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