Former sports stars seem thrilled with the Government’s plan to champion equality for women and girls in sport, and the $10 million investment behind it. But there are many hurdles to leap, they tell Suzanne McFadden. 

When world champion track cyclist Alison Shanks stepped straight off her bike and into the boardroom, she was immediately outnumbered.

“For 18 months, I was the only female around the table of both boards,” says Shanks, a director of High Performance Sport NZ and Cycling NZ.

“But now we have more diversity. The conversation changes, and you start to make better decisions.”

Shanks has no doubt that sports boards throughout the country – from clubs to national associations – will be able to meet the Government’s mandate for a minimum of 40 percent women board members by 2021, announced in today’s strategy championing equality for women and girls in sport.

“It’s about having that desire to want to do it. There are fundamental barriers that exist to getting women on boards, around board constitutions and making sure we have diverse board appointment panels,” she says.

“And it’s also about women having the confidence to stand up and say ‘Yes I can do it’. You don’t have to have all 10 criteria; it’s about saying ‘Hey, I can do five of those things and learn the rest along the way’.

“You don’t have to have 20 years of management to make a great contribution at the governance table. It’s actually about bringing your own perspective, and everyone’s perspective is valuable.”

“While $10m is a good start, I think we need much more than that. Let’s face it, how much is pumped into men’s sport in New Zealand? I’m not saying that in a negative light, but women’s sport has a long way to catch up.”

Among the former elite sportswomen gathered at Eden Park for the delivery of Sport Minister Grant Robertson’s blueprint for change, there wasn’t a whisper of discord with the wide-ranging strategy. But then, he was preaching to the converted.

Olympic heptathlete Sarah Cowley Ross agrees with the three pillars put in place – leadership, participation, and value and visibility – as the focus for change.

“What they’ve identified is critical for the success of women and girls in sport. And if they can measure the change, then that will be great,” says Cowley Ross, a recent graduate of the Women’s Sport Leadership Academy, who’s championing the #justwatchus movement.

But she questioned whether the $10m investment committed by Sport New Zealand over the next three years would be enough.

“While $10m is a good start, I think we need much more than that. Let’s face it, how much is pumped into men’s sport in New Zealand? I’m not saying that in a negative light, but women’s sport has a long way to catch up,” Cowley Ross says.

Wisely, the strategy’s focus isn’t completely on athletes – there will be a significant push to get more women and girls involved in active recreation.

“Competition isn’t for everybody, but it doesn’t meant you can’t be active or participate in sport for your wellbeing,” says Olympic gold medallist sailor Polly Powrie, now high performance operations manager at Canoe Racing NZ. “This is a really good start for equity for women in sport, and introducing women to sport too.”  

NZ Cricket, which has been through its own troubles with its women game almost dying, was held up as an example of what can be done – increasing women in governance, playing numbers and pay for its contracted White Ferns.

Out of that, Former Football Fern Dr Michele Cox has become national female participation manager – cricket’s own champion of women and girls in cricket.

“We see good business reasons why we need to go forward with women’s and girls’ cricket. Not because we know it’s the right thing to do, but because we can contribute to the whole game if we build that segment,” Cox says.

She’s confident the Government’s strategy, and Sport NZ’s commitment to actioning much of it, will make a difference – if all sports work together.

“It’s critical that the main sporting umbrella is leading the way. But then as sports organisations and individuals we have to play our part. We can’t just look to Sport NZ and say, ‘You do it all’ – that’s impossible,” she says.

“There’s so much to be gained from sports working together for 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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