What’s the score with women on sport boards?

Prime Minister Julia Gillard is a keen football fan but women lack representation on the governing bodies of most Australian sports. AAP

Despite stunning progress on the sport field in the past 100 years, women’s representation off the field remains a serious challenge.

While there was not a singe female athlete at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, at the most recent summer Olympic Games, in Beijing in 2008, women athletes made up 46% of the Australian Olympic Team and represented 58% of Australian medallists.

The figures are even more impressive for the Winter Olympics held in Vancouver in 2010. At these games women represented 50% of the Australian athletes and 66% of Australian medallists. Women won all of Australia’s gold medals. However, women’s success in the board room is a different story as they continue to be markedly under-represented on boards of sporting organisations.

A recent initiative to address this current issue is the International Working Group on Women and Sport (IWG) website The Sydney Scoreboard.

This website collects and publishes data on the gender of the board members, chair persons and CEOs of national and international sporting organisations. The aim of The Sydney Scoreboard is to increase women’s representation on sport boards globally.

The site provides an internationally accessible, interactive and real time-means of tracking progress and showcasing good practices with regards to gender representation. It brings a new level of accountability and transparency to the composition of sport boards.

The Sydney Scoreboard is the official legacy of the 5th IWG World Conference on Women and Sport which was held last year in Sydney. It was developed following national and international consultation, including a strategic conversation with some of Australia’s leading sport professionals, men and women.

Data collection has already begun from countries around the world including Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, India, South Africa, Tanzania, United Kingdom and Zambia. The project will run for at least three years until the next World Conference on Women and Sport in Helsinki in 2014, when progress made in this critical area of gender equality will be assessed.

The business case for gender equality on sport boards is clear. Gender-diverse boards mean brighter boards.

Diverse perspectives encourage creative and innovative thinking which often lead to a better performance of the organisation. Not only women’s sport but sport in general will benefit, so it is a win-win situation for both men and women.

When a coach picks the best team for the field, he or she considers his entire pool of players, all his talent. Similarly, when the best team is selected for the board room, why would we ignore half of the population?

Let’s examine the Australian results on The Sydney Scoreboard. Only 22% of board directors on National Sport Organisations (NSOs) are women. This is based on 55 NSOs which are recognised and funded by the Australian Sports Commission including the national governing bodies of the most popular Australian sports such as cricket, the football codes, netball, swimming, athletics, cycling, tennis and golf.

Six NSOs are to be congratulated with having at least 40% of either gender on their board (badminton, equestrian, flying disc, lacrosse, shooting and softball).

On the other side of the spectrum, ten of the 55 NSOs ignored half of the population’s pool of talent by not even appointing one woman to their board. They include Australian Rugby League, Australian Rugby Union, Cricket Australia and Surf Lifesaving Australia, some of our most iconic sports!

One iconic sport that has made a step in the right direction is AFL. They have been prominent in promoting women at the highest levels of the governance of the sport and were the first of the four football codes to appoint a woman on their board.

Sam Mostyn was appointed as an AFL Commissioner in 2005, followed by Family Court Judge, Linda Dessau, which makes women’s current representation on the AFL board two of nine or 22%. It is no coincidence that AFL is regarded by many pundits as the most successful professional football code in Australia.

It’s time other football bodies pick up the pace. We are aiming for a minimum of 40% of either gender on boards to ensure gender diversity.

Football Federation Australia has one very capable woman, Moya Dodd, lawyer and Vice-President of the Asian Football Federation, on their board but she is only one of six (14%) so there is clearly room for improvement. Nevertheless, they are a step ahead of both rugby union and rugby league which are still hovering at the starting line.

The NRL, currently undergoing a major reform the way it is organised, has a great opportunity to jump to the lead by embracing good governance.

Will rugby league’s much heralded new Independent Commission include any women? Or will the mate’s attitude prevail by giving jobs to the boys?

I challenge the NRL to think outside the square, be creative and innovative. Eight commissioners: how about four men and four women?