Working in sport has taken London-born Joanna Lester around the world; living and working in England, Australia and Papua New Guinea and reporting on ten Olympic, Commonwealth and Pacific Games as a journalist, starting with the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi.
In 2014, Joanna moved to Papua New Guinea (PNG) to work for a sport-for-development programme that used the national sport – Rugby League – to deliver key messages and create social change.
It was during this time that the idea of the documentary ‘Power Meri’ was born. Power Meri documents the uprising of the women’s Rugby League in PNG, in the lead up to the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.
It is now an award-winning and internationally released film, recently winning ‘Best Depiction of Inclusive Sport’ at the 2020 Sport Australia Media Awards. The film is creating opportunities for its stars to lead the growth and development of women’s Rugby League in their own communities and other countries.
How did the documentary Power Meri come about?
In 2014 I moved to Papua New Guinea to work as a media and communications officer for a sport-for-development programme that used the national sport, Rugby League, to deliver key messages and create social change.
I worked alongside many female Rugby League players who were pioneers in their communities, as women playing a traditionally male-dominated sport in a country with high rates of gender-based violence and few opportunities for women.
I decided to make a documentary film about these ground-breaking women and their journey as members of Papua New Guinea’s first national women’s Rugby League team to the World Cup, and how they were changing lives and attitudes in their country and beyond.
We have released the film in Australia, New Zealand, USA, UK, PNG and many other Pacific countries, but not yet in Switzerland! We would love to hear from organisations interested in hosting virtual screenings (under current circumstances, see below) or the Switzerland cinema premiere, once restrictions have eased.
While I continue to drive outreach of Power Meri, my main job these days is in media and communications with Pacific Sports Partnerships – a sport-for-development programme across six Pacific countries funded by the Australian Government through its aid programme, which brings together Australian and Pacific sporting organisations to design and deliver sport-based programmes that have a social impact.
“I decided to make a documentary film about these ground-breaking women and their journey as members of Papua New Guinea’s first national women’s Rugby League team to the World Cup, and how they were changing lives and attitudes in their country and beyond.”
How has COVID-19 affected your work for the year and have you been able to pivot?
As I work mostly with sports people, organisations and programmes in the Pacific islands, we are a few weeks later than many parts of the world. Fortunately, there have been very few cases so far in the Pacific (and none in some of the countries where we work), but almost all sports activity has ceased as a result of precautionary lockdowns.
Travel restrictions in and out of Australia have been a major hurdle. While many sport-for-development programmes are turning to online delivery of activities and video content, this is not straightforward in the Pacific, where expensive data costs and slow internet speeds are a barrier for many people. I’m involved in a couple of different projects looking at how to alter the delivery of activities under the current circumstances. In particular, I’m working on a project to support (non-professional) female athletes during this time.
On the Power Meri front, we recently hosted our first virtual screening in partnership with Griffith University in Australia, and are looking to facilitate more virtual screenings, accompanied by post-screening discussions, so that people can still watch and discuss the film virtually. We’re particularly hoping that sports organisations and teams will want to host a virtual screening as a team activity at this time when they can’t train together. You can organise a virtual screening on our website.
“The under-funding of women’s sport is often based on assumptions about audience/commercial interest, or lack thereof. A few recent events and women’s competitions have started to challenge this.”
If you could give advice to women in sport working through this crisis, what would it be?
Consider how we can leverage this situation, and the ‘new normal’ that will emerge, to benefit women’s sport. Also focus on recent positives and gains (of which there are many in women’s sport) and ensure female athletes feel connected and supported.
“For a long time, women’s sport has been an add-on to established financial models in male-dominated sports. Those models are now being forced to change.”
What's the thing you'd most like to see come out of this Pandemic?
A re-thinking and re-shaping of how sport is financed, to produce better outcomes for women’s sport. For a long time, women’s sport has been an add-on to established financial models in male-dominated sports. Those models are now being forced to change, and it’s a crucial opportunity to re-evaluate the value proposition of women’s sport, and how it should be funded. The under-funding of women’s sport is often based on assumptions about audience/commercial interest, or lack thereof.
A few recent events and women’s competitions have started to challenge this, and the inevitable restructuring that the pandemic will cause, could be a game-changer for women’s sport at all levels. I definitely think it’s an opportunity as much as a challenge.
What are your top three tips for women working in sport?
- Breaking into the boys’ club – management roles in many sports are occupied by former players (who, in traditionally male-dominated sports, are still mostly men). As in any line of work, finding your niche and positioning yourself as the best-placed person to deliver on it is key. As the sports sector collectively begins to realise the value and importance of women’s sport, I’m optimistic this will start to change.
- Being the only woman in the room – remember that you are there because of your specific skills and, as a woman, and even as a non-athlete if that’s the case, you bring an important perspective to sport that those who are deeply ingrained might not be able to see.
- The chicken and egg problem of demonstrating the value of women’s sport – no one wants to fund it because ‘there is no audience’, so it doesn’t get the media coverage it needs, so it can’t build its audience etc. This cycle is difficult to break. Things are starting to change but, in my work in the Pacific, I am always articulating the broader social benefits of women’s sport and re-shaping it as a tool for social change, to make its value more tangible beyond what happens on the field, therefore attracting different types of partners and funders. This was at the heart of the Power Meri film project I designed and led and is a genuine characterisation of women’s sport in many parts of the world.
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