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Sport: developing women leaders.

By Emma Sherry

A recent EY report identified that the foundation laid by sport participation is critical to women’s success in their careers. Additionally, a United Nations report points out that the participation of women and girls in sport challenges gender stereotypes and discrimination and can therefore be a vehicle to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. In particular, women in sport leadership can change attitudes towards women’s capabilities as leaders and decision makers especially in traditional male domains.

In my experience working in and with the sport industry in both Australia and across our neighbouring Pacific nations, I have found that playing sport provides a variety of opportunities to learn skills such as teamwork, accountability, and decision making. However, my experience working with women who might take a different path in their career, such as those from communities that might be disadvantaged, or in developing nations with limited sport infrastructure, or cultures with traditional gender roles, that the experience of playing and engaging in sport at all levels and roles really does provide a genuine opportunity to develop future leaders.

I’d like to focus in this piece on a group of young women I have who are drawn from across the Pacific, from small island nation states in varying stages of development. I have met and worked with these women through programs funded by the Australian government to support Sport for Development in the region. These women participate in sport in often very traditionally male cultures, and their opportunity to engage with sport, let alone imagining a career in sport, is somewhat limited. What we have found working with these initiatives over the past six years is that sport not only provides an opportunity to develop transferable skills, or an opportunity for a career on or off the field, but for many of these women it provides an opportunity to lead. These women have taken that opportunity to lead and they have run with it, both literally and metaphorically. What our research has found is that as programmes were established in countries such as Papua New Guinea, Fiji Vanuatu, Tonga, and Samoa, to name a few, that in each program one or two young women were employed into entry-level sport development roles to deliver the programmes on the ground to their local communities, giving them an opportunity to learn, develop and demonstrate their skills. Time and time again we found that as the programmes became more established, those women stepped up into new leadership roles, that allowed them to further develop their leadership capacity. Now we find that many of these women are not only growing their leadership capacity as individuals, but are now leading their programs, and sport organisations in their countries.

When we think about sport providing opportunities for leadership, I’d encourage us to think more expansively. It’s not just that we learn those really valuable skills of teamwork and accountability, and how to take a loss and how to celebrate a win, but also as the United Nations noted in the very first paragraph of this piece, that providing the space and a place for women and girls in sport, in all of the varied settings and contexts across the world, is a very effective way to challenge stereotypes, challenge discrimination and genuinely and authentically empower women and girls who may not have the opportunity otherwise.

Sport can provide a place to grow into leadership positions such as head coaches, CEOs, high performance athletes, or industry experts. More and more we are seeing women’s stories being told on social media platforms and in documentaries. Everywhere in sport whether it be the Olympics or local community engagement, we are seeing how sport can provide a space for women and girls to grow into the leadership roles that they’ve been previously denied. I am proud to call many of these women my friends, I have watched their leadership grow and blossom over the last few years and I cannot wait to see what they do for their communities and country moving forward. 

About Emma Sherry

Emma is a Professor at Swinburne University, specialising in the area of sport for development and is currently Department Chair for Management and Marketing in the Swinburne Business School.

Emma’s current research interests include community development through sport activities, undertaking a broad range of research projects with national and regional sport organisations in Australia and globally including the Commonwealth Secretariat, Victorian Government, VicHealth, Netball Australia, National Rugby League, Australian Football League, and Tennis Australia. Other recent research has included access and equity in sport participation, sport in correctional facilities, and sport and recreation for at-risk and marginalised communities. Emma is currently supervising a number of PhD students in the areas of: sport for development, wearable tracking devices for high performance athletes and social impact of sport for Australian Indigenous communities.

Emma is on the editorial board of Journal of Sport Management, Sport Management Review, Communications and Sport Journal, European Sport Management Quarterly and Sport Business Management: an International Journal.

Outside of her academic career, Emma has worked in roles in the area of sport facility and event management and recreation management within the local government and university sport sectors. Emma is an appointed director and immediate Past President at Tennis Victoria, and sits as a Trustee on the Melbourne Olympic Park Trust (appointed).

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