Don’t blame the athletes for Australia’s underperformance at the London Olympics, nor a lack of funding in sport. According to Sports Minister Kate Lundy, we should be pointing the finger at individual sporting organisations: and particularly, the lack of women on their boards.
Lundy will tell the UN Women and Australian Rugby Union women’s lunch today that the real challenge for the Australian Sports Commission is not how much funding it’s handing out, but rather how it can spend it effectively.
“A key part of being smarter about our investment will be to ensure our sports are working in a manner most conducive to innovation and success,” Lundy will say. “Those sports that will grow, those sports that earn the right for our investment will increasingly be able to demonstrate their strength in governance.”
According to Lundy, governance issues are hindering performance: “For too long the governance and administration of sport has been seen as a low priority. The behind-the-scenes activity in many sports is now having a direct impact on their performance where it counts.” Lundy notes that part of the problem may come down to the gender breakdown on Olympic sports boards.
Indeed, gender diversity on boards is seriously lacking when it comes to some of Australia’s most high-profile sports. Recent research by Women on Boards found that women hold just 23.4% of the board positions on Australia’s 64 national sporting organisations.
And some of the organisations receiving the most funding from the Australian Sports Commission have the smallest percentage of women on their boards. Swimming Australia, for one, has no women on its board, despite its team of about 17 women outperforming its 24 men on the medal tally at the London Olympics.
But focusing on getting women on the board may not be the complete answer to assisting with the governance of sport. According to women on the boards of major sporting organisations contacted by Women’s Agenda during the Olympics, the path to better board diversity is not just about women. It’s about bringing a broader mix of skills to the board — a mix that goes beyond ex-players, coaches and spectators — and a mix that should, by default, result in more women taking a seat at the table.
As Basketball Australia director Gillian McFee told us, sports boards lose the opportunity to get a better range of skills if they get hung up on appointing from within — especially in getting too many ex-players involved.
Diversity on boards is about a range of perspectives — all of which help boards “come up with solutions that are more innovative, more real world, and with better strategy and future planning”, according to sports lawyer and Canoeing Australia board member Catherine Ordway.
Counting the number of women on a sports board may be just one step in assessing its diversity. But as Ordway also reiterates, it’s a quick means to identifying whether the perspectives of 50% of the population are being ignored.
That’s why Ordway, as well as Australian Rugby League commissioner Catherine Harris and other women on sports boards we contacted, agree: women need to be on the selection committees of sporting organisations appointing new board members.
It’s also why Women on Boards has called for Australia’s sporting organisations to work towards a 40% target of women on its boards.
And it’s why Lundy’s been a long-time advocate of getting more women on sports boards. Athletes have four years to prepare for the 2016 Olympics. But as Lundy will point out today, now is the time for Olympic sports to examine their governance structures.
*This article was originally published at Women’s Agenda, a new website for professional women from Crikey parent Private Media