We must firstly demonstrate that the pathway to leadership exists

Updated: Mar 5

As we approach International Women's Day I am struck by how much energy has been put into expanding the presence of female leadership yet how slow progress has been to to see real change across both the community and corporate sectors. Dr Kerryn Phelps in her interview with CEO magazine provided this insight into why more women aren't moving into executive or board roles; "The numbers have a lot to do with the standard pathways to executive leadership....only half of the ASX200 companies have any women at all in senior operational roles, so that limits the number of women on the usual pathway to executive leadership positions."

The same challenge is present in sport. In the majority of sport clubs around the country you will see a photo wall providing tribute to their past leaders, mostly men. While their is a genuine desire in sport to see greater diversity the pathway to leadership is not easily identifiable for many women. What can we do differently this year to create impact and change?

Back to basics; identify the problem

There are three core reasons why women in sport are not stepping into leadership positions within our clubs.

1. The pathway to leadership is not evident

To know that we can ascend to lead an organisation we need role models to demonstrate that a pathway to the top exists and that the job can be done by someone we easily identify with.

In a workshop I co-facilitated last year all of the women noted that they didn't believe the pathway to leadership was open to them. In most cases they had seen men perform the senior leadership roles. In their long association with the club they had only ever seen one women take on the leadership task. 'We need to see people like us doing things like us'. When we are young we look for role models and people who inspire us to go further. I can still recall the moment a female senior executive inspired me to lead. It was the smallest of moments as I watched her enter a room with the core leadership group of the organisation I worked for. This fleeting moment proved that women were equal in their ability to lead and to contribute and more important than that, it triggered a thought for me of 'one day I want to be in that room'. It set my sights on the top and normalised it.

2. The confidence to lead

Soft skills are rarely taught. We navigate our careers picking up what soft skills we can along the way and sometimes we fall short. Our confidence to speak in public or to share our ideas is often the key soft skill that suffers. As a result we can become invisible in an organisation. It's not that we don't have the intelligence or great ideas to contribute to the conversation - we do - in spades! Most of the women that I have met in sporting clubs have been highly articulate in small group settings and have a passion for their sport and their club. When I asked why they weren't taking part in committee led discussions or considering leadership positions in their sport one of the answers provided was lack of confidence. We need to start teaching our future female leaders how to grow their vocal and physical presence. Show them how to communicate in a board room setting, demonstrate how to craft a strategy paper and let them experience the inner workings of our decision making meetings. Collectively we can offer a multitude of experiences to increase confidence and to humanise the role of leading an organisation.

3. Recognising the talents we already have

Participating in any sport will provide incredible opportunities to learn about the skills needed for leadership. Think about the communication and strategic thinking required to outplay your opponent, the need to think quickly on your feet and to adapt to changing environments, the resilience needed by participants to step out onto the field of play in often uncomfortable weather conditions, the need to continuously learn to grow your competitive edge. All of these traits are the making of a great leader. It's now time to make sure our female participants can truely see this within themselves so that they may grow their leadership qualities and adapt them to the workplace or club administration environment. Often we can't see what is right in front of us.

Narrow our focus

Over the past few years each State has made strides to influence the state of play to ensure more women rise to the top in our sport clubs. In Victoria the Change Our Game initiative has led the way for State Associations to increase the gender diversity on their boards. The initiative has provided valuable grants for clubs and organisations to develop programs that grow both female participation and encourage female leadership. The net was cast wide and started a groundswell of discussion and positive change. Yet there is still so much more to do. On a recent visit to a sporting club my 7 year old daughter looked up at the photo wall of male leaders and asked the innocent but powerful question of 'mum where are the girls?'. I have watched on and participated in programs over the last 12 months to identify how we can show my 7 year old more women on that wall and have now come to the conclusion that the answer lies in one direct route.

One photo wall at a time

We must be able to influence the current leaders of our clubs to enact the change we seek. The conversations can only happen with the leaders who have the authority and the ability to influence change. Our focus needs to narrow and it will take one conversation and one club at a time to start the wave of change needed to realise greater gender diversity.

Our country and our sporting associations have spent a lot of energy building up our future female leaders for our industry and while we must keep providing the opportunity for this cohort to improve their leadership skills we must also pave the way for them to succeed by reaching those who have the influence to get them to the top.

This year my challenge to you all for International Women's Day is to change one male dominated photo wall at a time. Seek out the people with influence in your club and urge them to demonstrate that the pathway to leadership does exist for the passionate female members that have every right to be seen on that photo wall. Show my daughter that women have all of the qualities needed to lead well and to shape the future of our industry.

For more information on how coaching can assist with influencing organisational change or help your future female leaders thrive, get in touch at or

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