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Professor Emma Sherry on the uneven playing field for women in sport
Professor Emma Sherry: The Uneven Playing Field for Women in Sport

About Professor Emma Sherry  

Emma Sherry is a Professor at Swinburne University, specialising in the field of Sport Development, and is Chair of the Department for Management and Marketing in the Swinburne Business School. Emma also sits on the board of Tennis Victoria, for which she held presidency from 2018-20, and now serves as Board Director. 

Emma has completed a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne, and a Masters of Business (Sport Management) and PhD at Deakin University. In 2014, Emma was awarded the Victorian Women’s Governance Scholarship, which led to her completion of the highly esteemed Company Directors course at the Australian Institute of Company Directors. 

Emma’s interest in sport research for development and social change has led to her involvement in research projects that work with a variety of national and regional sporting organisations— including Netball Australia, National Rugby League, Australian Football League, Tennis Australia and Hockey Victoria. 

The Uneven Playing Field for Parents

In her interview with Michelle, Emma talks about the gendered assumptions that have impacted her experience as a woman in the sport industry. In particular, she talks about the gendered assumptions around parenthood, and the differences between what we expect of women compared to what we expect of men. 

Emma says, due to the expectation that a woman will be the primary parent, people often have a narrow view of a young mother’s capacity to work. She says, when she was a young mother, people would assume she would say “no” if offered certain opportunities, such as to attend events or travel for work. Emma says, “I might want to say no, but let me say no […] Don’t just assume.”  

While Emma remains well-humoured and believes people are generally well-intentioned, she says it is the “death by a thousand cuts”. The comments, “why doesn’t she want to spend more time with her family?” Or the assumption a gentleman made at an event that she must be the wife of the CEO and not the president of Tennis Victoria. She believes assumptions are often misguided and have at times taken away her agency, particularly when they inform decisions that are made on her behalf. 

Emma says it is exhausting and emotionally taxing to be constantly butting up against the culture of work, and believes this is why some women struggle to advance in a career in sport. Emma says, “if it’s hard for me as a straight, white, middle class and well-educated woman, then how the hell are we ever going to get it to work for anyone else?” 

Stop Fixing Women

Emma says her academic background has helped her to deal with the culture of work, teaching her to locate her personal experience within a much broader structural context. She says, “It’s helped because I understand that the challenges are structural. So, it’s not me… It’s multiple ‘me’s’ in multiple infrastructures.” As such, Emma believes it is not about “fixing” or mentoring women, it is about fixing the structures and the systems that prevent women from reaching their potential.  

When asked how COVID has impacted women in sport, Emma draws from her own experience, whereby she had to very quickly fall back into juggling work and primary care. In this way, Emma’s story is not unique, as many women, have taken the default position as primary carer due to the stay-at-home order and home-schooling. 

According to Emma, before COVID hit the global stage, progress was being made to upend some of the more structural and systemic issues that prevent women from advancing in the industry. She says, “It felt for a long time, in women’s sport, that we’d make an incremental shift, and then it would fall back […] At the start of 2020, it felt like, you know what, I don’t think we can fall back […] And then COVID hit and structural inequality trumps all.”  

The Uneven Playing Field in Sports Media

Emma uses the example of sports media in the early days of COVID, during which there was virtually no sport taking place around the world. She says, despite there being no sport, media organisations reverted to men’s sport, as this continues to be the default. She says, during this period “the visibility of any sport that wasn’t one of those big football codes or the NBA or something like that, just completely disappeared, let alone the women’s versions of the game.” 

Emma says, “People are making those decisions. They’re not accidental, they’re decisions.” She adds, “It’s never going to be fair all of the time, but it shouldn’t be unfair by accident.” She says, leaders must interrogate their decisions and understand what those decisions mean to people. At the very least, leaders can apply a gender lens, which begs the question “how will this decision impact women and girls?”  

 

Emma believes part of the problem is the mindset of scarcity. She says, “It’s that idea that there’s not enough pie […] If women take some pieces of the pie, then men won’t get pie… Well, just make the pie bigger!” In this way, Emma operates out of a mindset of abundance, believing it is important to “create space” for those who will one day succeed us. 

Men Taking Action on the Uneven Playing Field

In many ways, Emma has been influenced by her predecessors. Emma says, in becoming President of Tennis Victoria, she was the beneficiary of a big process, and that it took a brave chair and CEO, who were both men, to create change. She says, “They did a lot of heavy lifting in a governance and leadership setting, and the previous president made space for me […] He stepped down and said ‘you are the best person, now’s the right time’.” 

Likewise, Emma says, “I bring people with me and I know when to get out of their way”. She says “I stick around as long as I am needed and useful, and then I get out. Whether that’s in my day job or bringing people into projects and then sneaking out […] I cannot and will not be able to do all of the things.   

Call to Action 

Emma calls upon leaders to interrogate their decisions and create space for women to genuinely succeed in the sport industry. Emma says people must be willing to engage in self-reflection, both at the individual and organisational level. She says, ask yourself, “What can I do as an individual to make space or have a better understanding of what it’s like to be a woman, or a person with a disability, or a culturally and linguistically diverse person? […] What’s my role in this? And am I one of the reasons that someone else is not able to be their best version of themself?”    

“What can I do as an individual to make space or have a better understanding of what it’s like to be a woman, or a person with a disability, or a culturally and linguistically diverse person? […] What’s my role in this? And am I one of the reasons that someone else is not able to be their best version of themself?”  

About the Podcast

The need to tell the stories of women in sport and to create a clarion call to action to close the gender gaps in sport has never been stronger. The Advancing Women in Sport podcast goes beyond the statistics about women in sport so that all of us can become more aware of women’s lived experiences in sport. We’re uncovering the stories beneath the stats….

In this first season, you will be able to hear the stories of women at different career and life stages, from different sporting disciplines and sectors within the very large sports industry about their lived experience in the sporting sector.

The women interviewed are athletes, coaches, administrators, broadcasters, directors and more. They identify in many ways and represent the many intersectional communities that sport serves. You can tune in via all the usual podcast services or at the podcast website.