There are many opportunities for women to become sports leaders, but do they work?

Lou Broadfoot has not taken the conventional route to sports leadership.

She began in the usual way with a successful career as a national and international cricketer, including helping Australia win the 2005 Women’s World Cup.

Her main job, however, was worlds away. She worked as a police officer for 20 years and was even deployed to Afghanistan as an army reservist in 2018, where she helped train women leaders in the Afghan army.

A woman in army camouflage stands and poses for the camera, behind her an arid, barren landscape of Afghanistan.
According to Lou Broadfoot, the skills she acquired during her career as a police officer and Army reservist helped her equip herself for her sporting duties.(Delivered: Lou Broadfoot)

Sport finally called back last year when they were given the opportunity to join the Mackay Cricket board.

Soon after, she became Senior Integrity Officer for Tennis Australia.

“I’m an example of an athlete who played at a high level and then retired for a long time,” she said.

“And I literally jumped into the board position at Mackay Cricket. If it weren’t for that, I probably would never have worked in a sporting role, either as a volunteer or as a paid employee.”

But as Broadfoot noted, the skills she’d picked up in her non-sporting life were incredibly transferrable.

And one hopes her journey could be a template for more women to follow.

How are the numbers put together?

As the participation of girls and women in sport continues to increase, we have all heard the call for women to take action in senior leadership positions.

As the sports fields fill up with many more girls and women, is the same happening in senior positions and in boardrooms?

The Australian Sports Commission funds 64 national sport organizations and national sport organizations for people with disabilities (NSOs/NSODs) and affiliates are encouraged to have at least 40 per cent women on their boards.

More than half of funded NSOs/NSODs meet or exceed this benchmark and there has been an overall improvement in this area over the last 11 years.

However, the same results were not achieved when it came to the number of female CEOs and chairmen.

In fact, the number of women in these positions has declined in recent years.

It’s a mixed bag in Australia’s major professional sports – including AFL, NRL, football, rugby union, netball and cricket.

There are only two women chief executives: Christina Matthews of the Western Australia Cricket Association and Caroline Carnegie, chief executive of Melbourne Victory, who is the first woman to lead the administration of a men’s club in Australia’s professional leagues.

Football has four female chairmen, there are four female presidents in the AFL, and most recently Kylie Rogers was acting executive director of the AFL.

A woman stands in front of several television microphones and answers questions.
AFL Executive General Manager Customer and Commercial Kylie Rogers is believed to be one of the contenders to take over as AFL CEO once Gillon McLachlan steps down at the end of the year. (AAP: James Ross)

Unsurprisingly, netball is bucking all trends here: there is an even gender balance in chairpersons, and six out of eight board chairpersons are women.

If you dig deeper into the board glitches, the NRL comes off the worst.

Only one club, the Canberra Raiders, is close to 40 per cent and five of the 16 clubs do not have a single woman on their board.

Netball and soccer are leaders in this area, with a much more equal gender distribution.

Cricket Australia board member Vanessa Guthrie says things are changing for the better.

“I think the most important thing isn’t so much equality in numbers, but the ability to bring a diversity of thoughts and women’s voices into the room,” she said.

Plans and programs to bring more women to the top

Sport Australia and the Australian Institute of Sport have been trying to drive change in this area for decades.

The “Women Leaders in Sport” program has been running for 21 years and during this time around 26,000 women have taken part.

A group of women sit in a circle and discuss.
Sport Australia and the AIS run a range of programs to develop women leaders in sport, including a current offering for leaders and coaches. (Supplied: AIS)

It offers several areas of the program, including leadership workshops, grants for individuals to attend courses and training, grants to help organizations build more inclusive workplaces, and talent programs to develop women sports managers and high-performance coaches.

Australian Sports Commission chief executive Kieren Perkins says implementing these programs is crucial to accelerate the change needed in the industry.

Sam Kerr smiles and clenches her fists at her sides
While more girls and women are taking up sport, there is still work to be done in leadership positions.(Getty Images: Matt King)

“The sport as a whole has a lot to do to really understand where our biases sit, how we work around them or put them aside and make sure all people [who] involved in our sport are actually representative of the people we are here for.”

Brooke De Landre, Sport Australia’s general manager of sport, says it’s also important to look beyond former athletes when developing women leaders.

This resonates with Broadfoot after attending one of the leadership workshops.

A policewoman crouches between plants and smiles at the camera.
Sergeant Lou Broadfoot had a 20-year police career before moving into the athletic sector.(Delivered: Lou Broadfoot)

“A lot of the material we covered revolved around things like conflict management, having a bit of confidence to be assertive, and leading small teams,” she said.

“And a lot of it was already quite familiar to me from my almost 20 years as a police officer and also from my work with the ADF.”

Shortly after completing the programme, Broadfoot applied for the position at Tennis Australia and now oversees child protection, anti-corruption, anti-doping, member protection and the code of conduct.

She was heralded as one of the workshops’ success stories.

Six people stand arm in arm, smiling at the camera, in front of big "oh" Initials symbolizing Australian Open tennis.
Lou Broadfoot (third from right) enjoys her new role at Tennis Australia as Senior Integrity Officer. (Delivered: Lou Broadfoot)

“We’ve had some great victories,” said Ms. De Landre.

Fix the system, not the women

Last year, Kate Palmer, former chief executive of the Australian Sport Commission, told The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald that Australian sport needed a broader cultural shift to bring about change.

“For a long time we’ve been focused on fixing the women, the idea that they need mentoring, classes, a program,” she said.

Ms De Landre says Sport Australia is trying to address this by providing grants to help organizations embed gender equality at their core.

“We can work with individuals. We can network and bring together a great group of women to support each other,” she said.

The Australian women's cricket team celebrates winning the World Cup.
Cricket Australia has been at the forefront of gender equality on the pitch and now aims to do the same off the pitch.(Getty Images: Hannah Peters)

dr Guthrie has a 30-year corporate mining career and says there are lessons to be learned.

“Mining has changed dramatically in the last five to 10 years in terms of including women, not just in the business but actually in leadership roles and changing that blokey trait,” she said.

“Cricket has done the same and made great strides, albeit with perhaps a delayed start to what other industries have seen.

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