Give diversity a sporting chance

Nareen Young
Topics Inclusion

As a die-hard fan of a bunch of different sports, and part of a household of equally keen fans and players, I was honoured this week to have been appointed to the board of Netball Australia. I have loved netball since my first game at the age of eight, and am beyond excited to be now working with a passionate and committed group of board members towards an even brighter future for the game.

Often when people think about sport, the first thing that comes to mind is a bunch of blokes running around a footy field, but growing attention to diversity in sport is starting to change these perceptions. As CEO of Diversity Council Australia, it is wonderful to see attention being paid to diversity in sport, both on and off the field.

The controversy which last year saw the Opals Basketball Team – three time silver medallists – making their way to the London Olympics in premium economy while their male counterparts – the Boomers – travelled in business class, shone a light on the inequality found at even the very highest levels of sport.

The 2012 London Olympics saw every participating nation represented by at least one woman competitor for the first time in the history of the modern Olympic Games. And women could also compete in every sport, with boxing now open to women for the first time. This trend will continue in the 2014 Winter Olympics with women permitted for the first time to compete in ski jumping.

Last year also marked 100 years since Australian women have been competing at the Olympic Games and we are now involved in modern sport at all levels – as fans, participants, volunteers, coaches, umpires & referees, elite athletes and in sports management.

But there is clearly some way to go. Figures released last month by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Women In Sport: The State Of Play 2013, show that while 5.8 million Australian women participate regularly in sport, according to the Australian Sports Commission, women’s representation in sports management remains low. Only 37% of CEOs of national sporting organisations are women, 19% of national sporting organisations presidents, and only 23% of all board positions on national sporting organisations.

And then there’s the disappointing profile of women’s sport in media and popular culture compared to men’s sport. The 2010 report, Towards a Level Playing Field: sport and gender in Australian media found the achievements of women in sport continue to be under-represented in the Australian media. Women in sport made up just 9% of all sports coverage in Australian television news and current affairs and 7% of other sport programming, and television news reports on female sport had the lowest average duration of all the types of sport news analysed.

The lack of gender diversity in sport is also mirrored in the lack of cultural diversity seen in many sports and in poorer opportunities for people with disability. Despite Australian athletes with disability performing at the highest level in events like the 2012 Paralympics, where we are currently ranked fifth of 74 countries, only a quarter of Australia’s 4.9 million people with a disability participate in sport, compared to around 40% of the population more broadly.

As noted in a recent report by the CSIRO for the Australian Sports Commission The Future Of Australian Sport, the increasing number of people living with disability, the ageing of our population and the increasingly multicultural face of our community will have a major impact on sport. 

While a number of  major sporting codes – in particular the AFL, NRL and Cricket – are responding to these changes and are very aware of the importance of embracing fans, players and administrators from diverse cultural backgrounds, including Indigenous Australians, in their respective sports, recent events have shown challenges remain. The fracas involving AFL legend Adam Goodes showed that racism remains alive and well at all levels of sport.

However, it is pleasing to see just how many sporting organisations are stepping up to the plate. The collaboration between the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Racism. It Stops With Me campaign, which is supported by many Australian sporting organisations (including Netball Australia) and the Play by the Rules program to produce a new anti-racism TV community service announcement for sporting organisations is a fantastic initiative and I am hopeful it will be a catalyst for change.

Specific initiatives like the AFL's Multicultural Round, held earlier this month, also promote cultural diversity. The Round aims to celebrate 'Many Cultures. One Game – Australia's Game' and highlights community engagement initiatives currently being undertaken, as well as the many players from culturally diverse backgrounds, who make up 9% of the AFL player list. Since it started in 2005, the AFL says the program has enabled more than 50,000 people from migrant families to experience AFL games and meet their own local teams, and works to encourage new communities to enjoy the game as supporters, players and administrators.

While some sporting codes are only just beginning to think about these issues, businesses can still learn a lot from the way some of our leading sports are proactively tackling sexism, racism and diversity more broadly. It’s only through naming incidents of racism and sexism when they occur, working hard to be inclusive and valuing culture and difference that real progress on diversity will be achieved.

On the other hand, sport can learn from the business sector on diversity. Any sporting organisation would benefit from the sorts of strategies and structured programs that many businesses are now adopting. For example, the current focus of business on improving the representation of women in positions of leadership through setting of targets is a good example of concrete action any sporting organisation can take.

In any event, taking diversity and inclusion seriously in business and in sport will really level the playing field.

About Nareen Young
Nareen Young is CEO of Diversity Council Australia, the independent, not-for-profit workplace diversity advisor in Australia. In 2012, Nareen was named by prominent news and lifestyle website, Daily Life, as one of the 20 most influential female voices in Australia and by the Financial Review and Westpac Group as one of 100 Women of Influence, receiving the top honour in the diversity category.  

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