Sports Minister Grant Robertson has made women in sport his top priority. He tells Suzanne McFadden what needs to change to bring gender equality to New Zealand’s sporting arenas.

A former rugby player, Grant Robertson cannot speak first-hand about what it’s like to be a woman playing sport in New Zealand; but he can speak on behalf of his step-daughter.

She was a talented schoolgirl netball player, the Sport and Recreation Minister says, but she “drifted out” of the sport in her teenage years.

“A lot of it was around when her sport was being organised, how was it being organised, and whether the way it was done was being understood,” Robertson says. “She’s a young mum now and she’s found her way back into sport using whanau to support her. But she’s a good example of how we need to organise opportunities around our young women.”

Doing more to support girls and women to participate, achieving pay equity for female athletes, and elevating more women into leadership roles are all part of Robertson’s commitment to make women within sport the “No.1 priority” in his sport portfolio.  

“One of the reasons we should prioritise it is that we have a real opportunity here. We have some great women in sport in New Zealand and it’s a matter of capitalising on and catalysing that,” he says.

“If I was starting from zero, I would be really pessimistic that we could do anything. But actually I think that we can. And if we don’t, we are really letting ourselves down.”

“Sport is at the heart of our national identity, and if we allow sports not to value women properly, and sexism to become rife, then that becomes central to our national identity – and none of us want that”

– Sports Minister Grant Robertson

Central to seeing these goals through is New Zealand’s hosting of the International Working Group for Women and Sport (IWG) over the next four years. Having helped win the bid, the government has designated $300,000 towards the running of the IWG secretariat from September this year, through to the 2022 conference in Auckland. As Kereyn Smith, the CEO of the New Zealand Olympic Committee sees it, “the four-year lead up will give us the focus, the international connections and influence we need to up our game.”

“We need to use this to think ‘how do we learn from the international communities, and what are the legacies we want to leave around women in sport’?” Robertson says. “I don’t have the answers to that now, but organisations like WISPA [Women in Sport Aotearoa] are critical in driving that agenda, so it is owned by women and the sporting communities.

“Over the next four years we have a huge opportunity to bring a focus to [women in sport], draw these issues out and find long-term solutions for them.”

Robertson wants to make progress for women at all points along the sporting spectrum.

At one end, there’s participation. “We know that the number of girls in sport drops off more quickly than for boys at each transitional stage: from primary to secondary school, from secondary school to out into the world. We need to look at the programmes we are running in schools, at the way clubs are organised, and how we promote and organise sport,” he says.

“There have been some great programmes in the UK around celebrating physical activity by women. You don’t need to be a superwoman, a super-athlete, to be physically active. Encouraging participation is a huge element of this.”

A 2016 Ministry of Health survey found 44.5 percent of New Zealand’s adult women were physically active (compared to 51 percent of men).

At the other end of the spectrum, the Minister wants to see New Zealand’s elite female athletes valued more highly. “I mean that from a financial sense – what they are paid, their commercialisation. Just generally the way we value and promote them,” he says. He’s just launched the Kate Sheppard Cup, football’s new premier women’s national knockout competition. “They have rebranded, put more money behind it and given it more prominence. We need to see more of that.”

And then Robertson wants to encourage more women into sporting administrative and leadership roles. “We know that a lot of women end up organising the engine room of the club, but are they actually progressing to being on the committee?” he asks.

Statistics show those numbers are slowly rising – around 35 percent of board members on national sports organisations are female, with the target 40 percent by 2020. In 2016, there were just four sports in New Zealand without women on their boards.

But women in key leadership roles within sporting bodies are still sorely lacking. Massey University research last year found females were outnumbered in management or leadership roles in more than 60 percent of the country’s national and regional sports organisations.

Robertson, who coached cricket and rugby teams at King’s High School in Dunedin, also knows the importance of enticing more women to coach.

“Sport is at the heart of our national identity, and if we allow sports not to value women properly, and sexism to become rife, then that becomes central to our national identity – and none of us want that,” he says.

“Obviously the government can’t do this on its own – it’s more about supporting national sporting organisations, the regional sports trusts and the schools to really push it out. Sport NZ have a programme of work they want to develop and that’s the lever I get to pull as Minister of Sport. But it’s also up to the national sporting codes to take this seriously.”

The IWG could be the driver that’s been missing in women’s sport in New Zealand.

Women in Sport Aotearoa, an advocacy group established exactly a year ago, will lead the delivery of the IWG secretariat and conference, with Raewyn Lovett the secretariat chair. The Auckland lawyer, a partner at Duncan Cotterill, has held many governance roles, including former chair of Netball New Zealand. The steering group will come from WIPSA, the NZOC, Sport NZ and ATEED.

While Kereyn Smith says sports in New Zealand must use this opportunity to become more relevant and sustainable, she also believes other nations already see New Zealand as a leader in redressing the imbalance that women in sport face.

“We are a country that has more evidence of progress in a lot of areas. The participation of girls in sport, while behind boys, is probably still higher than in many countries. The leadership of women in governance is improving, and we have more women athletes performing at the elite level,” she says.

The number of female high-performance athletes has made a sizeable leap forward in recent years. In New Zealand Olympic teams over the last three Olympiads, sportswomen have increased from 30 percent of the team, to half at the 2016 Rio games (100 women, 99 men). The results were even more in females’ favour – 61 percent of the medals were won by women.

In the final stages of selection for New Zealand’s Commonwealth Games team competing on the Gold Coast next month, there are 79 sportswomen and 88 sportsmen. While another 75 athletes are to be added, the ratio is likely to remain the same.

But the low number of women in executive positions and women progressing into high-performance coaching are among the many areas that are still of concern.

“By 2022, I’d like to see more clarity and evidence that we’ve made changes – with strategies to keep young teenage girls in sport, to encourage more female coaches and have more female leaders populating New Zealand sport. I’d like to think the world would look at us and see us walking the talk,” Smith says.

Smith had a hand in the genesis of the IWG 25 years ago. She was working at the Hillary Commission (now Sport New Zealand), which held a Women in Sport conference in Wellington in 1993, to celebrate a century of women’s suffrage. “It was New Zealand starting to think what are the issues for women in sport, and how do we deal with them?” she says.

“We had global speakers, from the UK, the US and Canada, and after the conference I took them out on a yacht on Wellington Harbour. We were drinking champagne and got talking and said: ‘We really should be doing more about this, let’s form a working group’.” From there emerged the first world conference on Women and Sport in Brighton in 1994, and the beginning of the IWG.

For the next four years, New Zealand will oversee the Brighton and Helsinki Declarations on Women in Sport. At that first conference, the Brighton Declaration was drawn up, with the aim of developing a sporting culture “that enables and values the full involvement of women in every aspect of sport”. It has been signed by more than 400 sports bodies around the world.

Its 10 principles – which include equity and equality, developing women’s participation and leadership in sport – were aimed at government and sports organisations to help advance and empower women in sport around the world. While they’re still relevant today, the principles were updated at the Helsinki conference in 2014.

The IWG believes that, through its work, positive changes have been made for women in sport in the last quarter of a century. The body reports that it has seen significant growth in the “understanding of barriers and dynamics which prevent girls and women from full participation and achievement in sport and physical activity”; and growing evidence of the positive effect sport has on “girls’ and women’s health, well-being, social capital and educational engagement and achievement”.  

The ball is now in New Zealand’s court to ensure those changes for women around the world continue.

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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