Sarah Le­ber­man

Sports re­searcher Sarah Le­ber­man has worked tire­lessly to open up more op­por­tu­ni­ties for women and girls in sport

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In the mid-1980s, as a stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge in Eng­land, Sarah Le­ber­man lived in a women-only col­lege that didn’t have a gym, though the men’s col­leges did. She cam­paigned un­til one was set up. Thirty years later, in Palmer­ston North, the Massey Univer­sity pro­fes­sor no­ticed a Massey Recre­ation Cen­tre ban­ner ad­vo­cat­ing cy­cling only fea­tured men. “I rang and said, ‘We've got men and women at Massey.’” The ban­ner was changed pronto. “I've never been afraid to speak up to make a change.”

Sarah is ar­guably the coun­try’s strong­est ad­vo­cate for gen­der eq­uity in sport. For three decades she has worked tire­lessly to cre­ate more (and bet­ter) op­por­tu­ni­ties for women and girls in sport through her roles as a sports re­searcher, ed­u­ca­tor, ad­min­is­tra­tor, coach, board mem­ber, and re­cently as co-founder of or­gan­i­sa­tion Women in Sports Aotearoa. “I’ve al­ways had a strong sense of so­cial jus­tice and pas­sion for sport,” she says from her small of­fice at Massey Palmer­ston North.

Sarah played hockey while grow­ing up in Ger­many. At 16, she moved to Eng­land to board with fam­ily friends, then did a geog­ra­phy de­gree at Cam­bridge. There, a Kiwi aca­demic on sab­bat­i­cal con­vinced her to do a Mas­ter’s in Recre­ation Ad­min­is­tra­tion at Massey. In 1988 she flew here alone with one back­pack. Af­ter the Mas­ter’s, she be­came a Massey recre­ation of­fi­cer in 1991, and that year was in­stru­men­tal in es­tab­lish­ing Massey’s sport-man­age­ment pro­gramme. Sarah has since largely taught that sub­ject and has been shoul­der-tapped for roles in­clud­ing the busi­ness school’s Deputy Pro Vice-Chan­cel­lor.

De­spite dif­fi­cul­ties in find­ing fund­ing, Sarah has co-au­thored nine in­flu­en­tial re­search pa­pers, and co-au­thored world­first book Women in Sport: Lead­er­ship Re­search and Prac­tice For Change.

Her work has high­lighted press­ing is­sues in women’s sport. A re­search pa­per she coau­thored ear­lier this year found fe­male rep­re­sen­ta­tion in coach­ing Kiwi sports is ‘un­der­whelm­ing’, with men coach­ing our na­tional women’s rugby, rugby league and hockey teams, for starters. The pa­per out­lines ob­sta­cles in­clud­ing gen­der stereo­typ­ing and hir­ing prac­tices, and pro­poses so­lu­tions, like cre­at­ing role mod­els and path­ways for fe­male coaches.

Sarah, who has 16-year-old Phoebe with hus­band Brett, is no ivory-tower aca­demic. She cut back some Massey com­mit­ments to be man­ager of the Women’s Ju­nior Black Sticks hockey team (2006-2013) and act­ing man­ager for the Black Sticks (2010-2013). “Coaches have the pro­file, but you rarely hear about man­agers, though they’re re­spon­si­ble for ev­ery­thing off-field.”

Sarah has also de­signed and de­liv­ered lead­er­ship pro­grammes across academia and schools. In 2007 she co-founded the NZ Women in Lead­er­ship pro­gramme: a joint ini­tia­tive be­tween NZ’s eight uni­ver­si­ties tar­geted at de­vel­op­ing mid­ca­reer women. In 2009 she ini­ti­ated Massey’s Achiev­ing Ca­reer Ex­cel­lence pro­gramme, pre­par­ing fe­male busi­ness stu­dents for work­places where women do­ing the same job tra­di­tion­ally earn less than men. And in 2014 she es­tab­lished Massey’s three-cam­pus Young Women in Leader-ship pro­gramme, help­ing Year 12 girls not cur­rently in lead­er­ship roles to de­velop a com­mu­nity project based on their val­ues, strengths and pas­sions.

Ten years ago, Sarah was a Ful­bright Se­nior Scholar at the US Tucker Cen­tre for Re­search on Girls and Women in Sport. In 2016 she and Julie Paterson (now Ten­nis NZ’s CEO) con­nected via Twit­ter, then co-founded Women in Sports Aotearoa (WISPA). They brought to­gether 35 women from across the sec­tor to cre­ate WISPA’s strate­gic plan for de­vel­op­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for fe­male play­ers, coaches and ad­min­is­tra­tors, among other aims.

Sarah is also on High Per­for­mance Sport NZ’s new ad­vi­sory group for women in elite sport. She isn’t im­pressed by the gen­der pay gap in high-level sport, nor that men’s sport gets more fund­ing and at­ten­tion. “When the Black Ferns won the Bledis­loe Cup’s cur­tain-raiser re­cently, most news cov­er­age didn't men­tion it.”

WISPA is al­ready in­flu­enc­ing pol­icy, with sup­port from Min­is­ter of Sport Grant Robert­son. In March, Robert­son said sex­ism and un­der-rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women in sport must stop, an­nounc­ing a $300,000 con­tri­bu­tion to women’s sport and to New Zealand’s suc­cess­ful bid to lead the In­ter­na­tional Work­ing Group on Women and Sport from 2018 to 2022. Sarah was one of six women who worked on the bid, and WISPA will lead the agen­cies de­liv­er­ing the work­ing group.

Sarah’s re­search and WISPA’s work is also in­form­ing the govern­ment frame­work for women and girls in sport, due for re­lease this month. “I’d like change re­gard­ing eq­uity of op­por­tu­ni­ties,” says Sarah. “Do school­girls get to play the same sports as boys? Should we have trained coaches for school sports, es­pe­cially when par­ents can’t help? What about fam­i­lies with no money for sports gear? There’s been lots of talk­ing – now it's time for do­ing.”

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