F words aplenty regarding women on sports boards
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When asked what it's like being the only woman on the board of the Australian Rugby League Commission, Catherine Harris can't help but use the F word.
"It's fun!" she tells Women's Agenda.
It's not that the Harris Farm Markets co-founder wouldn't like to see more women appointed to that particular board, and all boards, but rather that she sees her role on the ARLC as an opportunity to apply her unique mix of skills, and to get involved in a game she loves.
"There is, I think, additional work for women [on boards]. Every time there is something that needs to be done about a community matter, or a women employee thing, they automatically look to the woman on the boards. Just the very fact of being a woman, you do get extra jobs."
Lynn Ralph, who sits on the board of the Sydney Swans, uses a different kind of F word to describe her experience. "I joined the board because I'm a mad, fanatical Swan's supporter," she says.
Luckily for the Swans, Ralph also brought along a fresh mix of skills that didn't already exist on the team's board, especially as chairman of BT Funds Management and commissioner at the Private Health Insurance Administration Council.
And while Ralph says it wasn't the fact that she is female that saw her appointed to the board, she believes it was certainly time the club appointed someone from the opposite sex. "I was the first woman. It was pretty embarrassing that there we were in the 21st Century with no females on the board, and 40% of the members were female."
An embarrassing lack of women on sports boards is hardly unique to sports traditionally played by men like Aussie Rules, Rugby League and Rugby Union. It's also a problem shared at the Olympic level where women have long competed in equal numbers to men. Just 23.4% of the board positions on Australia's 64 National Sporting Organisations are held by women, according to recent analysis by Women on Boards.
And it's a problem that goes all the way to the top, with just two of the 15 board seats on the Australian Olympic Committee occupied by women. AOC boss John Coates has long labelled the gender imbalance across the management teams of the AOC's 40 member sports an issue. Earlier this year, he pushed for member organisations to put more women forward for the AOC's upcoming board elections in 2013.
Indeed, for all the talk of London being the "Women's Olympics", at an international level, a lack of women on the national boards of Olympic sports is also dire, where women account for just 3% of the presidents on national Olympic bodies. A woman has never presided over the AOC, where Coates has been in the job since 1990.
According to IOC member Anita DeFrantz, women across the globe "need to step up and take responsibility" for the problem and seek election for key leadership jobs in sport.
That may be easier said than done.
"The Olympics are a metaphor for women in leadership," says Wendy McCarthy, referring to the performance of Australia's female athletes at recent summer games. "We do our best. We outperform on every indicator ... We think that because we've done it well that the glittering prizes of leadership will be ours. But that's not how it turns out."
Look beyond the team
The 'jobs for mates' mentality has long been blamed for a lack of women on boards.
In sport, such a mentality can and has been especially prevalent where players, ex-players, parents of players and long-time passionate supporters can form emotional and unbreakable bonds.
Such networks are important, but they shouldn't take away from the mix of diverse skills needed when dealing with the business of sport.
According to women contacted by Women's Agenda who sit on prominent sports boards, the work needs to start in the boardroom. It's still a cultural shift that needs to be pursued – one that sees sporting communities broaden their outlook on what's required from a board member.
"Whether you're talking about ASX-listed organisations, or sporting organisations, a lot of the hurdles facing women are the same," says Ralph. "It's the combination of women not necessarily putting themselves forward, and the existing board not casting the net wide enough."
Harris says there's no need to appoint women due to their gender alone. "I don't think anybody should be selected on what gender they are, or what state they come from. I think what has to be clearly defined are the skills the board is looking for," she says. "Once you know what that is, and you keep in mind what the skills should be, and you have women on the selection process, you'll get a better proportion of women."
Basketball Australia director Gillian McFee says sports boards and the sports they represent are better when they appoint directors beyond their own communities, and even limit the number of ex-players involved. "While that's really important to have people who understand the craft of the sport, I think we do need to recognise that sport is about business, it's about entertainment. There are some very strategic issues in sport, particularly around the convergence of media and strategic communications ... With good strategy and execution of strategy, the quality of the performance of the sport will improve."
Andrea Slattery, the first women appointed to the board of the South Australian Cricket Association, says that boards need to better recognise how a broader mix of skills can aid the governance of an organisation, referring to her own appointment as bringing membership skills to SACA that it had previously been unable to tap. "They were looking for governance [experience], for strategy, they were looking for people who had an understanding of cricket and they were looking for somebody with the capacity to make decisions.
"That sort of search opens up more opportunities to everybody too, not just women," adds Slattery.
Getting women involved in the selection process was a key point raise by all the women on sports boards contacted for information on what more should be done.
"Formalise the selection process so that you start to look outside your known universe, and do things like making sure a woman's actually on the selection committee," says Ralph. "You will uncover talent in places you didn't previously know."
Some women go further and suggest, as Claire Braund from Women on Boards wrote in Women's Agenda recently, that sporting boards adopt targets. Braund has urged the Australian Sports Commission to set a 40% target of women on the boards of National Sporting Organisations in order to better represent funding and female sporting achievements.
But women must play their part in the game too. "Suggest other women," says Harris when asked what those already on boards can do to help. "Every time somebody rings and asks me to join a board and I can't do it, I give them the names of three other women.
"I find it astounding when people say, 'We just don't know anybody'."