New Zealand may be making historic strides ahead for women and girls in sport, but the momentum can’t stop now if equality is to be achieved, says the outgoing head of Sport NZ.
On the eve of standing down as the most powerful figure in New Zealand sport, Peter Miskimmin has a confession to make.
Twelve years ago, when he started out as Sport New Zealand’s CEO, he would have been taken aback to think women and girls in New Zealand sport would become a priority.
“I would have been surprised back then. But this is the right thing to do now, absolutely,” the two-time Olympic hockey player says. “The seeds we are sowing now will bear enormous fruit in the future. It’s really heartening to see the change – but it’s no time for chest beating; it still has a long way to go.
“There are people who’ll say it’s too late and it’s not enough. But hopefully the majority will say it’s good that progress is being made.”
That progress in bringing gender equality to sport, having more girls participating in sport or active recreation, and more women leaders in sport, has been gradual over Miskimmin’s tenure.
He’s witnessed an attitude change and a lot more conversations inclusive of women. There’s been a better focus on needs and wants for women, and more financial investment in an effort to get closer to equity for women and girls.
But most of that has come in the last two years, when the women’s sport movement was given a substantial shove forward by the government’s Women and Girls in Sport and Active Recreation strategy. Launched in October 2018, it came with a commitment from Sport NZ to dish out $12.7m over three years.
Now exactly two years in, not all of the 24 commitments drawn up in the strategy have been actioned. The “vast majority” have had some investment, Miskimmin says, but some have been delayed by the ramifications of Covid-19.
Just 15 percent of editorial sports media mentioned women… 20 percent of sports stories were written by women
Regardless of who’s governing the country after this weekend’s election, that financial commitment won’t change. The funding has come out of Sport NZ’s coffers. But the direction, of course, could alter.
“With any change of government, things can change. But I’d like to think the momentum will not be stopped,” Miskimmin says. “We’re a better community and a better sector for what we’re doing around diversity and inclusion.”
Labour has said it will continue to deliver its strategy for women and girls in sport, as well as “inspire active, healthy and creative children and young people” by rolling out the Healthy Active Learning programme.
National’s spokesperson for sport and recreation, Mark Mitchell, says a National government would “absolutely” support women in sport.
“There will be a huge focus on making sure that women’s sport is supported, and that there’s a continued rise in participation,” says Mitchell, who outlined a voucher system that will give financial assistance to parents to keep their kids in sport.
Sparking new conversations
Some of the actions from the Women and Girls strategy have provoked new, healthier conversations, Miskimmin says. Actions like the mandate for all national sports organisations who receive funding from Sport NZ to have 40 percent gender diversity on their boards by December 2021.
“It’s one of the really good things we did. It created a social conversation that had teeth,” Miskimmin says.
“Now people are making change because it’s the right thing to do – it brings diversity to the table and includes everyone – rather than doing it because they have to. When you start to see that, you know you’re making real change.”
All sports have “shown commitment to it,” he says. He won’t single out sports, but New Zealand Rugby have recently made an improvement – now with two women of nine members on their board. And the female-heavy Netball NZ board has two men of seven.
But as you might expect, there has been some resistance. “There have been people saying ‘Why do we need to do this? Is this right?’ Right down to ‘I don’t think we can find any women’,” Miskimmin says.
“Still, I think those conversations have been good to have. And we’ve seen some really strong male champions of change too.”
Another area of change Miskimmin has been heartened by has come out of the carnage of Covid. When the government granted $4.6m to rescue professional sports franchises back in June, Miskimmin says the requests from sports surprised him.
“The really exciting thing was that the conversations I had with each of the national sporting bodies wasn’t ‘This is what we want for the men, and by the way, can we have some for the women?’ It was ‘We have men and women, and this is what we want to do’,” he says.
“This was a very different conversation than we would have had two or three years ago. I think our sports leaders aren’t seeing sportswomen as an add-on now.”
In the headlines
The media monitor promised in the ‘value and visibility’ pillar of the strategy reported its first results at last week’s Sport NZ Women + Girls Summit.
Just 15 percent of editorial sports media mentioned women, according to the study carried out over the past 12 months to August this year (skipping March-June because there was no sport played). While that statistic is still poor, it’s around 5 percent up on previous studies in New Zealand.
A 2018 Unesco report found globally only 4 percent of sports coverage in the media is devoted to women.
In other interesting findings in the Sport NZ study, 20 percent of sports stories were written by women; 69 percent of women’s sports coverage was driven by results; and 43 percent of media commentary praises the performance of female athletes (compared to 32 percent for men).
And in a reversal since a media study after the 2016 Olympics, 21 percent of women commented on their own performance – rather than a male coach or partner speaking on their behalf – compared to 15 percent of men.
“The media monitor will provide great intelligence on how women and girls are portrayed in the media, and what their share of voice is,” Miskimmin says.
Sports will now take part in a diversity and inclusion survey: “looking at whether people feel included or not, do they have a voice, and what are the barriers they face.”
The three women’s World Cup events to be held in New Zealand over the next three years – in cricket, rugby and football – and the International Working Group on Women & Sport conference in Auckland in 2022, will be a huge fillip for the visibility of women in sport here.
“They will put women and women’s sport at the forefront of social and political conversations. They are such wonderful opportunities to leverage off,” says Miskimmin.
A culture shock
Things, of course, are not all rosy in women’s sport in New Zealand. A growing number of sports organisations – from hockey and gymnastics, to cycling and football – have come under investigation for the treatment of their female athletes over the last few years.
Surely, it must worry Miskimmin how many sports have been put under the spotlight around issues concerning the welfare of sportswomen?
“Absolutely. What I think we’re seeing is a shift in social expectation about what is acceptable and what’s not,” he says.
“I grew up in a world where you got barked at a lot, and you accepted it. Today, quite rightly, our athletes – especially young women – don’t accept that anymore and nor should they.
“I think we’re taking a while to adjust to that, ensuring we have good culture, good practices, good reporting. And that our athletes have the confidence to put their hand up without fear of retribution and say: ‘What we’re experiencing is not right’. I don’t think we’re there yet.
“But this is all about transitioning to a new way of operating, and that can’t happen overnight.”
‘No’ to the status quo
Nearly $100m of the $265m sports recovery package the Minister of Sport, Grant Robertson, delivered back in May has been spent so far.
Some of it has been in immediate relief to help sports clubs survive; some has been poured into new programmes, like Tū Manawa Active Aotearoa, which funds projects delivering active recreation and sport to young people.
“It has particular emphasis on those missing out, our young rangatahi, our teenage girls,” Miskimmin says. “Everything we do now is through those lenses.”
Championing gender equality through the recovery and rebuild phase of the funding hand-out has also been a priority. Sports have been told there won’t be any investment in the “status quo” – they must come up with changes towards a more diverse and sustainable future, Miskimmin says.
Into the future
A new CEO to replace Miskimmin, who finishes in two months, has yet to be made – but there’s no reason why it can’t be a woman.
There’s been speculation it could be Raelene Castle, the former Netball NZ and Canterbury Bulldogs CEO who stepped down from heading Rugby Australia back in April. She’s been helping Sport NZ as an independent advisor to the ‘strengthen and adapt’ phase of the Covid relief package.
“Anyone with the right skillset could do this job. If that was a woman, it would be wonderful,” Miskimmin says. “What I know is we have a board who are absolutely passionate about diversity and inclusion.” (Sport NZ’s board, incidentally, has more women than men).
As he leaves Sport NZ’s Wellington offices for the last time on December 11 – in what direction he’s unsure of – Miskimmin wants to see the momentum for women and girls in sport carry on.
“All of the seeds that we’ve sown, all the changes we are promoting and trying to influence, they’re going to take time. This needs to continue to play out,” he says.
“We want our girls in New Zealand to participate, stay participating, dream of being part of sport; to be strong leaders and advocates and be able to realise their desires and ambitions without the barriers that past generations have had.”