AAP/Craig Golding

As sport resumes after lockdown, it’s time to level the playing field for women and girls

Sports representatives are calling on New Zealand’s government not to return to normal when the nation begins to ease restrictions from Thursday this week. Instead, they argue, it is time to create a more even playing field by addressing chronic underfunding for women’s sports.

The Epidemic Response Committee focused on sports in one of its hearings last week and several sporting bodies argued that women’s sports will struggle to rebuild without substantial targeted financial support.

Netball NZ chief executive Jennie Wylie told the committee her sport has more than 350,000 players, many from under-privileged groups, and the recovery period presents an chance to prioritise equal access and support.

Getting sports up and running as soon as it’s safe will play a vital role in New Zealand’s economic and social recovery. Because sport is rebuilding in so many capacities, the time is right to create equality […] and New Zealanders should not squander the change to address the systemic inequities across sport.

Our research focus is on sport management and leadership, and on equity in sports and active recreation for girls and women. We have welcomed the momentum for achieving gender equity in sports before the coronavirus pandemic, and believe women should now be at the forefront of planning as we rebuild.


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Designing sport for equity

Before the pandemic, corporate sponsorship for women’s sport increased by 47% between 2013 and 2017, and investment in women’s professional leagues increased girls’ participation at the grassroots level.

Viewership for women’s sports was rising around the globe, including a 64% rise in TV ratings for the 2019 Women’s National Basketball Association season and a record 1.12 billion viewers for the women’s soccer World Cup final.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the landscape, and international sports organisations are also concerned about its impact on women’s sport.

But as sports resume, this offers a chance for decision makers to change dominant narratives and structures away from the male-dominated model. Those working in women’s sports have always done the hard work — built, marketed and run our sports teams and programs - with limited funding and resources.

Data indicate more women and people with diverse backgrounds on boards and in leadership positions contribute to better decisions and outcomes on all measures.

Diversity of thought is critical to rebuilding sports. It requires different models of collective leadership and a rethink of success going beyond winning and profit margins.


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There’s more to sport than coming first

A sports management model developed in 2017 includes social, cultural and environmental benefits of sports – such as working with under-served communities to improve team and leadership skills – alongside a traditional focus on investment return. It also adds a focus on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

We believe girls and women have a basic human right to physical activity and the UN’s development goals provide a framework for equity in sport. They clearly state that social inclusion means gender equality, human rights and the reduction of inequalities.

Sport can play an important role in sustainable development and contribute to peace because it promotes tolerance and respect and the empowerment of women and young people.


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To achieve long-term sustainable and ethical outcomes for sports organisations, structural change designed for equity is critical, from the grassroots to the top level. There are some examples of progress, where girls and women are challenging the norms of traditionally masculine sports such as skate boarding.

We also need to explore alternative funding models to minimise reliance on broadcasting revenue and gambling returns. COVID-19 lockdown has shown us that physical activity is critical to health and well-being. It should be funded by government and commercial partners committed to equity.

As the coronavirus was spreading globally, in March 2020, UN Women joined with the International Olympic Committee to launch the Sports for Generation Equality Initiative to accelerate progress on making gender equality a reality.

Emerging from a pandemic should not be a return to the status quo, and this includes access to participation and competition in sports and physical activity. When sport resumes, we must regain momentum to truly advance gender equity for all girls and women. To do anything else wastes an unprecedented opportunity.

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