In the first of a series on Kiwi women at the top of sport, Suzanne McFadden talks to Raewyn Lovett, the lawyer leading a global movement for the betterment of women and sport.

Early Monday morning, in the heart of Botswana, Auckland lawyer Raewyn Lovett was handed the weighty baton she will carry for the next eight years – to help empower women around the world through sport.

Symbolically it was a baton, but in reality it was a flag – the ensign of the International Working Group on Women and Sport – which was placed in Lovett’s competent hands.

The flag will fly over Auckland in 2022, when New Zealand hosts the IWG conference, a significant summit of around 1000 sporting leaders aiming to make a positive difference for women and girls in sport around the globe. 

Lovett now begins her stint as co-chair of the IWG secretariat, as Botswana’s four-year tenure comes to an end. She will also continue with her day job, as a commercial lawyer with Duncan Cotterill, and with the myriad boards she sits on.

While New Zealand is lauded as a leader in empowering women and advancing sport, Lovett believes it’s crucial to make clear to the rest of the world over the next four years that “there is still work to be done for women in sport in New Zealand”.

“It’s easy for us to potentially sit there and look as though we’re doing all the right things, because we have a lot of opportunities for a lot of women. We’re very proud of the fact that in New Zealand we have female Prime Ministers, judges and Governor Generals. But when you chip away at the reality for women and girls in sport, it doesn’t paint the same picture,” Lovett says.

“We can’t go out there and say ‘Hey we’ve got this thing sorted, we’ll just let you know what we’re doing’. Because, while we know we’re making an effort to do these things, and there’s recognition of the need to do it, I think we have a long way to go.

“We still do not provide an equal platform for our women and girls.”

Lovett acknowledges New Zealand is making major steps forward to ensure our sports organisations have more balanced governance. She was an integral part of that movement – starting her governance career in 2005 on the board of Netball New Zealand, where she was chair for seven years.

“There’s been increased focus on providing good leadership opportunities for women, and we’re starting to see the benefit of that. We now have women leaders who are highly regarded around the world – women like Susie Simcock, Kereyn Smith and Maria Clarke,” she says. “That has laid the framework for what we’re now trying to do.”

Determine the future: be part of the change was the theme of the latest IWG conference in Botswana’s capital, Gabarone, over the weekend. A healthy cluster of New Zealand women sports leaders were there alongside Lovett – including Smith, the CEO of the New Zealand Olympic Committee, and Julie Paterson, co-chair of Women in Sport Aotearoa (WISPA), which will run the secretariat.

On the programme each day (which would begin with a session of aerobics or Zumba), experts presented on the universal issues of gender equality, promoting physical exercise for women, preventing and combating sexual abuse in sport and developing female leaders.

There were also sessions on “Rugby as a tool to empower girls and young women in Uganda”, “How to get women safely to training in Afghanistan” and “Exclusion in sports: experiences of young female deaf netball players in Botswana.”

South Africa’s Olympic middle-distance champion Caster Semenya – who’s at the centre of a storm around IAAF’s move to impose limits on testosterone limits on women runners – was among the panellists. “Every day I wake up and look in the mirror… I see an incredible person,” she told her audience.

While Botswana concentrated on the advancement of women and sport in Africa, New Zealand will take the lead on making inroads across Oceania. 

“Our main themes are around leadership, social change, capability in knowledge, and value in visibility and participation,” says Lovett, who was a founding member of WISPA. “We’ll be focusing on the next generation of leaders in girls and women in sport. But we don’t want to limit what we can achieve to just New Zealand.

“We’ll look to partner with different organisations to deliver those things – tertiary institutions around capability in knowledge, community groups like Aktive [Auckland Sport and Recreation] in participation. There are a lot of people out there already doing great things, so we want to utilise their skills.

“The philosophy of WISPA is to leave a legacy once the conference is over, a central point that revolves around women in sport.”

International Working Group for Women and Sport co-chair Raewyn Lovett. Photo: Suzanne McFadden 

Lovett, who’s 57 and has two children in university, is a prime example of a woman who’s benefitted from a lifetime involved in sport.

Growing up in Ashburton, she was sporty “in the way that farming kids have to be sporty”, she says. “You had to have a sport for summer and one for winter, because you had to be out of the house.”

She opted for netball and tennis.

She continued playing netball while studying law at the University of Canterbury. “I was playing for a local team in Ashburton on weekends, because of the sense of community and belonging that you get,” she says.

Her first taste of governance at Netball New Zealand gave her an understanding of the positive role sport can play in personal development. “Through that I recognised leadership qualities I hadn’t seen in myself,” says Lovett, who was also on the board that established the ANZ Championship trans-Tasman netball league.

“That’s where sport really appeals to me. You’re working with so many people ambitious for the betterment of their sport, or their environment or community.  That tends to be the type of governance roles I’ve taken – looking to give back to a community in some form.”

Lovett is the chair of Aktive, and chair of selectors for Triathlon NZ. She’s also chair of both Quotable Value and Dunedin Venues Management, and is on the board of CHT Healthcare which operates rest homes, and a trustee for Medicine Mondiale – Sir Ray Avery’s trust that provides developing countries with cheaper access to medical technology.

That’s a lot of meetings. “I have a very good diary,” she says.

The co-chair of IWG is not a role she ever imagined she’d take on. “But then, I’ve never been much of a planner,” she says.

“I knew WISPA were putting in a bid to host the IWG conference and secretariat. When an email went out asking who would be interested in helping, I said ‘Look I’m interested, but the chances of me being able to help are pretty slim’.” They found the ideal way she could help out.

For Lovett, it’s an eight-year responsibility. It’s like a baton pass in a relay, but the last runner stays beside you for the first half of your leg. When the Auckland conference is over, she will assist the co-chair of the next host nation for four years.

“It’s a great time to be involved. Awareness is up around women in sport, and I’m really looking forward to getting an international perspective on that,” she says. “And I’ll really enjoy working with fabulous women, to make a difference for other women and girls.”

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

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