#Breakthebias – Women in Sport.
This year the theme of International Women’s Day is #breakthebias, it’s also a big year for women in sport with the Winter Olympics, Commonwealth Games and the Women’s Rugby and Cricket World Cups. To celebrate both these events and to showcase our Kiwi sporting wahine we spoke to Commonwealth Games Federation CEO Katie Sadleir and Former Football Ferns Captain and Crux Sport CEO Bex Smith about how they have had to #breakthebias during their rise though their respective sporting careers.
Katie Sadleir’s whole life has revolved around sport, it’s not so much a job but part of who she is. She took up synchronised swimming at age eight, and after moving to New Zealand in her teens, she went on to represent Aotearoa in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh where she won a bronze medal.
After she retired from synchronised swimming in her early 20’s, Katie became involved in the governance and leadership side of sport, taking up a board position with the New Zealand Swimming Federation. She was not only the youngest member of the board but also the only woman.
“Taking that board position was definitely challenging. As an athlete I had been more or less immune to gender bias because I was competing in a traditionally female sport and also I was so focused on my own training and competitions. When I took the role on the board I was suddenly very conscious of the fact that my approach to leadership was very different, both because of my age and my gender. I do remember feeling that I was probably a bit more in touch with some of the people I was there to govern, after all I was the only woman on the board but I represented around 50% of the population.”
For former Football Ferns captain Bex Smith, her first realisation of gender bias within sport came around the time she signed her first professional contract. Growing up between New Zealand and the US, Bex had always played football and never thought of it as a sport for one particular gender, however when she moved to Europe she realised that wasn’t the case everywhere.
“When I moved to Germany to play my first professional contract, I found out they had two different names for football, fussball or football which was the men’s game and frauen fussball or women’s football which was the women’s game. It was the first time I ever heard it separated like that and I thought it was ridiculous. You don’t ask people if they play women’s football you just ask if they play football, it’s the same game! This was a country that had the best women’s team in the world, they had just won the World Cup, but the sport was still seen as a game for men.”
During their respective careers both Katie and Bex have gone out of their way to try and break the bias for those who have come after them. Before her becoming the first female CEO of the Commonwealth Games Federation, Katie held the position of General Manager for Women’s Rugby at World Rugby where she often found herself calling out unconscious bias.
“At the end of the day there are perceptions of what skills and capabilities people bring into organisations based on who they are and yes based on their gender. We all have a responsibility to work to remove that unconscious bias that exists in people’s minds. During my role at World Rugby I did a lot of work mentoring women around the world, and there still exists this idea that while women may have a place in boardrooms or other management areas, their responsibility is to still look after women’s stuff. When I was working for World Rugby I worked hard to change that perception. I think it’s still our responsibility to call that out.”
For Bex the prevalence of bias within women’s football and the opportunity to change that is one of the driving factors that has kept her involved in the sport. During her playing career she captained the Football Ferns to two Olympic Games and played for a number of international teams. She has since worked for FIFA, UEFA and COPA90 across marketing, media, strategy and event planning roles. Most recently she started her company Crux Sports, which supports athletes by helping them understand their brand and marketing opportunities. She also works to share stories and news about female athletes in a bid to raise their profiles. She sees huge opportunities for growth within women’s football.
“Fans are waking up and people are starting to understand the injustices in sport. It’s become not ok to ignore these topics that are really important to women. There is a lot of social pressure to change. But this change has to take place at the top, within the governing bodies. The money has been pumped into men’s sport, has made it bigger and better, and that in turn has attracted more money. That same attitude needs to be applied to women’s sport. We need to grow the support and break the cycle of women’s teams being treated so differently to men’s teams. It’s time to invest in women and it’s a really good business investment because at the end of the day it’s 50% of the population.”
Both Katie and Bex agree that things are starting to improve and feel that as leaders they have a responsibility to pave the way for those who come after them. For Bex, it’s about sharing the stories of female athletes, coaches, managers and leaders to give the next generation inspiration and role models to look up to.
“Role models are so important, it’s how we give people the belief they can do it as well. There is a lot of hard work and effort that comes with breaking biases. It’s draining and demeaning and frustrating and tiring. Women that head down that path make a lot of sacrifices and I take my hat off to each and every one of them. It’s so important to have those role models though, people need to see someone do it ahead of them, and then that gives them the belief that they can do it as well and that is how we will create real change.”
After more than thirty years in leadership roles Katie says she’s seen a big evolution of women in sports leadership positions and she’s happy to see a female appointment become the norm rather than the exception.
“When I look at the evolution of women in leadership positions, say for example in rugby, there are now far more chief executives of rugby and it’s no longer a big story when a woman is coaching a mens team. I’m absolutely committed to paving the way for others and I’m happy to be in that kind of position but I always want to make sure I bring people with me, whether that’s women who work with me or women who govern with me. I’m happy to break down barriers to make sure that other people can come with me on this journey.”
And Katie says part of bringing people with you is being able to show them that it’s okay to call out biases, no matter how small, even if it doesn’t always make you popular.
“I have been in many situations when I have had to call out bias and it can be awkward. Just recently we were doing a big piece of work for women and the company coming in to do it assembled a team of all men. I had to say ‘look I’m sorry guys, you have women who work for you in these roles they need to be on this team.’ There are still these situations where people don’t realise where they have gone wrong. I am the person who comes into the room and points it out and questions it and some men roll their eyes at that. However I believe when you are in a leadership position, it’s really important to not let those things go unsaid, so I will continue to ask those questions no matter how many eyes roll.”
Katie and Bex were both part of a panel discussion to mark International Women’s Day. The event, was hosted in London, by Kea and the New Zealand Business Women’s Network, also featured Olympic equestrian Jonelle Price and Rugby star Sene Naoupu.