Katie Sadleir on creating social change through sport
Throughout her career, Katie Sadleir has become used to being the only woman in the room. Now in her latest role as the General Manager of Women’s Rugby at World Rugby, she’s using sport to create positive social change for girls and women all over the world. We spoke to Katie about the importance of encouraging diversity, her work with girls in less developed countries and her hopes for the coming year.
Can you tell us a bit about your professional background
I’m currently the General Manager of Women’s Rugby for World Rugby based in Dublin. I moved from Wellington New Zealand to Dublin in January 2017 to take up this newly created role with a vision of Accelerating the Global Development of Women in Rugby.
Prior to this I had a long professional and governance career in New Zealand mostly in senior leadership positions within sport management. I attended Lincoln University studying sport and recreation management and went from there to complete a Masters Degree at Victoria University in Recreation and Leisure Studies. I started my professional sport career with the Hillary Commission for Sport and Recreation, then looked after the investment and performance of high-performance teams and athletes at the New Zealand Sports Foundation.
From there I was appointed as a GM Sport and Performance at the crown entity which is now called Sport New Zealand. My accountabilities within the sport and recreation sector varied from working on improving the capability of national governing bodies through to establishing the New Zealand Academy of Sport which was the precursor to High Performance Sport New Zealand. When I took a hiatus from working in sport, I worked for an extended period at ACC firstly as the General Manager of Injury Prevention and then was the General Manager Corporate Services. From there I went into Economic Development in Wellington and after that did a series of long-term transformational type projects. One incredibly special long-term contract had me involved for two years as the project director to develop Te Auaha in Wellington. I had the privilege to work with passionate leaders within the education and art industries to help to establish this amazing incubator of future creative excellence in the heart of Wellington.
How do you work to use your position as a means to create social change?
World Rugby as an International Federation is a membership based organisation with six regional associations and more than 120 full time member unions. Women in Rugby is the strategic growth area for the game globally and, as such, my role has me working with targeted unions and regions to develop opportunities for girls and women to get involved in the game. In many of these unions/countries involvement in sport provides the opportunity to dramatically improve the current and future quality of life of both individuals and communities. This can be from both a physical and mental wellbeing. Sport can create supportive communities and individual leadership development opportunities. Sport is an agent for social change its often the circuit breaker which in many instances can completely alter a young girl’s career and or life projection. You can see a great example of this by looking at the story of Sweta Shahi from India.
Much of my time is devoted to working to develop women leaders globally supporting them to also support and grow other opportunities for women and girls. We currently have 49 women from 40 plus countries on executive leadership scholarships all with a vision to provide inspirational leadership at the highest level.
Rugby has many strong partnerships with organisations that see the benefit of working with sport for social change. Two of these that immediately come to mind are the long term partnerships with such as ChildFund and rugby unions in Asia and UN Women in working with Oceania Rugby to support women in rugby in Pacific.
What was it like taking on a head role as a woman in what must have been a male-dominated industry at the time?
World Rugby has gone through transformational governance and leadership reform since I arrived in 2017. I remember just after I was appointed I was invited to attend a World Rugby Council meeting in Buenos Aires and several of the 30 male council members commented to me over dinner how unusual it was to have any females in attendance. Whilst gender diversity existed within the actual World Rugby staff based in Ireland, globally from senior leadership and governance perspective women were far and few between. To be honest, I was familiar with this type of work environment as I worked in high Performance Sport for so many years and there were and still are very few women in senior leadership roles working at an elite sport performance level in New Zealand. As the head of the NZ Academy of Sport I was often the only woman in the room.
I arrived at World Rugby at a time that the organisation was ready and committed for change. Rugby and in particular women’s rugby had just had its first global exposure at the Olympics Games in Rio in 2016 and it was a huge success. This Olympic impetus was a catalyst for impressive growth particularly in non-traditional rugby markets. Women’s Rugby in terms of participation was on the rise with significant growth year on year globally (by 2019 there were 9.6million players recorded globally, with female players accounting for 2.7million (28%). By the end of my first year the World Rugby Council adopted a new eight year global strategy to normalise women’s involvement in rugby. One strand of this strategy was to demonstrate inspirational leadership on and off the field and this meant a commitment to drive diversity. In 2017 Council agreed the strategy they also changed the constitution to bring on an additional 17 women council members. This decision led by Sir Bill Beaumont overnight changed the percentage of women on council from 0% to 35%.
How have you pushed for diversity within World Rugby since you began in your role?
This is a core aspect of my role to work with World Rugby the organisation and the world of rugby our members to drive diversity. At an International Federation level we have made incredible progress, following the decision to transform the council representation we also put in place a pipeline programme to develop more women leaders globally. We have now invested close to £500k in 49 women who were currently in senior leadership and or governance roles and identified as having the potential to make a big impact in rugby. Many of these have gone on to take up positions of CEOs, Presidents at Board Directors at a Union, Regional Association and World Rugby Level. We also produced a resource called Balancing the Board which we use with targeted unions to assist them to improve their commitment to diversity. And we are seeing changes, sometimes it’s simply about pointing out the obvious that value comes from diversity of thought.
One area that I feel really passionate about is the work we are doing is coaching. We completed a review of the status of women in coach leadership positions which showed that back in 2017 at the Rugby World Cup in Ireland there was only one union (out of 12) that had a woman in a head coach position and there were less than four women coaches involved in wider coaching teams. Since then we have adopted a holistic set of recommendations aimed at driving diversity in coaching with the premise that the business case for diversity is just as important on the field as it is in the board room.
We now are working with over 100 elite level coaches on a long-term change programme and have put in place a series of interventions working with unions to change the look and feel of coaching. One such an initiative has been the introduction of a Coaching Internship Programme for the RWC which will now take place in New Zealand in 2022. In this case we provided the qualified unions with an additional coaching accreditation on the basis that this must be filled by a woman high-performance coach who is included in the world cup campaign for a 12 month lead period in the lead up to the NZ Event.
Can you talk through the work that you’re doing with girls in countries such as Iran, Syria, Malaysia and Laos?
We have seen impressive growth in the game globally but in particular huge women’s participation growth in Asia and Africa. One of the programmes we launched two years ago was a global integrated marketing campaign called Try and Stop Us. You can find out more about the campaign by going to www.women.rugby. The three-year campaign started with World Rugby working with the Regional Associations to identify a team of inspirational women in rugby who despite some of the challenges that exist for them to play sport embraced the sport of rugby and have been called the Unstoppables.
Two of the original Unstoppables were from Iran and Malaysia. The before and after participation growth following the original campaign were phenomenal with women’s rugby in iran growing from approximately 3,300 to over 10,000 and the number of women in Malaysia growing from approximately 14,300 to 18,000. The campaign has now morphed into World Rugby providing generic resources to enable unions such as Syria and Lao, for example, to identify their own Unstoppables to lift the profile of women in rugby in their countries with the aim of increasing participation and growing awareness of the women’s game. Of note is the fact we have executive leadership scholars from Lao, Syria and Iran all leading the way to grow women’s rugby.
Why do you believe it is so important to use sport to grow pathways and opportunities for women, and how do you scale this up on a global level?
Participation in sport and physical activity develops psychological and physical wellbeing. All girls and women should be given the same opportunities as their male counterparts to realise the benefit of participating and achieving in physical activity. Involvement in sport is character building, it builds a sense of community connection, social support and diverse friendships whilst at the same time creates opportunities for leadership development. I have seen first-hand the power of sport to change people’s lives.
There are so many amazing stories about women who through their involvement in rugby have had life changing situations. Whether it is though programmes that enable young girls to stay, as long as possible, as young girls rather than being teenage brides or it’s where actual participation in a sport defies the stereotypes and cultures in many countries that hold women back from reaching their potential in society. Whilst there is still a long way to go, sport does create a platform for change for women in many countries where life for them is just not fair.
Rugby and its values has the ability to empower woman and girls, both on and off the field. There is something special in the “sisterhood” of this game which goes wider than clubs, regional and national representation. The connection globally of women in rugby I have found incredibly unique and enduring. My role is to work with unions and regions to remove barriers and foster opportunities for young girls to get involved and to support the competitive pathways at the highest level to create inspirational on field performances that capture male and female fan engagement and entice new commercial partners to underpin our strategy.
How has Covid-19 affected your work, including most recently the postponement of the Women’s Rugby World Cup?
I join with the rest of the rugby family to express my sincere sympathy for the disappointed players, coaches and teams feel due to the postponement. This was an incredibly difficult decision to make but it was the right decision for many reasons. This postponement has enabled us to now develop a more comprehensive support package for teams. We announced a minimum of £2m increased investment to target into the preparation of the teams. I know that next year will be phenomenal and it will be great to be able to showcase New Zealand to the wider rugby family, friends and fans that would not have been able to attend the event in New Zealand this year. Covid-19 has affected everyone globally to some extent, however what I can say is that at a global level World Rugby has been 100% committed to increase its support for women in rugby during this time. There has been no cuts to any budget area linked to growing the women’s game and given the growth of women in rugby is a key strategic priority there has been increases in areas such as coaching, competitions, profile and leadership. Whilst the return to play has been challenging in many countries what has been exciting is the focus on lifting the profile of women in rugby both at a leadership level and the rise of the global “Unstoppables”. With the announcement this month of a new global calendar and the launch of a new 16 team three tiered annual competition called WXV the landscape for the future is incredibly positive. During this period we have taken the opportunity to work with unions to think big about how to take the women’s game to the next level.
What are you hopeful for in 2021?
I have been incredibly fortunate this year to be back in New Zealand for an extended period for work which has enabled me to spend quality time with family and friends. But with working Dublin hours on zoom calls till early hours in the morning most nights it’s time to journey back to Ireland. This year from a work perspective despite the RWC 2021 postponement is looking like a huge year. We are at the halfway mark of the eight year plan and it’s time to take stock and look at what have been the big wins, what impact have they had and where do we need to focus more investment and resources going forward. We are on a journey to normalise women’s involvement in rugby on and off the field and we are making inroads but have still much to do. On a personal perspective, I’m looking forward to vaccinations rolling out, borders opening and life for many returning to some sort of normal state where people can embrace their family and friends and meet for a coffee or glass of wine in a pub. For a rest of the world to experience living like it is in New Zealand again.
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