Sydney   November 1999

by Margot Foster

  • "You've come a long way baby to get where you've got to today.  You've got your own cigarette now baby you've come a long long way" - television advertisement jingle for Virginia Slims cigarettes in the 1970s.
  • A 1989 newspaper article on the 85th IOC congress held in that year was headed "Women to Take Over the IOC in 1000 years":  back then 6 women attended and 87 men.  The sentiment is probably right.
  • In November 1999 - 2 weeks ago - Melbourne's Age newspaper headlined, in its daily sports section, "Clubs' no to woman chief".  The bosses of the 16 AFL football clubs have rejected the notion of a female AFL Commissioner.  One of the arguments advanced is that women don't play footy so how would they know how to run the competition.  A bit like saying you can't run the Alzheimers Association if you don't have alzheimers disease.
  • In July 1999 the Australian Prime Minister John Howard congratulated the Champions Trophy winning Hockeyroos for their performances as the Australian Women's Cricket Team.  The World Cup winning men's cricket team was invited to dinner at The Lodge (PM's residence) but the Hockeyroos were invited, as an afterthought, to a function at Parliament House with the cricketers - but no dinner.
  • In September 1999 the Australian Prime Minister John Howard congratulated world champion netball team captain Vicki Wilson as a member of the Hockeyroos.

Thank you for having me here today.  It is a credit to the organisers that they have recognised that women play not only a vital role in society generally but also that sport too can benefit from the contribution that women can make both as participants, administrators and spectators.  As the Chinese proverb says "Women hold up half the sky".

Sport in Australia has been an integral part of the development of our national character from the mid 1800s with cricket teams travelling to England and rowers being champions of the world.  The Sydney Olympics are now less than 10 months away and the focus of sport at all levels - from SOCOG's ticket fiasco to the potential performances of the elite athletes - is intensifying.  How many medals will they win?  How many gold medals will they bring home?  Where will Australia end up on the national medal tally?

Athletes around the world put in an enormous amount of effort with much dedication to succeed in their chosen fields but that commitment is usually the result of the commitment of others who are quite often the mothers.  The mothers who do the fundraising, drive the child to training and take on the tasks of secretaries and treasurers and competition officials for local clubs.  These women make sacrifices and contribute valuably to the continuing existence of opportunities for their and other kids.

So why do these women who get a start in sports administration - even at the most basic of levels - but who, when the children finish competing or become self sufficient, drop from view?  There may be answers but are there solutions?

The founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was opposed to the participation of women in the Olympic Games.  In 1912 he defined the purpose of the Olympic Games as "the solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism, with internationalism as a base, loyalty as a means, arts for its setting and female applause as reward".  He also believed that "a woman's glory rightfully came through the number and quality of children she provided, and that as far as sports were concerned her greatest accomplishment was to encourage her sons to excel rather than to seek records for herself".  Clearly there were no women members of the IOC back then.

Women's sports were gradually introduced into the Olympics but not without resistance or problems.  In Amsterdam in 1928 five events were allocated to women including the 800m track event.  The media was opposed to women's participation and it was reported by one commentator in the following manner:  "Below us on the cinder path were 11 wretched women, 5 of whom dropped out before the finish, while 5 collapsed after reaching the tape".  The facts, as recorded by camera, were otherwise:  9 women started and 9 women finished.  It took till 1984 before women were allowed to run a marathon and then only after court action.

Attitudes to women in sport vary from country to country and culture to culture.  The Algerian runner who won gold in Atlanta was publicly villified in her country for showing her legs.

Women first competed in the Olympics in 1900.  Sydney 2000 will be the centenary celebration of that participation but still women will only represent about 46% of total athlete numbers and there is no equality as to the number of sports and events open to both men and women:  whilst women's water polo has been admitted for the first time there is no equivalent for women in boxing or wrestling for instance;  there is no steeplechase;  there is no 1500m swimming event.  Synchronised swimming is the only wholly female sport.

In Australia our female athletes have generally, despite being represented in inferior numbers to the men, brought home the medals.

The levels of representation of women in the Olympic Games, and the number of disciplines in which they compete, is a pointer to the role women play as sports administrators.  The IOC has introduced a 10% requirement for women to hold positions with the IOC, its committees and National Olympic Committees (NOCs).  The Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) complies:  it has two women on its Executive Board out of 13 positions.  This should not be a cause for complacency as there are many other good women who could make a valuable contribution.

SOCOG has 2 women.  No women were originally appointed to the Board until it was realised by the then Premier of NSW he had forgotten to include a woman.  Hastily a woman was appointed.  The second appointment came only recently when one of its number was forced to fall on his sword.

The Australian Sports Commission (ASC) has four women out of seven members and is probably the most "equal" of the national sports bodies.  Yet the ASC earlier this year abolished the Women and Sport Unit, which had, for many years, provided a focus for the development of women's participation policies in sport - as both players and administrators - on the basis that another of its programmes, the much lauded Active Australia, would cover the bases formerly under dealt with under the auspices of the Women and Sport Unit.

Arguably the demise of the Women and Sport Unit represents the advancement of the cause of women in sport:  women have had 10 years to make changes and make a difference and if they haven't done so then they have wasted the opportunity.  Whilst there is nothing inherently wrong with mainstreaming or lumping women's sport issues with indigenous and disability issues the decision fails to recognise that women's issues remain unresolved, that women are still underrepresented as participants and administrators and that by melding the groups the issues will potentially disappear from view.  Clearly statistics and information need to be recorded to see whether change is or can be effected.

Moreover until 1996 there were no women at the executive level of management of the ASC (defined as having an income of $88,810+).  In 1996 there were four out of ten positions.  Not particularly impressive.

The peak non government lobby group the Confederation of Australian Sport (CAS) has three women of 7 board members.  The Commonwealth Games Association (ACGA) has no women in its executive ranks and yet Australia's female Commonwealth Games participants are more successful than the men.

Most National Sports Organisation (NSOs) have male chief executives.  In 1990 women comprised 16% of CEOs and in 1998 25%;  Presidents in 1990 were 11% female and in 1998 still only 13%.  Women in 1996 were 34% of secretaries of NSOs and in 1998 50%.  Draw your own conclusions.

The number of women coaches and coaching directors, people who are in a direct relationship with athletes and can effectively influence ideas, attitudes and behaviours for level 1 (basic level) in 1988 was 28% and in 1998 29.5%;  for level 2 18% in both 1988 and 1998;  for level 3 (elite level) 9% in 1988 and 11% in 1998.

Women are clearly underrepresented in so many aspects of sport and in particular in leadership roles.

Much of the analysis about women's representation in recent years has focussed on media coverage of women's sport and the impact that has, usually negatively, on women's participation.

The media has selectively focussed on female athletes;  their dress, their bodies (too tall, too short, too fat, too thin), their sexual preferences, their cuteness, their weakness and lack of strength vis a vis men, their prettiness, their sexiness - and occasionally about their performances.

Martina Hingis loses it at the French Open and storms off the court.  Bad behaviour and why doesn't she grow up.  Young Australian tennis player Lleyton Hewitt does his block and carries on and yet he is a competitive young man just doing what he needs to do to win.  Amelie Mauresmo is happy to let the world know she is gay and yet her performance as runner up in the 1999 Australian tennis open is overshadowed by the salacious interest in her sex life.  On the other hand male football players "come out" with not a critical comment made.  Anna Kournikova couldn't serve more faults if she tried and yet she gets movie star treatment because she looks good.

The media selectively report women's performances in sport and it is only at the time of the Olympic Games that coverage of women's sports comes close to that of the men.  Longitudinal studies, conducted since 1980, of media coverage by the ASC and my organisation, Womensport Australia, have shown that the coverage is disproportionately in favour of men.

The 1996 report, An Illusory Image, took a snapshot of media coverage of women's sport in selected radio and television media over a two week period.  One television current affairs programme spent 6 minutes on guinea pig racing and just 15 seconds on a women's sport story.

This report showed television coverage of women's sport for the sample period was just 2% of total sports broadcasting;  radio was 1.4% and sports magazine registered 6.8%.  Newspaper coverage improved with a 500% increase from 1980 to 1996.  Put into perspective however, only 10.7% of newspaper space was devoted to women's sport and 79.1% to men's sport.

The lack of coverage was exacerbated by the location within newspapers, particularly, of articles about women.  Often they were not on the front or back pages, but in inaccessible places in the sports section, or the bottom of the page.  Descriptions of women often stressed weakness, passivity, insignificance; as perky blondes, powder puffs, dissolving into tears, ability to cook.  Words communicating strength are often used much more often when discussing men's performance than those connoting weakness;  yet women were often cited as "weak" in their performances.  In basketball men might "misfire" whereas women just "miss".  Reference is made to "girls" or "young women" - men would never be called "boys".  Men are described as "men" or "young men" or "young fellas".

Magazines are no better.  In Australia "Inside Sport" focuses on men's sport though always with a model in swimwear or sports gear on the cover.  Women as adornments and not serious athletes.

Commentators often identify an athlete by first name alone and usually the reference is to women.  In the US a study found that this often occurred in tennis - eg Martina (Navratilova), Zena (Garrison), Steffi (Graf);  black or coloured men were also referred to by their Christian names and yet white male basketball players were never referred to by their Christian names.

The 1989 the US tennis open commentary teams used first names for 8% of men and 53% of women, last names for 70% of men and 29% of women and both names for 22% of men and 19% of women.

Linguists have found that members of dominant social groups are called by their last names and refer to others by first names.  In sport this practice reduces female athletes and athletes of colour to the role of children while giving adult status to white male athletes.

Criticism of women who play sport by the media is often on the basis that women's sport isn't as interesting as men's because women are not as fast, as strong or as big as men;  that they do not comply with the Olympic motto of Citius Altius Fortius.  Women do play football but obviously they don't play it as well as men because they are women - but not all men can or should play football either.  Some take the view that women shouldn't play it anyway.  But comparing apples and oranges is generally a valueless exercise and yet that is what happens in sport.  Men imply that men are physically, biologically and naturally superior which is why they play football and why women shouldn't.  When women demonstrate excellence in sports like running, tennis and golf men take great pains to describe that excellence as less important, less worth, less of an achievement than male excellence, according to Mariah Burton Nelson the author of an challengingly entitled book "The Stronger Women Get the More Men Love Football".  Food for thought.

Interestingly 1996 research during the 1996 Olympic Games showed a significant increase in women's sport coverage to almost 41%.  However, a year later the rate of coverage dropped to a level below that recorded in the non Olympic period in 1996.  The Sydney Morning Herald's coverage was 10.1% and the Age (Melbourne) 3.9%.  Similar studies will be done in 2000 and 2001.

Female sports reporters and journalists are often sent to cover women's sport.  In the early 1990s a furore was created when a female television journalist entered the change rooms following an AFL football match.  The Age's current chief football writer is a woman - the same one who reported on the IOC session in 1989.  Often women journos themselves take a critical view on women's sport possibly because they don't want to be characterised as "women's sports writers" which may be fair enough given the nature and extent of coverage and the general attitudes to women's sport as outlined above.  But still major print media outlets don't appoint women as editors of the sport section and yet that could make a difference to the type and nature of coverage of women's sport.  Perhaps there is a view that women just don't really understand sport and therefore cannot cover it properly or for the benefit of the male readers of the sports pages;  after all men only want to read about men's sport don't they?

Women's sports are often referred to as "women's sports" such as the Australian women's water polo team.  The women are much more successful than the men who are never referred to as the "men's water polo team".  Recently there has been some progress in that the men's cricket team was referred to as such which is a tribute to the women's team's success;  in hockey everyone knows the Hockeyroos is the women's team and no gender qualification is needed. It has been a long time coming.

Arguably, from the evidence of media coverage over the last twenty or more years, women's sport only counts when Olympic medals are at stake.

The notion of the glass ceiling in business gained currency during the 1990s.  Women could get so far up the corporate ladder before hitting their heads on the invisible, but palpable, barriers to advancement.  Some women crashed through;  others gave up and either decided to put up with their lot or leave the company to set up their own businesses.  Companies learned, to their cost, that the turnover in staff was not in the interests of the business and that they lost the benefit of women's contributions.  Many women could not cope with - or more likely be bothered with - the blokey machinations of the board room, of having to be seen to be in the office at ridiculous hours, of lunching and wining and dining.  Women had other priorities:  get the job done but have a life which might include kids, husbands, friends and heaven's above, maybe a social life not connected with work.  Sport could be said to have a concrete ceiling with not a speck of light getting through.

A study currently  being undertaken in Victoria on sports organisations' policies regarding women as participants in sport (not specifically as leaders) is showing that some sports have women's policies as a matter of compliance with government funding requirements;  that some have the policies but don't know what they contain;  that others have no policy and haven't even thought about it;  that still others didn't even recognise it as an issue and thought that their overall policies were fair enough for both men and women.  One of the reasons - and I am being generous here - is that sports administrators don't have enough time or enough money to think about, let alone do anything about, improving women's participation.

Internationally, various actions have taken place to improve the rate of women's participation in sport.  Title IX in the US relating to female participation in sport has dramatically increased the involvement of women in college sport - the breeding ground for many US athletes.  In 1972 women comprised only 15.6% of college athletes.  By 1993 that percentage had ground to 34.8% though this increase is somewhat deceptive as between 1981-82 30.5% of athletes were women but in 1992-93 it had increased to the 34.8%.

The Brighton Declaration of 1994 set out principles that should guide action intended to increase the involvement of women in sport at all levels and in all functions and roles.  The conference agreed to establish and develop an international women and sport strategy encompassing all continents.  Clearly some African and Asian countries, for cultural reasons, do not recognise the value of women's participation in sport.

Under the heading leadership in sport the Declaration states "Women are under represented in the leadership and decision making of all sport and sport related organisations.  Those responsible for these areas should develop policies and programmes and design structures which increase the number of women coaches, advisers, decision makers, officials, administrators and sports personnel at all levels with special attention given to recruitment, development and retention".

A follow up conference was held in Windhoek Namibia in 1998 affirming the principles of Brighton.

The IOC has set up its International Working Group on women but no change seems to have resulted in women's representation.  A nice idea but perhaps just politically correct.  The US has the very proactive Women's Sport Foundation and Canada has CAAWS:  the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women in Sport which foster the development of women in sport and associated issues.  A group has been established under the auspices of Womensport International, the peak non government lobby group for women's sport at the international level, to help promote the issues of women's involvement in sport as participants and leaders, but perhaps they are preaching to the converted in the white, western world where the notion of equality does exist.  Maybe their message has no relevance in other cultures.

The age of affirmative action has passed and merit based appointments are in.  That's fine but it doesn't seem to work for women in the men's club atmosphere of sport.  Indeed one of the peculiar aspects of the debate about appointments on merit - whether at corporate or sport levels - is the assertion, in reply to complaints that there are no women on the company's board or in senior management positions, that appointments are in fact solely made on merit.  The startling collective implication of this is that there are several thousand men in Australia to hold a board seat or senior management role but virtually no women.  This is odd given the evidence that shows men and women are identical in intelligence and ability:  obviously other factors are at work.

All the policies and programmes and conferences in the world will not make any difference in the absence of a willingness by those who make decisions to include women.  Women are out there and ready, willing and able to make a commitment, to make a contribution.

Role models and mentors are important to all aspects of life and no less important in sport.  If women athletes are characterised as having primarily a sexual rather than performance image, if their clothing is commented upon and criticised, if their looks are not up to "scratch", if they see able women passed over for promotion or relegated to inferior positions, be it in business or sport, they may well think why bother.  Why bother hitting my head against the concrete ceiling:  I don't need the hassle.

Mentoring is an accepted part of corporate life and yet it seems to have not become a part of the sports administration world:  male sports administrators don't take the up and coming young women under their wings and verse them in the refined arts of surviving in the world of sport.  Perhaps they are afraid of the potential competition!  In Australia many women are undertaking sport management degrees and diplomas, all hoping to break into the growing sports industry as it is increasingly known.  Many of these women have valuable skills and experiences and yet so many of the appointments to jobs go to men -- who often know the men who make the decisions on who to employ.  A colleague recently applied for a job in Victoria AFL football and didn't even get an interview:  she was told that the appointment was from amongst the men who applied because the interviewer knew them.  He also knew my colleague but didn't bother to interview her.

There are many benefits to the community in involving women in sport as participants and leaders not least of which are the health benefits.  As a colleague says "Sport is good health".

Other benefits include the development of self esteem and self confidence, better eating habits and a recognition that a muscular and fit body is desirable and acceptable, that anorexia is not the way to go;  that school drop out rates decline and school results improve;  those who participate in sport aspire to be leaders in school and beyond.  Women can inspire as role models on and off the field.

The barriers to women as sport leaders are manifest but where there is a will there is a way and strategies can be adopted to develop opportunities for women's involvement.  It requires a partnership of sports organisations from the club level to the IOC, the involvement of government as a proactive force in raising issues and developing solutions, a media that is prepared to give women a fair go and the commitment of enough women themselves to changing the status quo.

Some of the things which might be done include:

  • improving sports facilities and physical access thereto to encourage women to play sport, get fit and be involved in the sport's administration
  • ensuring equity of access to facilities - why should women pay fees for using indoor sports facilities (for netball, aerobics, etc) when men pay a pittance for council owned playing fields
  • ensuring that girls have an opportunity to play school support and to encourage parents to support the activities of their sons and daughters
  • adjusting playing times so that women can play at weekends and after hours - just because men have always played cricket on Saturday afternoons doesn't mean that they can't play at some other time
  • educating the public at large about harassment and vilification - no woman should be criticised because her legs aren't long enough or her clothing not right
  • encourage women to become coaches - not mere spectators or conveyers of children or the makers of sandwiches
  • develop and support training programmes to develop women's administration and leadership skills in conjunction with complementary courses for men run in parallel
  • portray positive - and regular - images of women in sport in all media
  • make it a condition of government funding to sport that women's sport issues and policies be part of the overall strategic plan of the sport and that penalties be imposed for failure to either have a policy or to implement it
  • recognise elite performance by women - in Queensland the recent Women and Sport Awards was a celebration of the elite performances of many Qld women including Susie O'Neill and Karrie Webb.  The dinner was supported by the Premier and Governor of Qld and many men
  • encourage women to talk not only to themselves but to men and involve men in the decisions about women's sport participation
  • maintain data on participation at all levels - sports undertaken and participation numbers, number of coaches, administrators, income levels of male and female administrators
  • use executive search companies - government and private - to encourage women to be on the relevant registers and then appoint the best person for the job in sport
  • construct management and leadership courses for men and women;  use existing training opportunities in the sport industry
  • promote marketing courses for women's sports managers
  • develop flexible work practices to enable women to be involved as administrators;  adapt meeting times;  provide child care support;  manage and adjust time so that female administrators need not be away from home - and often children - over weekends if possible
  • review the question of the amalgamation of men's and women's sports organisations.  The IOC, and other peak organisations, wish to deal with only one body in each sport - not separate men's and women's bodies.  The impact of merger is that it is more likely than not that the women will back off or acquiesce in a combined organisation leaving the whole organisation in the control of men who may or may not have an interest in the women's side of the sport
  • use international fora to promote the role of women in sport - as this conference is doing
  • in Australia effectively use the Active Women:  National Policy on Women and Girls in Sport, Recreation and Physical Activity 1999-2000 launched in September 1999 by the Federal Sports Minister Jackie Kelly, a great supporter of women's participation in sport.

 The solutions are not simple or easily achieved.  The advancement of women in administration is inextricably linked with community attitudes to women's role in society, to the media image of women as players and administrators and to the expectations of women themselves.  If we have positive media leading to positive role models then we will have positive outcomes for the whole community.  Maybe we have come a long way, baby, since the 1970s when "our" own cigarette was said to be the pinnacle of women's success and achievement, but women taking over the IOC in 1000 years?  Let's just hope it doesn't remain a dream.




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