Sports are on notice to significantly up their game on equality for women and girls under a landmark government strategy.

And to give them an incentive, Sport New Zealand has committed to spend at least $10 million over the next three years on initiatives that will enable more women and girls to “realise their potential in, and through, sport and active recreation”.

In return, sports organisations will have to make changes – like closing the pay gap between men and women, and meeting diversity targets in leadership set by the government.

One of the most tangible targets is that by 2021 every sports board in New Zealand – from national to local – must be made up of a minimum 40 percent women, or it could impact on the sport’s funding.

Media coverage of sport also comes under the spotlight, with the portrayal of women and girls in sport to be monitored through a frequent media audit.

It’s all part of Sport Minister Grant Robertson’s pledge to make women and girls his number one priority in the sport and recreation portfolio.

Announced by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern this morning – on the International Day of the Girl – the Women and Girls in Sport and Active Recreation strategy focuses on three themes: leadership, participation, and values and visibility; areas where Robertson believes the most change can be made.

“I think the time’s right. I get the sense it’s the direction the sporting sector is heading in, and this was the moment to do this. By and large, sporting bodies are going to welcome this, because it sets goals and targets,” Robertson says.

“We’re going to be reporting on this, so no one will be able to hide from it. Monitoring of media coverage, the pay gap, and the level of investment from funding agencies into women’s sport.

“If Sport NZ hadn’t decided to put the $10 m behind the strategy, it would be harder to drive it through.”   

Sport NZ, which drew up the strategy after consulting sports organisations and groups, has given a broad outline of how the funding – additional to its annual budget – will be divvied up over the next three years.

It includes increasing the involvement of women and girls at all levels of sport and active recreation, expanding the number of women in sports leadership roles, aiming for parity with men in both pay and funding investment, and improving the media coverage of women and girls in sport.

“We’re doing this because it’s the right thing to do,” says Peter Miskimmin, CEO of Sport New Zealand.

The major leadership goal is to have more women in decision-making roles – coaching, management and governance. And there will be emphasis, too, on increasing the number of Maori and Pasifika women leaders.

Six years ago, Sport NZ and the NZ Olympic Committee set a target to have 40 percent women averaged across all boards in national sports organisations by 2020. But a Sport NZ workforce survey last year across the country’s sports organisations found governance was just 27 percent female.

Now each sports board – national, regional or local – will be challenged to meet the target of a minimum 40 percent by 2021. The same gender target applies to management teams in sports.

It will be a subject for discussion in Sport NZ’s investment decision rounds in 2020 – failing to reach those numbers could affect their funding.

“If they want to be part of Sport NZ, they have to play the game,” Robertson says. “Sport NZ have the funding levers and that’s important to acknowledge. In leadership, targets will be agreed and set through the 2020 strategy and investment process. We’re serious about this commitment we’re making.”

NZ Cricket have set the tone by increasing their national board from 11 percent to 44 percent female members.  While they were forced to make changes after an internal report highlighted a crisis for the women’s game, they’ve seen the immediate benefits in governance, Robertson says. “When you talk to some fairly hard-bitten [male] characters, they’ll say they’re now making better decisions with diversity at the table.”

The diversity goals in this strategy aren’t just around gender, with recognition of more Māori and Pasifika women in leadership roles. Data from 2012 showed of the 24 percent women directors on national sporting organisations (NSOs), only 1.6 percent were Māori and none were Pasifika.

The plan is to invest in more leadership programmes, and improve the experiences for women and girls in coaching.

Only 30 percent of high performance coaches in this country are women. It’s a problem highlighted in Phillipa Muir’s review of NZ Football, where pathways for female football coaches to progress to national roles were found to be lacking.  

“The development of Newsroom site LockerRoom provides a new platform to showcase our women athletes, coaches and leaders, and helps provide the visibility they deserve.”

– Grant Robertson

In terms of participation, the aim is to make more opportunities available to women and girls and ensure they are “safe, appropriate and empowering”.

A Sport NZ study this year found women and girls spend 12 percent less time on average participating in sport or active recreation than males. Yet more females want to participate than males.

Barriers to participation are significantly higher for females, who worry about feeling judged, unsafe or not confident, and who want to fit activities around other commitments.

Sport NZ will develop a fund for organisations to invest in programmes which engage women and girls to be more active. That would apply to projects like HERA – Everyday Goddess, run by Aktive in Auckland; as an example, they take high school girls who are uncomfortable around water, and offer them female-only swimming activities.

Pay equity remains a significant issue for sportswomen, and while sports like football, rugby and cricket have made strides in the past year, many other codes are lagging.

“We all understand clicking our fingers won’t make it happen immediately, but we need to keep driving the conversation,” Robertson says. “The work NZ Football did on their pay equity deal was amazing. I think success will be measured by a steady and strong improvement in the support for elite women athletes.”  

Sport NZ will also press for fair investment from government, community, gaming and lotteries funding.

Media coverage is an area Robertson believes substantial progress can be made for women.

In the strategy document, he gives kudos to LockerRoom, now seven months old: “…the development of Newsroom site LockerRoom provides a new platform to showcase our women athletes, coaches and leaders, and helps provide the visibility they deserve.”

While it’s acknowledged there’s been an increase in the media coverage of female sport, it’s still substantially less than what males receive. There’s also the hurdle of stereotypes in media to overcome: “Male athletes are referred to as masterminds, fast and strong; female athletes are married, unmarried or mothers,” Robertson says.

Sport NZ will monitor and publish a media audit and social media index related to the portrayal of women girls in the media. Research by University of Auckland professor Toni Bruce revealed online news coverage of the Rio Olympics from a major NZ media site dedicated 28 percent of its Olympic coverage solely to women, and just over 43 percent solely to men.

They’ll also look at ways of generating more media content focused on women’s sport and recreation.

Money will be invested in the International Working Group on Women and Sport, being run in New Zealand for the next four years. In 2022, Auckland will host the IWG conference, a significant summit of around 1000 world sporting leaders aiming to make a positive difference for women and girls in sport around the globe.

The successful bid by Women in Sport Aotearoa [WISPA] for the IWG secretariat was a catalyst for this strategy, Robertson says. It’s his idea to hold an annual event for women in sport building up to 2022.  

Robertson is also excited about the Champions of Change programme, to encourage all these changes for women and girls. “We need advocates for change at every level, so we need men, women, and NSOs putting their hands up and saying ‘I’m going to support this’. Other leaders – like former male sports stars and administrators – and people like me who want to step up,” he says.

The strategy was not solely created for Sport NZ to implement. “It’s a strategy everyone can contribute to – anyone with an interest in improving leadership, participation, value and visibility of women and girls in sport,” says Robertson.

“It’s 2018, so we should be doing this. I made this made my top priority, and I’m really grateful to Sport NZ for embracing that and doing the work to develop this.

“But this is actually about a couple of generations of women who have pushed and fought for recognition in the sporting arena, and possibly didn’t get to see that in their active time. Someone like [Dame] Lois Muir who created an incredible profile around her sport [netball].

“I’m proud to have taken a leadership role, but actually this is off the shoulders of women who’ve been doing this for a very long time, and still are.”

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

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