FIFA and the NRL kick goals, but is it ‘game over’ for female leaders in sport?

Despite recent appointments of women to sporting leadership positions, comments from FIFA president Sepp Blatter show there is still a long way to go for true equality. EPA/Walter Bieri

The recent appointments of Moya Dodd to FIFA’s Executive Committee and Raelene Castle as CEO of NRL club Canterbury Bulldogs mark significant milestones for women’s presence in sport leadership.

For the first time in more than 100 years of history, FIFA welcomed three women to its Executive Committee. At the recent FIFA congress in Mauritius, Dodd, a board member of Football Federation Australia and vice-president of the Asian Football Confederation, was one of two women who were co-opted for one year. Lydia Nsekera, president of Burundi Football Association, was elected for a four year term.

In the same week, the Canterbury Bulldogs announced the appointment of its new CEO, Raelene Castle, who became the first woman to run a NRL club in 15 years. Two women have briefly held NRL leadership positions in the past: in 1998, Liz Dawson served as chief executive for the former Adelaide Rams; and in 1988-89 Donna Burke was head of the Cronulla Sharks.

With three women directors now at the FIFA executive table alongside the 24 male members, women’s representation stands at 11.1%. Only one of the three women, however, is a full member: the other two have been co-opted for special tasks for one year only. So a more accurate figure for women’s representation is one out of 25, or 4%.

Neither percentage compares favourably with those for Australian corporate boards in general. The 2012 Australian Census of Women in Leadership showed that women accounted for 12.3% of the membership of ASX 200 boards, which is a modest standard internationally.

The situation at the NRL is equally unimpressive. The Canterbury Bulldogs is the only one of 16 NRL clubs with a female CEO, bringing women’s representation in this position to 6.3%. This is markedly lower than the 9.7% of women in executive management positions at ASX 200 companies.

A minimum of 40% representation of each gender on the board or in top management is generally adopted as a measure of gender diversity. This approach is often described as the 40:40:20 target. This target was recommended by the Australian Human Rights Commission in their 2010 Gender Equality Blueprint Report as well as internationally.

For example, the European Parliament has adopted it as a non-binding resolution to be achieved by 2020. Although FIFA and the NRL have made an important step in the right direction, it is only a first step.

Both heads of these sport organisations made strikingly similar comments about their respective female appointees. While FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s unfortunate remark about Dodd’s appearance (“good-looking”) attracted most of the media’s attention, he also described her as a “good” candidate.

At the announcement of Castle’s appointment, NRL boss Dave Smith emphasised that they had got the “best” person out of all the male and female candidates for the job.

Why is there a need to justify a woman’s appointment in such an explicit way and to reassure the public that the best person was chosen? Isn’t it normal procedure to select the best candidate for any position?

Such reassurance can be seen to reflect the widely held view that embracing gender diversity and getting the best person are somehow mutually exclusive or that, at minimum, gender diversity undermines quality appointments.

Yet research on women directors on corporate boards suggests otherwise. Siri Terjesen and her colleagues concluded from a comprehensive review of 400 publications over the past 30 years that corporate governance was improved when women were appointed to boards. They attributed this to the fact that women brought “value-adding” talents and represented stakeholders who had previously been excluded. The business case for gender diversity in leadership is now solidly established.

Dodd and Castle are to be applauded as pioneers for their outstanding achievement in securing leadership positions in such influential international and national sport organisations. Clearly, however, the quest for gender diversity in sport governance and management has only just begun.