to fix the culture of the sport, starting at head office.

For female leaders in sport, the role isn’t just a status symbol. Free from the the fear of loss of status women can rationally make decisions that are in the best interests of the sport or club, without fear or favour. Women, largely, are not beholden to the good old days. They don’t have their mates phoning them and telling them what’s wrong with the coach or who should be in the team.

Female leaders don’t fear upsetting the club legends when making decisions that are in the best interests of the organisation they serve. They don’t fear the old guard or those who may vote them out of their role because doing the job is more important than holding the job. Most women in sport are not expected to do an old mate a favour. That’s largely not how women operate.

Sport can still be about winning with more women leaders involved. We want to win as much as the men around us. We want to win with integrity while building towards a sustainable future for the sports organisations that we love. We want the men and women in our teams to adhere to community standards and expectations so that parents are happy for them to be role models and idols for their children. When women are involved in decision-making, there is increased pressure to remove those whose behaviours and values are in conflict with their chosen sport – even if they are the best player in the game. And those tough decisions will ultimately be a win for everyone who supports and loves sport.

Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women's Agenda in your inbox