Women in Sport: Moving From Awareness to Action

I have always considered myself part of the women in sport movement. Because sport has been a constant companion to me during my life. Since I was a little person watching from the sidelines when my parents played, as a young person being involved in various sports and as I became older, when I moved my involvement to supporting my kids from the sideline.

An opportunity arose when my kids were playing sport, to contribute to sport again. As many parents do, I took on the role of coach, team manager, scorer, umpire, and then I chose to become an administrator. First in netball then in Australian rules football. I love being involved in committees and on boards, being a woman in sport, because it allows me to combine my areas of strength and passion. Leadership, business administration, governance, and sport.

Women in Sport, moving from Awareness to Action. Michelle Redfern

What surprised me when I started, particularly on footy boards, was the sheer lack of women in leadership in the sporting sector. It dawned on me that women in sport mean on the field. Not necessarily off it, and certainly not round the executive and board room tables. Sport is quite literally still a man’s world.

From Awareness to Action

Surprise is a benign description of me becoming aware of the paucity of women in leadership in sport. Nevertheless, my surprise turned to determination which turned into action (get shit done!) I wanted to better understand exactly what was happening for women who worked in the sporting sector in Australia. That is when the Advancing Women in Sport research series was created.

I was genuinely curious to understand if my own observations (and bewilderment) about women in sport, and the data I had gathered meant that there really was a problem with gender inequity in sport. When disappointingly, that theory was provedn, I decided to deepen my knowledge about the matters that drive and perpetuate the exclusion of women in and out of the sporting arena.

But I wanted to do something different. I didn’t want to develop another body of statistics, data, and anecdotes about the woeful under-representation of women in sport. Instead, I wanted to create a playbook, based on research and evidence, about how all of us in the sports industry can drive meaningful change for women.

Women in Sport: Facts and Data

Whilst I didn’t want to build another body of data about the status of women in sport, we know that facts, data and evidence starts useful conversations. Data is also a useful way to create the aha moment that I seek in leaders who want to understand how to shift the performance of their organisation through greater diversity and inclusion.

The statistics about the status of women in sport speak for themselves. Women are under-represented at senior levels in sport. Women are over-represented in entry-level and mid-level roles. In other words, sport is run and governed largely by men. So where are the men in the conversation and the action to address systemic gender inequality in sports leadership?

Men, Power and (in)Action

There are many people who are committed to advancing more women in sport. So why aren’t we seeing a faster change in sport? I’ve observed some illuminating and frustrating factors that I believe perpetuate the issue of gender inequality in sport. Illuminating because there is a glimpse into what we can all do to level the playing field for women in sport, on and off the field. Frustrating, because these barriers to success could, with collective effort, be overcome.

The collective effort to address gender inequality in sport must include men. Because, for fear of stating the bleeding obvious, men dominate the most powerful roles in sport. Yet men are not yet actively engaged or engaging in discussions or taking action on, gender inequality. Men are not proactively seeking out ways to level the playing field for women in sport.

The fact that men are not engaging in gender equality in sport is jaw-droppingly obvious to many people, particularly those women who work in the industry. To others, finding out that men are not engaging in, or taking action on, gender inequality is a surprise.

Facts about men in sport that my latest research discovered:

  • 63.1% of men in sport agree that gender inequality exists. 
  • 59.5% of men in sport agree that gender inequality in sport is a problem.
  • 51.3% of men in sport believe their organisation should progress gender equality initiatives. 
  • 86.9% of men in sport believe they have a role to play in creating gender equality.
  • 29.4% of men believe they are, or will be, disadvantaged due to gender inequality initiatives.

Now, you don’t have to be a mathematician to realise that there is a substantial percentage of men who are not yet convinced or indeed, may be against gender equality in sport. But you would also note that there are weirdly contradictory numbers in that data set, ie: 86.9% of men know they have a role to play in creating gender equality. Perplexing, but also consistent with what we already know about the complex and contradictory views that Australia has about women, work and leadership.

Perhaps male disengagement from the debate and action about gender inequality is caused by and causing differences in, the ways that men perceive gender inequality to women? Put simply, if you ask a man about gender inequality and then ask a woman, you are highly likely to receive inconsistent responses about what constitutes gender (in)equality. Perhaps these differences, and how the differences and debate are managed, is what is perpetuating men’s disengagement from the issue? Perhaps men are fearful of treading into territory that they see as the domain of women? Perhaps men are simply disinterested? Perhaps men do not want to relinquish the unearned privilege and power that society has awarded them with?

Michelle Redfern Advancing Women in Sport Research

Getting Men on Board

Irrespective of why men are not (currently) engaging, I remain passionately committed to solving the thorny issue of the lack of women in sport and business leadership. I am engaging with men to try to understand then eliminate, the barriers to them not being involved in and actively working towards gender equality. After all, there is not a shadow of a doubt in my mind that gender equality initiatives will benefit men. There is also not a shadow of a doubt in my mind that gender inequality is not just a women’s issue.

I am curious, and committed, to understand how we might better engage men, particularly those that hold the most powerful roles in sport, business, politics, and society, in this conversation. I welcome conversations and forums that engage men in conversation that enables them to get involved. I welcome suggestions on how to create those forums and environments where men can learn and then take action.

I do want to know what in the world is going on for women in sport. Because achieving gender equality in sport will create a more prosperous, sustainable and enjoyable sporting arena for all of us.

Register to receive the Advancing Women independent & free research reports on the status of Women in Sports Leadership or Contact Michelle to discuss moving your organisation’s gender action plan from conversation to action.

Michelle Redfern Advancing Women in Business and Sport