A high-powered group of female sporting stars is toiling away behind the scenes to change the face of sport in New Zealand. Steve Deane reports.

Appointment panels will feature females, clearly-defined maternity leave provisions will become mandatory, and access to female medical staff will be the norm.

These are just three examples of how elite sport in New Zealand will be shaped by the views of female athletes as we head into a bold new era featuring female pro leagues and major global events across previously male-dominated codes.

These recommendations – and many others – come from a working group of high-powered Kiwi sporting women established by the Athletes’ Federation earlier this year. Some of the measures are already a reality; others are close to becoming so.

New Zealand Rugby player contracts, for example, now include maternity provisions, such as funding for a travelling caregiver if a player returning from giving birth is nursing an infant upon their return to play.

And the Athletes’ Federation – the umbrella union that has branched out from the New Zealand professional rugby and cricket players’ associations into a myriad of athletic arenas – is likely to make the mandatory inclusion of at least one woman on high performance appointment panels part of future collective bargaining rounds with national sports organisations (NSOs).

The moves are part of a drive to discern what female athletes operating at the coalface of elite sport actually want from their various environments – and push on to have them implemented.

The work is designed to complement that of other groups such as Women in Sport Aotearoa (WISPA) and the Sport NZ women in governance push.

“A lot of that is around management and governance,” says Athletes’ Federation representative Steph Bond. “What I have seen from being in some of those forums is that there is this gap around what do female athletes actually need within their environments to be successful?

“What we initially looked to do was bring in a cross-section of athletes, both current and past, and individuals and from teams, and get their feedback on where they feel the gaps are. It was really important this was driven by them.”

The turning of words into action has already begun. Much of the next phase will be dedicated to research that can be used in future negotiations with sporting bodies, says Bond.

“When we start working in with other groups to try to effect change, we’ll have some real data and evidence behind us.”

The shared experiences of the group were what immediately stood out to Football Fern Sarah Gregorius.

“It was interesting when we first caught up as a group how many experiences were shared across the different codes,” Gregorius says. “There’s obviously the fight for equality and equity, but there are matters like males coaching in a female environment, what is an appropriate ratio for staff, and different medical considerations.

“It was really interesting to listen and go ‘oh whoa, we are not alone’. That is so cool – and also inspiring and empowering. And there is obviously a need for a collective voice on these issues.”

Part of the function of the group is to help empower and prepare female athletes to ascend to governance after their playing careers – and be fully informed as to what is required of them when they get there.

But, equally, it is about effecting meaningful change for athletes here and now.

“Governance is a couple of steps away from the coal face,” says Gregorious, whose professional football career has taken her to England with glamour club Liverpool as well as Germany and Japan.

“If I’ve learned anything the last couple of years, it’s the necessary steps to make life at the coalface a hell of a lot easier.”

Understandably given the Andreas Heraf debacle, the matter of suitable coaches being appointed is close to Gregorius’ heart. And it’s not simply an issue of having a female coach – athletes want the best coach regardless of gender. But they also want a say in the appointment process, and some surety that the person who lands the job will be equipped to be effective in a female environment.

“You want the best coach but, in order to have the best coach, it is not just about the technical and tactical things. It is about is there enough support for that individual to work with Kiwi athletes, female Kiwi athletes, and try to bring out the best in them? Cultural difference is a very real thing. There is that disconnect and it does create difficulties.”

Four-sport international Tammi Wilson-Uluinayau, describes the group as an exciting opportunity that is “probably long overdue”

“The climate is – I don’t know whether ‘right’ is the word to use here – but there is a real appetite to encourage more women into leadership roles. We are only too acutely aware of the need,” says Wilson-Uluinayau.

“Irrespective of the sporting code, there are commonalities that we all desire in terms of how we want to be treated, not just as women, but to feel like coaching staff and management are able to get the best out of their athletes.

“We’ve all experienced some, let’s say, challenges along the way – whether that be financial or attitudes and behaviours of others. [The group] is about our willingness to ensure that those coming through don’t have to experience that, or at least have support systems in place.”

Progress is encouraging.

New Zealand Rugby contracts for its Black Ferns and Black Ferns Sevens players now include significant maternity provisions. They cover when athletes need to advise that they are pregnant, the provision of ‘safe’ job options so that pregnant players can see out their contracts, and continued access throughout pregnancy and after childbirth to the services they were entitled to as contracted athletes.

There is also a funding provision for a support person to travel with an athlete who is nursing a toddler.

“There is a lot more support openly wrapped around an athlete now,” says Bond.

Access to a female physician was also viewed as a must by a large proportion of the group.

“From the medical point of view, it felt like what the athletes are saying is that it’s still quite male-centric,” says Bond.

“You go and see your doctor and it is all about you performing. But what they were also saying is that they get no education or advice around family planning, fertility, what training does to your body in terms of being able to have babies, and should you be looking at it earlier in life?

“It’s that conflict with sport. Most sport doctors aligned to a team would try to push you out so you stay part of the team or keep performing as an individual.”

With the advent of female professional leagues across the sportscape, the industry appears to be coming into line with established employment norms.

“It is no different to working in the corporate world, but at least you feel like you have a little bit more support in the corporate world about being able to come back to your job,” says Bond.

“Sport probably still sees it as ‘if you have a baby you are gone and we won’t support you – but if you want to come back in three years and you are ready to be back in the team, we’ll put you back in’. It’s about changing that mindset. Some people actually play a lot better or perform better after they’ve had a baby – just because they get their shit together and are more organised.”

Gregorius sees the maternity issue through a high-performance lens.

“It’s about removing any barriers to having our best talent available. You’ve really got to have policies in place – particularly return-to-play policies and support around childcare when you are away with teams. Because we don’t want to be losing players for that reason. That doesn’t make any sense.

“[This] is going to put a lot of athletes’ minds at ease, which is only going to be a good thing for performance.”

The same applies to access to female medical staff.

“We just want to make sure there are no barriers to people getting medical or physiological attention. Having a female in the environment is really important.”

The presence of a female voice on panels that appoint high performance staff to work with female athletes was also seen as vital by the group.

“I’m a huge supporter of that,” says Gregorius. “You want specialist, sport-specific female expertise when you are making those decisions. And obviously a place to tap into that specialist expertise is through ex-players.

“It’s purely personal, but I think that is so important. They should totally be part of every panel.”

In cases where women weren’t appointed to key roles – as will often be the case in male-dominated arenas – proper support needed to be placed around the male appointees.

“We are not saying you have to have female coaches for female teams because that might not be the right person for the job,” says Bond. “It is around education for those male coaches.”

And what happens when it all goes wrong – as it did with the Football Ferns and Heraf? Being able to turn to others who had shared similar experiences was certainly helpful, says Gregorius.

“The experience that we have been having with the Football Ferns recently has been a bit of a hot topic. But we are not the only code or team that is going through a bit of a cultural review.

“So, to be able to chat to other players and player associations about what they are going through and what the next steps are [was helpful]. The Football Ferns weren’t the first team to go through it and we won’t be the last. Having firm policies and processes around that is really, really critical.”

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