Sports trailing in diversity race
Studies show diversity can increase organisational success, so why are some top sports bodies still dragging the chain? Olivia Caldwell reports.
For five years, Sport New Zealand has been pushing sports organisations to get more women on their boards; its patience gave out last month, as it announced a ‘‘do-it-or-else’’ funding ultimatum to the laggards.
Among those feeling the heat are New Zealand Rugby (NZR), Basketball New Zealand (BBNZ) and Netball New Zealand (NNZ), who will all need to move quickly if they are to reach the 40 per cent gender quota imposed by the government-funded organisation.
NZR and BBNZ need more women on their boards, NNZ more men. Diversity has been shown to improve financial performance, widen the talent pool, enhance innovation and even boost employee retention.
But diversity quotas have their critics, among them Massey University Professor Sarah Leberman, who says the overseas experience is that, if attitudes don’t change, then no quota will deliver the desired outcomes.
With progress in the desired direction stalling, Sport NZ decided in June that enough was enough, basically telling partner sports if you won’t do it, we’ll do it for you. The gender target for boards must be reached by December 2021, or funding will be on the line.
In 2011, just 27 per cent of those in sports governance were women. Now the figure is 40 per cent, even counting the laggards.
But there are still some leading sports heavily imbalanced and led by a male majority. NZR’s board is 89 per cent male, BBNZ is 87.5 per cent, while three-quarters of NNZ’s board is female.
To reach the quotas, NZR would have to add three women to its board, BBNZ two, while NNZ must add two men.
Gender quotas are the most efficient way to force change, and the drastic move is needed to tackle stagnant progress, Sport NZ chief executive Peter Miskimmin says.
‘‘What we recognised is that we needed more, and what we have realised is that, in creating a target, things happen.’’
Two years is sufficient time for sports bodies to reach that target, he believes.
But despite research showing the case for diversity in bringing financial and decision-making success for corporations, Leberman is unconvinced by the quota argument.
Leberman, who has won awards for two decades of advocating for gender equity in sport, says the entire governance structure of sports must change to achieve real balance.
SPORTS SETTING THE GENDER AGENDA
With NZR advertising to replace chief executive Steve Tew when he leaves after this year’s Rugby World Cup, the door is wide open for one of the country’s most successful brands to diversify at the highest level.
Its board of nine has just one woman, former Black Fern Farah Palmer, and one Pacific Island male, in former All Black Michael Jones. It is one of 60-plus organisations receiving more than $50,000 from Sport NZ, so is captured by the funding-cut threat.
Miskimmin believes NZR supports the initiative, but there will be difficulties in changing a long-standing constitution.
‘‘You can talk about rugby as being a challenge, and it is a challenge, but they need to be proactive and not asleep at the wheel, and if they don’t then there will be consequences.’’
NZR chairman Brent Impey expressed disappointment in April when provincial rugby unions put forward an array of white middle-class male board candidates, stalling momentum for change after 2016 and 2018 saw Palmer and Jones elected.
‘‘The message I was trying to give was we’ve got to get on with this. It’s gender, it’s ethnicity,’’ Impey says.
‘‘We changed the constitution two years back so that the appointments panel could essentially appoint six of the nine, but the PUs (provincial unions) had to nominate three of those, but they just haven’t come through.’’
The lack of rugby diversity doesn’t sit only at NZR headquarters in Wellington – the five Super Rugby clubs are run by white, middle-aged male chief executives, and have been since the competition started in 1996.
What is true of rugby is also true of other major sports. Six mainstream sports – rugby, cricket, netball, basketball, football and rugby league – offer only one female chief executive, in NNZ’s Jennie Wylie. Only one of the six netball franchises has a male chief executive, Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic’s Rohan West.
New Zealand Cricket, BBNZ, Football New Zealand, New Zealand Rugby League and Hockey New Zealand all have male chief executives, for sports that have men’s and women’s teams.
Cricket has made structural changes in order to shift the status quo of men in leadership roles, having got as close as
possible to the quota of women on its board.
NZC did not impose a gender quota to make the change. Instead, in 2015, it made it one of its strategies to increase women in cricket at every level. At that stage, it had just one female board member. Today, its board of eight directors has three women, one of whom is Ma¯ ori.
Leberman says diversity has to be more than just hiring women to meet a specific quota, and she would not comment directly on Sport NZ’s policy.
‘‘We need to make sure we do not end up with women who all look the same – otherwise we risk being labelled ‘white, stale and female’.
‘‘It is not about fitting women and girls into the existing structures. In the context of Aotearoa, we also need to ensure that we have diversity which includes Ma¯ ori – so diversity goes well beyond gender – it needs to recognise intersectionality. For example, race, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, age.’’
In changing the structure, sports will have to look at the previous patriarchal systems. That means challenging leadership stereotypes,
masculine hegemony, homophobia, gender role assumptions and marginalisation.
‘‘Fundamentally, we need to think about whether the way sport is structured is fit for purpose to enable equity of opportunity for everyone. The model we have is in general an old one.
‘‘So if we could start from scratch, what would it look like? How would we develop the policies and practices?’’
Leberman’s research, along with several scholarly papers on diversity she has studied, show the benefits to business of both gender and ethnic diversity.
Quotas, though, can lead to unexpected outcomes. Take American football’s Rooney Rule, put in place by the NFL to change the racial balance of coaches. Introduced in 2003, it required NFL teams to interview ethnic-minority candidates for head coaching roles and other senior jobs.
And it worked – sort of. In 2018, eight of the NFL’s 32 teams featured a minority head coach, tied for the most in the league history. But the NFL’s coaching ranks still look nothing like its player base – 75 per cent of NFL head coaches are white, compared with fewer than 30 per cent of its players.
And since the Rooney Rule, a new racial divide has opened. African-American coaches have had more success finding jobs on defence (seen as brawn roles), while white coaches are preferred for expertise on offence (seen as brain roles).
WHAT IS HINDERING DIVERSITY AT THE TOP?
Given sport has for so long been run by men, diversity in leadership roles can be difficult to achieve, for reasons other than sexism. The biggest barrier is culture.
Leberman says the areas hindering diversity at the top level are gender bias, institutional practices, and a lack of understanding of intersections of society.
‘‘This is about changing a culture that has existed for a very long time . . . Change is happening, which is positive, but it has been glacial in many respects.
‘‘In general, people like to be comfortable and do what they have done previously.’’
A culture of white, middleaged men in sports leadership is hard to change, partly due to potential hidden bias.
‘‘My view is that it is not necessarily deliberate, but that it sometimes takes more work to ensure a wide pool of candidates is canvassed for both board and executive positions.’’
Opponents of gender diversity often maintain white middleaged males are the best men for the job. In fact, studies show as many women as men are achieving qualifications for leadership roles, but that has not transferred into gender equity in sports leadership.
‘‘It is a myth to say that there are a lack of qualified and able women interested in these roles,’’ Leberman says.
‘‘I do not believe there is a lack of interest in applications from women. This is a bit of a black box, though, as it is not public knowledge who applies, is shortlisted, makes the final two and then is appointed.
‘‘We make up 51 per cent of the population – so yes we need to be seen, heard and at the decision-making table.’’