She Speaks with Joanna Lester

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?

  1. 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.

  2. 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. 

  3. 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.

Follow Joanna Lester

For more from Joanna Lester, listen to this in depth podcast interview with Rugby Reloaded.

Press here for more information on the film Power Meri.

Follow Joanna Lester on Twitter.

She Speaks with Sarah Huntley

When the world is going through so much change, uncertainty and loss all at the same time due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, we thought it would be poignant to speak to a Sports Psychologist and ask them for the tips and techniques that we can implement to survive or even thrive during this period.   

Our amazing Communications Manager Tina Sharma sat down with Sports Psychologist Sarah Huntley to chat on Instagram Live, and below is a transcript of the best bits of the very engaging and uplifting conversation.

To watch the whole interview, head over to our Facebook page or click here

During this time of “lockdown” during COVID-19, we haven’t seen as much online around mental health compared with physical health – what would you say to that?

Mental health is so key, because it’s really hard to do the physical side of things if you’re not feeling on form mentally, so I think that comes before anything else and comes as a bit of a foundation.

Previously, success might have meant five meetings, two presentations, kids here, go to the fitness class. Now it might mean something different and that’s okay.”

How can we still continue to set goals for ourselves when we don’t know when things might change?

It’s similar to what we do with athletes because we can’t predict what’s going to happen in terms of injury or fitness so you have to be quite flexible.

I’d say to break it down – it’s fine to have big goals that you might have set for next year or in six months’ time but just appreciate that they may have to change and that it’s ok to change.

With goal setting, when we’ve got so much uncertainty, it’s all about those process goals – so what are the things you can do on a day-to-day basis that will get you back to where you want to be?

So it could be time management – if you’re struggling to create a routine for yourself you could write down your schedule for the day as the first thing you do in the morning.

Your goal could be as simple of feeling in control of today.

I think it’s important to move the boundaries a little bit in terms of what success means.

Previously, success might have meant five meetings, two presentations, kids here, go to the fitness class. Now it might mean something different and that’s ok. But try to look for the benefits in that. What are the things you can do now that you couldn’t do before? 

“What are the things you can do now that you couldn’t do before?”

Sarah Huntley

Do you have advice to stay focused when working from home?

With focus – planning is absolutely key and creating your own structure.

For those of us who work for ourselves it’s probably an easier transition than those who are employed full time and are used to working in an office environment and being around people.

Think about your ideal day. Give yourself structure. It might be that you’d like to get out and exercise first thing and that actually helps you concentrate.

I know for me, I definitely need to get outside and get some sunlight in the morning and then the time between 10am and lunch time is my most productive. I switch my notifications off, I don’t take phone calls, I’m just zoned in on what I’m doing.

I also prioritise tasks. With all this uncertainty, it can be quite easy to get overwhelmed thinking you have to be Superwomen and do x, y, and z, but actually if I just get one thing done today, what’s the most important thing I can do? And if I can get that done, that’s ok.

Really stripping it back – what are the necessities in this situation, what do I actually need to do.

And being kind to ourselves as well. None of us have been in this situation before, and it’s going to be a struggle but it’s going to be ok. And if you can cope with this and just learn a few more skills around kind of how to cope with it, then that’s great.

One more thing is that it can be really tempting to think we need to sit down in our homes for six or eight hours a day and be working and productive all that time. But if we break our day down to 90 minute cycles, that’s a really good one.

So after 90 minutes the timer goes off and you get up and maybe have a snack or a drink just to break up your day a little bit.

If you’ve got a partner at home and you’ve got kids, maybe sit down with them and work out the best way to do it together so you guys have got your own time to look after yourself and to make sure you’re still getting what you need as well.

You’re going to be a much better partner or much better parent if you know you’ve got your half hour walk outside or whatever it is. Try not to put yourself at the bottom of the pile and create some time for yourself if you possibly can.

“Smooth seas never made a skilled sailor.”

How do we keep our chin up in the moments when everything feels hard and we want to throw in the towel!

Accepting that that is absolutely normal is key. Feeling that way is how most people have probably felt. Appreciate that it’s hard to have the highs without the lows too but knowing that it will pass.

Emotions are not us. We’re not our emotions. It’s just a feeling. And although you might feel very overwhelmed and stressed out, the next day you’re probably going to feel a bit better again.

There’s a great quote – smooth seas never made a skilled sailor.

So try and interpret this time, although it can feel like a threat, interpret it as a challenge. How can I get through this and get stronger as a result.

But it’s also important to know what works for you. Someone else online might be promoting you need to be up at 5am every morning to watch the sunrise and do some yoga but that might not work for everyone. Try some different things. It might be exercising in the morning, it might be getting out in the afternoon, it might be reading a book, mindfulness and meditation. Whatever it is, just notice what works for you and have those tools in your tool kit for when you are feeling like that.  And step away from it too. Don’t let it get too big. Step away and switch off the computer or whatever it might be and take some time out.

Sarah Huntley

“Performance equals potential minus interference.”

What can we borrow from sports performance psychology to improve work mindset, especially at this challenging time?

There is so much we can learn from sport for the work environment, in terms of performance it’s very similar, they go together really well.

There’s a really great formula I’ve been looking at and will use with my clients – Performance equals potential minus interference.

So what that means is your potential is your ability and your skills and interference is things that might get in the way of you reaching that potential.

So at this time interference could be all those distracting things like watching the news, worrying about weather everyone else is doing social distancing, wondering if there’s any loo roll left in your local supermarket or wondering when this is all going to end! All those things that we can’t control and they are not worth focusing on. It’s worth acknowledging for sure but not worth focusing on.

So that kind of formula can be put into practice if we think about what are the things that are interference for me, what is stopping me focusing? What are the reoccurring thoughts I’m having.

I thought that formula in terms of work mindset could be key. But it also comes down to structure and planning, and when you concentrate best.

“It’s really interesting – we’re all in such a desperate need or want to get back to normal but actually, let’s think about which parts of normal we want to get back to.”

Sarah Huntley

What’s your advice for athletes that we can also apply when we return to “normal”?

It’s really interesting – we’re all in such a desperate need or want to get back to normal but actually let’s think about which parts of normal we want to get back to.  

The time we’ve had is an opportunity to think, ‘what do I want to hang on to?’ So being quite intentional in what you want your life to look like. So perhaps it’s taking the lunch hour and that time outside is now a non-negotiable. Think about “how can I come back stronger, happier and more fulfilled when things get back to “normal”, and what can I do to get me there as well.”?

Is letting go giving up?

No. I think if you let go of something, you’re freeing yourself up for other things that come your way.

If you stick at something and you’re not enjoying it or you’re not getting out of it what you want, then perhaps you’re missing out on other opportunities.

That’s something I work with athletes a lot about in terms of getting to the end of their careers – when is the right time to retire. So is that giving up or is that letting go. And what’s that new thing that’s waiting for them. With young athletes who have trained so hard all the way through school and then suddenly they ask themselves – ‘do I want to do this anymore’? And that’s ok to feel like that and it’s just a process of working through it but knowing either way it’s going to be ok.

Is there a way we can build up our resilience?

First of all let’s all give ourselves a big pat on the back for getting this far.

Our lives have been turned upside down. Our businesses have been turned upside down, our work upside down. Whatever it is. Whether you’ve got kids or have not got kids, working from home or whatever it is, it’s been hard for everyone. But the fact that we’re still here and we are still staying positive is absolutely crucial.

For me, building resilience is all about getting out of my comfort zone. Making my comfort zone bigger and bigger. And trying to do it in small ways. It’s so possible during this time, even agreeing to doing an Instagram Live is something new for me but once you’ve done something it becomes part of your comfort zone.

She Speaks with Natalie Arnold

Natalie Arnold is the definition of #Inspo. She’s worked around the world, at Winter and Summer Olympics, Paralympics, multiple Commonwealth Games and World Cups – all the while becoming the youngest Australian to run a marathon unassisted on all seven continents.

The Australian spent many years working abroad and living her dream, before returning to Australia for the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. Since then, she is now a proud mum and has thrown herself into working on new ventures Fly into July and Top Guest Studio with Joe.

What do you love about working in sport?

What I love about it is that I’m really passionate about what I do. My love for triathlons arose while I was working in Glasgow on the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Before that, I really had no idea about triathlons. I used to think it was run first, then bike, then swim– I had no idea! But working on the project, I took an interest in the sport and I learned how to swim. From then on, I thought I’d really love to try this myself.

Despite being someone who wasn’t really athletic, I felt inspired to give the sport a go myself.

“What I love about working in sport is that … I felt inspired to give the sport a go myself.”

Tell us about your roles at the 2012 London Olympics and 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games

My role at the London Olympics was coordinating the spectator journey – from arrivals near the venue to ensuring their safe entry into the venue. I worked in a team called City Operations. It was an amazing experience to work with external stakeholders; the different processes and licenses required. It really opened my eyes to the full management plan that events require. 

After London, I was fortunate enough to work on the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in a role focusing on spectator services inside a cluster of venues. Following Glasgow, I worked at the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England, which was my first senior role, as I headed the Spectator Services division.

I travelled all over England and Wales ensuring all 1.2 million spectators were able to have a positive journey to and from our venues, with a consistent standard of services. For example, when people arrived in London to travel to a Twickenham venue, they’d be welcomed and informed by volunteers, directed to the venue. No matter what city you were in, you received the same positive welcome and event services.

“I travelled all over England and Wales ensuring all 1.2 million spectators were able to have a positive journey to and from our venues.”

Natalie Arnold in Antarctica

Where did your love for running come from?

Ok so my love for running… (laughs). When I was a kid, I used to make up every excuse under the sun to avoid cross country days or swimming carnivals. I hated running.

But when I was living in London, I thought I could give running a go. I had no real aspirations other than trying to run 3km. I gradually increased my mileage and then someone suggested I should run a full marathon. I thought ‘yeah okay, sounds good why not!’ I basically ran my first full marathon about 17 weeks after running my first 3km.

“After running about 10 marathons all over Europe, I thought to myself, ‘why don’t I try and run in different locations and see the world.'” 

Tell us about running a marathon on all 7 Continents!

After running about 10 marathons all over Europe, I thought ‘why don’t I try and run in different locations and see the world’? And so I decided to run a marathon on all 7 continents!

The inspiration to run around the world really came from my love for travel; there was no better way to experience new cities than to run their marathon. I ran the Melbourne Marathon on a visit home, and I crossed Asia off the list when I travelled to the Angkor Wat temples.

I was due to be in Hawaii for a wedding and so I looked up the marathon calendar – because you know, why not – and I ran the Maui marathon while I was there. It was hot, I mean downright awful. But I completed it thinking ‘Great, I’ve ticked off North America!’

It wasn’t until I had booked my itinerary for South America and Antarctica that I found out Hawaii didn’t count as part of the North American Continent to qualify for the 7 Continents Club.

Later, when I reached out to the 7 Continents Club to validate my South American marathon eligibility, I found out that Hawaii and Maui don’t qualify as the North American Continent! So I had to alter my itinerary by a couple of weeks, to go back to North America and run in Santa Clarita (not far from LA).

It’s quite funny, because in the end I had to run 3 marathons in 6 weeks which wasn’t really part of the plan, but I had to quickly adapt, and when you put your mind to it, anything’s possible!

 

Natalie Arnold in Antarctica

How do you balance this sense of adventure with your work?

I find that having a goal, training and keeping myself committed to physical activity helps me stay sharp at work. It makes me a more ambitious person – some might even say crazy, but I definitely am determined and focused.

When I finished the 7 continents I was so thrilled. I had one of the best races of my life in Antarctica where I finished second in the women’s run. It was the first time I crossed the finish line and truly felt proud of myself. It was a challenging task – and to have not only achieved it but also finished strong, was a great feeling.

Afterwards, I had a few radio and newspaper interviews back home and everyone wanted to know ‘what’s next for Natalie Arnold’? I really had to restrain myself from jumping into the next goal straight away. I owed myself some time.

After some reflection, I struggled not having the next goal to look forward to. What’s next? What am I supposed to do? What could I look forward to, to keep myself mentally and physically driven?

I do have aspirations to run the North Pole, although I have to be a little quiet about it because my husband isn’t so keen for me to do that. There’s very few people who have run the North Pole and completed the ‘Grand Slam’ in terms of marathons, so it would be quite a big deal. I have a beautiful little family now, but just because I’m a Mum, doesn’t mean I can’t have goals anymore. I want to balance my ambitions and make sure I bring my family on the entire journey with me.

 

“When I finished the 7 continents I was so thrilled, I had one of the best races of my life in Antarctica.

I really had to restrain myself from jumping into the next goal straight away. I owed myself some time.”

What advice do you have for women wanting to take on a new challenge?

My advice would be ‘don’t hold back’.  If you’ve got an idea and an inkling that you want to take on something, you’re halfway there already. Life is just too short to not give something new a go.

This is actually one of the reasons I started ‘Fly into July’, a month-long nation-wide active lifestyle awareness challenge and registered charity. I’ve had people participate in the Fly into July challenge that were going through rehabilitation and this event encouraged them to get active.

Once you’ve got that first idea in mind, hold on to it and do something about it. Talk to a friend, share your goal and register. This will help you commit to your goal and feel accountable to yourself. Whether it’s running your first 5km, running a marathon, or even participating in the Fly into July event! If you’ve got a goal, there’s no doubt in my mind that you WILL get there.

Enjoy the journey, that’s the most important thing.

Natalie Arnold

She Speaks with Hannah Brooks, SBIES

‘Once a horsey girl, always a horsey girl!’ says Hannah Brooks. After a long absence from her sport, Brooks decided to reignite her passion for equestrian sports by volunteering. The path that followed reunited her with a sport she loved, but also put her on a collision course with harsh realities and challenges she had not expected. In our February 2020 edition, we hear from Hannah Brooks in her own words, as She Speaks of bullying, gender equality and her top tips for reform in sport.

Bullying in sport and how I countered it

When I went back to the sport I loved, it appeared to be a good fit. Equestrian was struggling in certain areas, and I had relevant industry experience that allowed me to give back to the sport. For several years I volunteered my skills, promoting international eventing and dressage events and since then, I have got back in the saddle myself.

Equestrian presents an interesting paradox; it is steeped in tradition and yet, at the same time, in need of modernisation in order to maintain its relevance and address declining participation rates.

After a while, I found I was being bullied repeatedly. Bullying is a huge issue in sport but unfortunately particularly prevalent in equestrian, where 86% of participants have experienced bullying as per some reports. Rampant bullying had been quietly tolerated by riders, officials and by the sports administration for years.

After I received zero support from the governing bodies, I founded ‘Stop Bullying in Equestrian Sports’ (SBEIS) with a Facebook page to raise awareness on the impact of bullying in equestrian sports and to act as a support group for other victims. The response was overwhelming, as countless equestrians of every discipline shared their often-painful stories of bullying, harassment and abuse. 

My experience with SBIES has turned me into a passionate advocate for the modernisation and reform of equestrian. I can honestly say; before setting up SBIES I was the world’s least likely activist but as the saying goes…’sometimes your cause finds you’.

To tackle this cultural issue SBIES launched a pledge campaign asking riders to pledge to refuse to tolerate bullying in equestrian sport. The response has been phenomenal and SBIES has since grown into a global movement of over 8000 supporters calling for the reform in equestrian.

For women with a passion for sport, particularly reforming sports, my 3 tops tips are:

Hannah Brooks

“Equestrian presents an interesting paradox; it is steeped in tradition and yet, at the same time, in need of modernisation in order to maintain its relevance and address declining participation rates.”

1. It’s a marathon not a sprint

Whatever barriers you’re trying to break down for women in your sport please don’t become disillusioned when your progress is slow. What appears to be a small gain right now can often result in huge gains in the future.

National and international sporting federations tend to be male dominated and quite reactionary. Change is a hard-won process and progress often proceeds at a glacial pace. If you’re passionate about your mission, it’s easy to become frustrated and disillusioned.

When we at SBIES released our first research paper, The Prevalence of Bullying in Equestrian Sports to a lacklustre response from Equestrian Australia and the international governing body FEI – it felt like a major setback for our cause. However, in redirecting our focus to grass-roots clubs, coaches and individual equestrians we were able to achieve many small wins and raise awareness.

As a rule, grass-roots sporting clubs tend to be nimbler and more dynamic. Although it was a longer process, engaging grass-roots participants offered SBIES a far more receptive platform to grow the movement.

“Young participants are demanding empathetic administrators who manage with kindness, compassion and emotional intelligence. My advice to you is to cultivate these three attributes, as they will be in demand in the future.”

2. Value your feminine attributes

I recognise that referring to any traits as ‘feminine attributes’ can be controversial, so please bear with me as I explain.

At the elite level, women and men have competed alongside each other ever since women were first included in equestrian at the 1952 Olympics. Given this legacy, you might expect equestrian organisations to be leading the way in terms of gender inclusion.

Historically, equestrian folklore has celebrated attributes like ‘bravery’ and ‘toughness’.  Don’t get me wrong; the women and men who compete in equestrian need to possess both these qualities in spades, as does any elite athlete.

However, I feel that the celebration of these type of attributes in equestrian appears to have led to the devaluation of feminine qualities in the management of the sport. This toxic chauvinistic culture is one of the reasons bullying, harassment and abuse has been able to flourish in equestrian.

With participation rates for equestrian sport in decline globally, it’s time to rethink the characteristics we value in our leaders. Young participants are demanding empathetic administrators who manage with kindness, compassion and emotional intelligence. My advice to you is to cultivate these three attributes, as they will be in demand in the future.

“I’m grateful to have created an online community where these riders can come for support and gain strength from sharing their stories with people who have had similar experiences.”

3. Find your people.

Women are leading the charge when it comes to tackling the issue of bullying in sport. This is something to be proud of but it’s not without a downside.

Most people fear change and sports organisations are naturally conservative institutions – so if you want to be a change-maker you can expect to lose a few friends.

I have been widely criticised by people I considered friends and colleagues for shining a light on mismanagement in equestrian sport. This came as a huge shock to me; I was heavily invested in many of those relationships and had incorrectly assumed that everyone would welcome reforms to modernise and improve the culture of the sport.

Eventually I found my people and ultimately it was hugely rewarding to become a part of something bigger than myself and my own experiences of being bullied.

SBIES has become a shoulder to cry on for many equestrians whose National Federations have failed to protect them in cases of bullying, harassment and abuse. I’m grateful to have created an online community where these riders can come for support and gain strength from sharing their stories with people who have had similar experiences.

I’m based in Sydney Australia and through the power of social media SBIES has been able to build a global movement of over 8000 riders calling for reform. So, your people are out there!

Being a part of this attitudinal change was an enormously satisfying experience and if I had been too scared to tread on a few toes – I would have missed out on this opportunity.

You can find us on:

Postscript: a shoutout for the #FairGoForHazel campaign.
 
Hazel Shannon has now won the Adelaide International Three Day Event a historic three times. This event is the only 5* event in the Southern Hemisphere. Not only is she the first rider to win Adelaide three times but she is one of only five riders in the world to win a 5* three times on the same horse. She is not considered a chance to be selected for the Australian eventing team for Tokyo.
 
There are no women in the top tier of the Australian High Performance Eventing Squad and Hazel is the only team member in the top two tiers under thirty. The campaign was created to ask people to sign a petition to give her a FAIR GO in the selection process. 
 
Here is a link to the PETITION.

She Speaks with Victoria Evans, Red Bull Media

To ask for change is one thing. To be the change is another, altogether. In 2020’s first edition of She Speaks, we hear from the inspirational Victoria Evans who will soon be walking the talk on gender equality. Or rather, rowing. In February 2021 she will row solo across the Atlantic, aiming to break the world record for the fastest female to do so. She’s doing this because she wants to see a sea change in sport. This is why; in her own words.

Victoria Evans

Based in London, I work for Red Bull Media House as in-house Legal Counsel. I began my career at a private practice law firm in Manchester during which time I was seconded to adidas, my first experience of working in sport. Upon qualifying as a commercial and intellectual property lawyer in 2012, I took up a role in the legal team at ITV, supporting the commissioning teams responsible for both entertainment and comedy, and sport. After two enjoyable years in television, I accepted a role at UEFA in Switzerland. Arriving at their offices near Geneva in April 2014, I felt very out of my depth. I was a 27-year-old female lawyer in a French speaking, male dominated sports environment with only two years post-qualification-experience under my belt. The four years I spent at UEFA were a sharp but incredible learning curve. Providing marketing legal support for all UEFA competitions, I cut my teeth on some of the most high-profile sports events in the market, and had the pleasure of working at Euro 2016 in France.

 

With numerous sports federations based around the Geneva region, during this period I gained an invaluable insight into the operation of European level sport, and saw first-hand the power of sport as well as some of the hurdles the industry still needs to overcome. One such issue, which I feel particularly passionate about, is the need for greater gender equality both on and off the field. If this change is to be achieved, women need to be part of the conversation. As a starting point we need more women in executive roles.

 

Countless research, including studies by McKinsey and the Peterson Institute, have shown that gender diversity in management positions increases a company’s performance. We’re starting to see support for these findings in the corporate market, with David Solomon of Goldman Sachs announcing in January 2020 that the Wall Street giant will no longer be taking any company public unless it has at least one woman on the board. The requirement shall increase to two women by 2021.

 

Despite this, an investigation at the end of 2019 by UK newspaper ‘Telegraph Sport’ into gender diversity in international sports federations revealed that women continue to be “gravely under-represented at executive level”. They researched ten major federations including FIFA, the International Cricket Council, the International Olympic Committee, World Rugby and World Athletics. The greatest gender imbalance was shown to be on the ICC, where just one of the 18 board members is female. All the governing bodies they studied were shown to have fewer than 40% of women on their board, with three having just 25% female representation and none the ten boards being headed by a woman.

 

As a result, there have been calls for bodies such as the IOC to link funding to governance metrics. This echoes changes made in the UK where, in 2016, UK Sport and Sport England introduced the new ‘Code for Sports Governance’ which requires any organisation seeking UK Government and National Lottery funding for sport and physical activity to have gender diversity of at least 30% on their board.

 

This is just one example of where we need to drive change to reach gender parity and ultimately ensure that sport becomes accessible to everyone. Keen to put the benefit of my experience to good use, I decided I wanted to contribute to the conversation around these issues and sought out a challenge of sufficient magnitude that it would allow me a suitable platform.

 

After considerable planning, I landed on an ocean row. In February 2021 I will depart from Gran Canaria and head west to Barbados in a bid to break the world record for the fastest female to solo row across the Atlantic on the Trade Winds I Route. I’ve named the campaign ‘Sea Change Sport’ and will be working alongside various bodies, including UK charity Women In Sport, to increase awareness and to fundraise charitable contributions that will support further research and lobbying to drive change in this arena.

 

You can learn more about the challenge at www.seachangesport.com or follow along on social channels via @seachangesport.

In February 2021 I will depart from Gran Canaria and head west to Barbados in a bid to break the world record for the fastest female to solo row across the Atlantic on the Trade Winds I Route.

Victoria Evans

She Speaks with Thayssa Plum, FIFA

For the latest edition of She Speaks we caught up with Brazil-native, Switzerland-living Thayssa Plum, senior media relations manager at FIFA.

Thayssa began her journey in sports as a radio reporter before being awarded the AISTS Future Female Leadership in Sport scholarship which saw her move to Lausanne to study her Master in Sports Management in the heart of the Olympic Capital.

She has since worked her way through the ranks, working at the FIFA World Cup in Brazil before moving back to Switzerland to work in the FIFA Headquarters in Zurich.

The AISTS (International Academy of Sports Science and Technology) is currently accepting applications for the class of 2021 (starting in September 2020). Applications for the Female Scholarship need to be submitted by 1st February 2020.

Thayssa Plum, FIFA
Thayssa Plum, senior media relations manager at FIFA

Falling in love with the beautiful game

I graduated in journalism from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. As an intern, I had the chance to experience different editorial areas and I just fell in love with sports and football in particular. 

The game was beautiful to watch and analyse, but what really touched me was all the emotion around it. Witnessing 70,000 fans singing and cheering on their teams at Maracana Stadium just blew me away. I wanted to be a part of it, to experience that catharsis, to report on it. 

I was hired as a radio reporter, covering mainly football matches on the pitch, from behind the goal. The action was literally right in front of me. It was incredible. 

Soon after, Brazil was chosen to host the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016. After three years as a sports reporter, I wanted to go back to school and be prepared to contribute in a greater way to these special moments. That’s when I discovered the Sports Management program at AISTS.

 

The AISTS Future Female Leader in Sport Scholarship

Affording a masters abroad alone was simply not possible for me, which is when I found out about a scholarship called “The AISTS Future Female Sports Leader Scholarship”, which was sponsored at the time by the June Canavan Foundation. 

I had never been to Europe and didn’t know much about Switzerland other than they make great cheese and chocolate! So, the prospect of moving to Lausanne, “the Olympic Capital”, seemed like a far-away dream. I couldn’t believe it when I was told I was selected. Undoubtedly that email changed my life.

“It’s important that there are scholarship programs like the AISTS Future Female Leader in Sport. In my case, it’s pretty simple. It changed my life. Every girl has dreams, but not all pf them has the same means. Reaching out to them, supporting their dreams and making thing possible is the push they need to succeed.”

 

Working at the FIFA World Cup in Brazil…and then moving back to Switzerland

After one year in Lausanne studying, experiencing, networking and working with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF), I went back to Brazil and was hired by the 2014 FIFA World Cup Local Organising Committee. 

For three-years-and-a-half years I dived deep into this project while working for their Communications Department. For a football enthusiast and professional, having the World Cup in your country is mind-blowing and feels like playing the match of your life: you leave everything you have on the pitch. It’s exhausting but rewarding; crazy but worth it.

A few months after that chapter came to a close, I was called by FIFA to move to Zurich and continue to work with the FIFA World Cup project, this time from their headquarters. Since 2015, I’ve been developing and coordinating the Communications project for this unparalleled event – first with Russia 2018, now with Qatar 2022 – and that makes me extremely happy and proud every single day.

 

The gender balance in football and sports leadership

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - NOVEMBER 18: Women in Football Leadership Programme, on November 18th 2019, at the Home of FIFA in Zürich, Switzerland. (Photo by Ben Moreau/FIFA)
Thayssa Plum joins a FIFA industry panel

I think the discussion around women in sport varies a lot depending on what part of the world you are referring to, or to which sport. In some countries it has become absolutely natural to have women in leadership positions, in others you don’t even see female fans in the stadiums. 

When it comes to football, you see how things are changing for the better, but it is a long process that will take generations to become solid and widespread. Generally speaking, my feeling is that women still need to prove themselves and their value. A man fits this environment, he is immediately seen as knowledgeable and deserving of being there. A woman has to conquer all of that. So, the first piece of advice, if I may, is to be resilient. The good news is that this also makes you stronger.

I’m still learning and experiencing myself, so it is feels difficult for me to offer advice. At the end of the day, as simple as this may sound, I think it is a lot about balance and following your intuition on the best strategy for overcoming the different challenges you will face. 

Sometimes you need to be patient and practice acceptance, others you need to push hard. You have to be yourself; but try also to adapt or blend in when this will be beneficial for you. And always work very hard, study, be prepared for meetings and seize opportunities you are given to show your value.

 

Advice for returning to study

Thayssa at AISTS Graduation Ceremony
Thayssa at AISTS Graduation Ceremony

In such a competitive market we must always reinvent ourselves. Learning is growing and it’s an essential part of a successful career. Besides teaching us what we don’t know, it brings us to a different perspective: the observer, the listener. And that will be key when later on you have the chance to act and speak out.

If you do return to study, enjoy it! Working life is not easy, and life overall can become even busier when you have a family, for example. The AISTS Master comes with additional advantages, such as the incredible cultural exchange between the participants and alumni, as well as being immersed in the lovely city of Lausanne.

 

“Having the chance – and the time – to go back to classroom, learn, study, discover new trends and meet new people is a wonderful opportunity and an experience you will miss once you are back to your working life. Make the most of it!”

She Speaks with Lindsay Impett, Netball World Cup

At a time when equal pay and large crowds are being celebrated as milestone moments in women’s football, it is interesting to remember that there are sports which are really female-dominated and pull their own weight without comparison with the men’s version of the game. Netball is in the unique position of looking at ways to encourage more boys and men to take up the sport, even as the women’s game remains ever popular.

For this edition of She Speaks, we were in conversation with Lindsay Impett, Event Director of the very successful 2019 edition of the Vitality Netball World Cup.

Lindsay Impett. Photo credit: SWPix

The 2019 Vitality Netball World Cup

The Vitality Netball World Cup 2019 was a great success, I am delighted to say.  Every session met or greatly exceeded its target capacity and the feedback from the fans showed how much they enjoyed the high quality sport, top level event presentation and additional activities in both the fan-park and throughout the city.  Sky and the BBC provided an exceptional broadcast seen by over 3 million spectators in the UK alone. Our teams, our volunteer community and the International Federation provided hugely positive feedback on their experiences.

I have been lucky enough to work in Australia, South Africa as well as across a variety of events in the UK. I got my first break while volunteering at the Commonwealth Games in 2002.

Role at the World Cup

Netball World Cup 2019 Ltd. was set up as a wholly owned subsidiary of England Netball, to focus on the organisation and promotion of the event. My role involved leading the company and overseeing the delivery of the event.  On a daily basis, it was about managing the project timeline, budget, risk and readiness, but in a wider context it was about building the team and creating a culture that allowed them to thrive, to grow and deliver to the best of their abilities. The performance of the staff on the event is something I will always be very proud of.  

2019 Vitality Netball World Cup. Photo credit: SW Pix

Netball is the only sport where there is little or no comparison to the established men’s version of the game for female athletes. This is a real strength of our sport and we need to maintain this while developing the mixed and men’s games.

Netball’s unique position

For the first time at the Netball World Cup some of the teams played warm-up matches against men’s sides. I believe it is important to develop the men’s and mixed games, whilst keeping netball as a leader in women’s sport. Netball is the only sport where there is little or no comparison to the established men’s version of the game for female athletes. This is a real strength of our sport and we need to maintain this while developing the mixed and men’s games.

From Netball court to the boardroom

Netball is the ultimate team sport. Even though you need a captain or a leader, it is very difficult to win without each and every member of the team. I believe in valuing my team and what they can do, to deliver the best performance. 

Key Performance Indicators for the ‘best performance’

When England Netball moved to Loughborough in 2017, one of the first decorations we installed was a large wall with information about the Vitality Netball World Cup 2019. The detail that kept me focused right from the beginning – when I was the sole member of the organisation – was a target of selling more than 60 thousand tickets.  We smashed this KPI selling over 112,000 tickets for the event.

Equally important to me, however, was the objective of 100% staff retention throughout the duration of the project. Again, without the right team in place it is impossible to achieve the KPIs.

Moderating panel on female leadership, October 2019
2019 Vitality Netball World Cup. Photo credit: SW Pix

Netball has seen global growth in recent years with countries such as Argentina and Zambia developing their coaching networks.

100k+ tickets! How did you generate enthusiasm in a crowded year that included the Women’s Football World Cup and the men’s Cricket World Cup.

Early in the planning process, we decided to move the event from 5th to 12th July to avoid Wimbledon and the men’s Cricket World Cup. We wanted to ensure that the Vitality Netball World Cup 2019 had its own platform and space to shine. We found that other sporting events such as the Women’s Football World Cup in France accentuated the narrative around female sport, which only benefited our event. 

Is the sport growing in popularity globally?

Netball has seen global growth in recent years with countries such as Argentina and Zambia developing their coaching networks. In the UK, off the back of the Commonwealth Games and the World Cup, England Netball have seen a rise in the number of enquiries about clubs, more back-to-netball attendance and an increase in ‘session finder’ use (on the website).

In fact, one person was so keen that she emailed England Netball from inside the (Liverpool) Arena while watching a World Cup match, in search of her nearest playing opportunity! England Netball have done a great job in tapping in to the various reasons why people want to play and creating a product that meets that need. Other member nations are also adopting this approach.

Does ‘being the only woman in the room’ apply in Netball?

Although our volunteer community of Pivoteers was made up of a high percentage of females, our delivery team at the event had a good gender mix. Our Head of Sport Competition was Ian Holloway and I don’t believe there are many people in the UK who could have run our netball competition better. It wasn’t about male or female for us, it was about who was best placed to do the job at hand. 

Professional journey so far

I have been lucky enough to work in Australia, South Africa as well as across a variety of events in the UK. I got my first break while volunteering at the Commonwealth Games in 2002. I pushed myself forward and introduced myself to the representatives of Fast Track. Having been an athlete myself, I knew Fast Track ran track and field events and I knew this was the direction I wanted to go in. Fast Track then gave me opportunity and experience in a wide range of event operations and this set me up for all the jobs that followed! 

I have since worked at Wembley Stadium and been involved in a variety of events including Youth Olympics, World Masters Games, FIFA World Cup, the London 2012 Olympics, European Archery 2016, the Rugby World Cup and even a medieval pageant! Each role has provided me with new skills as well as contacts and I take experience and value from every thing I do. 

She Speaks with Hilary Atkinson, FIH

For our next edition of She Speaks, we caught up with Scotland native, Switzerland-living, Hilary Atkinson.

Hilary is a proud advocate for equality in sport and someone who leads by example, supporting women and men in and out of the workplace.

She has worked her way up the ranks at the International Hockey Federation (FIH) and manages a team of men and women working on the Pro League and the Olympic Games. She’s also a member of the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) Sports Committee.

Working at the International Hockey Federation

I work within a team of 36 international colleagues in Lausanne as Director of FIH Pro League and Olympic Games.

The FIH Pro League is our new annual global home-and-away league involving the world’s leading hockey nations that was inaugurated in January 2019 and has just completed its first season.

Whilst the FIH Pro League has been running, we have also been working with our colleagues in the Tokyo Organising Committee for Olympic & Paralympic Games and Japanese Hockey Association in preparing for the Ready Steady Tokyo Hockey Test event this summer as a key milestone ahead of the Olympic Games in summer 2020.

As well as beginning the planning for a number of upcoming Games with the Youth Olympic Games in Dakar 2022, the Olympic Games in Paris 2024, and the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022!

Your history in sports administration

Hilary at the FIH Congress in Dubai. Credit: Getty Images

I am enormously fortunate to be brought up in a family who have unequivocally supported my aspirations in life. My parents met and were involved, in particular, in badminton, another brilliantly equitable sport and I started at a young age helping my Dad when he was running tournaments. In my final year at school, I was granted leave to volunteer at the World Team Badminton Championships and by then I was officially hooked!

My first CEO, at BADMINTONscotland, was one of the longest-serving women holding a senior role in British sport, so I really didn’t consider gender as any kind of potential obstacle to a future in sports administration at that stage.

Since then I have had the privilege to work on two ‘home’ Games, at both the London 2012 Olympic & Paralympic Games and Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, in what is a glorious decade of sport for Great Britain. As well as contributing at England Rugby 2015, before moving to Switzerland to join FIH and being offered the opportunity to contribute as a co-opted member of the CGF Sports Committee.

I travel quite a bit, which allows me to experience different cultures and meet many wonderful people who have dedicated themselves to hockey and other sports, often for their whole lifetime.

Every day in my working role is different, which is what keeps me curious and energised!

What does a typical day look like for you?

I travel quite a bit, which allows me to experience different cultures and meet many wonderful people who have dedicated themselves to hockey and other sports, often for their whole lifetime. Every day in my working role is different, which is what keeps me curious and energised!

Outside of work however, there are three things which are always part of my day; speaking to my family from wherever I am in the world is really important to me, catching up on the BBC news and sport before bed (especially keeping an eye on the Scottish Rugby team results) and some chocolate – I rarely get through a day without it!

FIH Pro League Trophy 2019

Being creative about how to develop yourself is important and continual (professional) development is a life skill as much as a work one!

Professional Development

The opportunities for professional growth throughout my career have come in a large part from working alongside and learning from an often inspirational and incredibly talented group of international colleagues.

I can also highly recommend IMD and Centre for Coaching Switzerland – both of which I have undertaken opportunities with more recently – if you are looking to pursue formal professional courses in Switzerland.

The sports industry is competitive, whatever your gender, and roles are often short-term contracts, or within smaller organisations where resources are more limited.

Being creative about how to develop yourself is important and continual (professional) development is a life skill as much as a work one!

Of course, it depends on the role you are working in or looking to contribute to. In some cases, you might not be able to progress without taking a further specific qualification.

However, I am a firm believer that practical experience and application are as important as qualifications and there are many informal ways to achieve these.

The most straightforward (and often undervalued) of which is volunteering.

Whether it’s volunteering at an event, in a sports club, for a committee or within your own organisation. It is one of the best ways to demonstrate and gain an understanding of a new sport, operation or role as well as build a diverse network, all whilst making a valuable contribution to something and having fun at the same time!

Gender Equality at FIH and the Commonwealth Games Federation

I’m proud that both of these organisations have gender equality at the heart of their strategies and have worked together to support each other, specifically in a number of these initiatives.

Equality is one of the three core values of the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) and at the 2016 CGF General Assembly in Canada, CGF launched a strategy which strives to ensure that women and girls are equally represented, recognised and served across all areas of the Commonwealth Sports Movement and sets the benchmark for gender equality standards in international sport. Non-discrimination is now a clause in all the CGF host-city contracts. At its helm throughout this period has been the CGF’s first female President, Dame Louise Martin.

The 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games were widely applauded as the first multi-sports event ever with a Reconciliation Action Plan and Gender parity in the number of medal events at Gold Coast 2018 between women and men for first time ever. Basketball, Hockey and Swimming featured over 50% female Technical Officials; a first in international sport.

The FIH launched its Hockey Revolution Strategy in 2014 and one of its core commitments was to promote gender equality, inclusion and diversity in sports practice and governance across the #EquallyAmazing aspects of the sport.

FIH has championed this on the pitch, where the competitions and prize money are the same for men and women, supported by equal numbers of male and female technical officials. Off the pitch FIH has an equal involvement of men and women in the committees and panels of the International Federation and hockey governing bodies and has delivered FIH Academy education courses specifically focused on women’s performance coaching, just a few examples of its ongoing promotion of equality.

As a further milestone of its #EquallyAmazing strategy promoting gender equality, FIH has recently inaugurated a new Women in Sports Committee, chaired by FIH Executive Board member Marijke Fleuren, who is also a member of the IOC Women in Sport Commission.

IMG_2302
Oi Hockey Stadium Tokyo with IOC Commission Member and FIH EB Member Tayyab Ikram

The responsibility and ownership is upon all of us who are working in the industry, as well as the industry’s stakeholders, sponsors, fans and media partners, to work together to address not only gender equity, but all aspects of discrimination, as well as promote inclusion and integrity.

The Sports Industry as a whole is working hard to overcome obstacles to gender equality, such as its history of predominantly male leadership, limited number of female role models, lack of female high-performance coaches and officials, unequal prize money and an uneven distribution of media coverage across some sports.

There are many examples of specific work being done to overcome these through the leadership and governance of the IOC’s Gender Equity Recommendations, the International Federations and National Federations own strategies (ITF Advantage All Campaign designed by She Speaks interviewees Pure Purple, and World Rugby’s ‘Try and Stop us’ are recent examples). However, there is much more to do.

The responsibility and ownership is upon all of us who are working in the industry, as well as the industry’s stakeholders, sponsors, fans and media partners, to work together to address not only gender equity, but all aspects of discrimination, as well as promote inclusion and integrity.

How can we support our organisations to be more gender equal?

I have been fortunate to benefit from opportunities offered to me by both great men and women and if you are in a position to, one simple way to support your organisation to be more equal is to employ or appoint as many great women as men into your business and encourage others to do the same! This is something I have championed throughout my career.

It is my opinion that sometimes women don’t put themselves forward for roles or opportunities that they are well suited for. Everyone, whatever your role in a workplace, can help uncover, highlight and promote talented women to those around them and endorse a collaborative culture in the office that anyone male or female would be happy to join!

We all stand on the shoulders of many others that have gone before us and I consider wholeheartedly that life is about making a positive contribution in whatever way we can.

I’m still learning every day myself, but if I’m asked and I am able to help someone in a small way, it’s a pleasure to be able to do so.

We all stand on the shoulders of many others that have gone before us and I consider wholeheartedly that life is about making a positive contribution in whatever way we can.

Tokyo 2020 Olympic Torch

She Speaks with Micky Lawler, WTA

Sport is lucky to have Micky Lawler – president of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA).

Originally wanting to work for the United Nations, but unable to get a visa to work in the US at the time, Micky returned to Europe to find a way to use her passion for sociology and her skills as a linguist.

A Dutch native, Micky is fluent in five languages, thanks to a colourful childhood which saw her live in the Netherlands, Colombia, Argentina, Bolivia and Kenya.

Micky has 33 years’ experience working in sport, including 26 years at Octagon, as Managing Director for Tennis and Global Initiatives. 

She is also a mother to three children. 

Getting Started in Sport

Sport was a big thing in our family… But I didn’t grow up thinking ‘oh I must work in sports’. In fact, I thought that I would work for the United Nations because that was the natural fit in my mind.

It was really difficult to find a job because in those days, unless you typed a certain number of words per minute or knew shorthand, the jobs for women were for women in the administrative or secretarial fields. 

Teaching languages in Paris, Micky got her start in sport when she applied and was successful for a role as Press Attaché for the Men’s International Tennis Council – the predecessor to the ATP. 

I travelled 48 weeks per year. It was really incredible because that is a way to learn tennis. The insights, the outsights and every side of the sport. You got to know the players really well; you got to know the tournaments really well.

So that’s really how I got into the game.

Tennis Outside of Europe

WTA President Micky Lawler presents an award commemorating the 15th edition before the final of the 2018 China Open WTA Premier Mandatory tennis tournament

As part of Micky’s previous role on the WTA Board, she helped establish the Wuhan Open in China and other tennis initiatives in emerging sporting countries like the Middle East. 

The one thing in tennis that is super interesting especially on the WTA, is that the WTA has had the flexibility to take a parallel journey to events and growth that we’ve seen socio-economically. 

So the WTA went to the Middle East when the Middle East was emerging as an economic power like no other. And the great thing about that is – while there’s a long way to go – I feel that women’s sports have a lot to do with social advancement as well. 

Tennis’ expansion has not only been in China, but other parts of the world as well – Eastern Europe for example, so Eastern Europe has been very strategic in using its super strong tradition and culture in sports and women’s sports as well to again transition into the West and become one with the West, whilst still maintaining its cultural identity. 

It’s been an incredible journey that’s for sure.

We want to encourage women to, if they want to, start a family, and not have that mean that their career as a professional athlete has to be over.

Maternity Leave for Female Tennis Players

Thanks to the likes of Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka, the WTA recently made some significant changes for athletes who take maternity leave. Now, players will have three years to enter a maximum of 12 tournaments under a protected ranking. 

The players were very involved in this. It came about because pregnancy was treated in a similar way to injury. Meaning, injury caused an athlete to be out, to not be able to compete, and pregnancy caused an athlete not to be able to compete.  

The fact that Vika [Victoria Azarenka] had a baby, and then Serena had a baby meant there was a lot of discussion around the time that they were out, their protected ranking, but then the seedings as well and having such a high-ranked athletes floating around the draw and whether it was fair to the players who had not been out and earned their position.

But the players decided what was fair and what was not fair. We want to encourage women to, if they want to, start a family, and not have that mean that their career as a professional athlete has to be over. So we provide an environment that encourages women to have families and keep competing.

Simona Halep of Romania celebrates finishing as Year End World Number One with WTA President Micky Lawler & WTA CEO Steve Simon at the 2018 WTA Finals tennis tournament

We all need to work together to make sure a mother can be a mother first, but if there’s a way to structure things so that her role as a mother is never compromised and we can still ease the mother into not missing a beat at work, then that’s great for both sides.

Pros and Cons of Maternity Leave ​

When I started as a professional, women would be pegged into non-essential roles. Because the social benefits were and are such for maternity or paternity leave that as an essential member or an executive at a company, it would be very hard to step away for nine months or a year, and expect everybody else to carry the load and for this not to have a tremendously draining influence on the company or the team for which you work. 

So that balance has to be achieved. 

My own personal philosophy is that we need to use the flexibility that technology gives us to actually not step away completely. 

We all need to work together to make sure a mother can be a mother first, but if there’s a way to structure things so that her role as a mother is never compromised and we can still ease the mother into not missing a beat at work, then that’s great for both sides. I know that’s really hard to do.

Dealing With Intimidation Of Being The Only Female In The Room

So to be honest with you I still have these episodes where I have this tremendous fear of public speaking. It’s debilitating to the point where I think I’m going to have a heart attack because the heart cannot physically beat this fast and this strongly and I can feel my neck and my chest getting completely red and my mind going blank.

So that’s some sort of anxiety that came I think because in those days I would push hard to break the mold. But respectfully break the mold. I felt this huge responsibility of, ‘okay, I’ve been given the opportunity and now I can’t screw it up, because my female friends here are counting on me to come through.’

And also because of a super respect for the men in the room and what they’ve done, where they’ve come from, and what they’ve achieved, and asking myself can I go toe to toe with them as a young woman.  

I grew up in the bush sometimes, and in developing countries. The schools were.. great life schools but sometimes not the best academic schools. So we had to work extra hard to live up to European educational standard.

When you come to the developed world and you know everything about the developing world but all of a sudden everyone here has the schooling that we’ve had to work extra to try to equalise. So I grew up with the mentality that I have to do all this other work to be at the same level as you, and that is intimidating. 

But it’s also really helpful because the humble gene never leaves.  And that’s key, in my opinion.

MickyLawler_JenniLewisSAP_LindsayDavenport_2018WTAFinals_Singapore1
Micky Lawler with Jenni Lewis SAP and Lindsay Davenport at the 2018 WTA Finals in Singapore. Photo credit: Jimmie48 Tennis/WTA

The number one thing for me, is how important it is that women are kind to each other and help build each other up.

We need to be straightforward, we need to be very honest it’s okay to wear your heart on your sleeve, in fact, it’s good.  

Advice To Women Working In Sport

The ideal situation for anyone in the workplace young or older is to work together.  

There are things that the younger generation can offer to the older generation that are invaluable and the same thing goes in reverse.  

The number one thing for me, is how important it is that women are kind to each other and help build each other up.

We need to be straightforward, we need to be very honest, it’s okay to wear your heart on your sleeve, in fact, it’s good.  

It’s never good to pretend to be someone you’re not. 

When you come into a room and you have self-doubts, understand that no matter where the people in the room went to school, no matter what professional experience they have, how many languages they speak, you have a lot to offer that is complementary to what they have to offer.  

Working together always wins. Always always always. 

Do you think women have specific strengths that differ from men that are an advantage when working in senior administrative roles?

Absolutely. It’s key to be authentic. If you need to cry, you cry. If you need to nurse your baby, you nurse your baby. You know, these are the things that make the world turn. These are characteristics that define and separate us from men. I think we should use being female to the advantage of the occasion.  If you look at the PM of New Zealand in the aftermath of that terrible shooting, she was authentic, and people responded well to it because the occasion called for that, it was completely appropriate.

Who is your role model?

I have many. I can tell you my father is a tremendous role model, and my mother and my grandmother and my grandfather. I mean we travelled all around the world, which was very hard for my mother.  She didn’t speak the language, she wasn’t working, she had to deal with a completely different culture, had no education, she was a team player like no other.

Throughout your career you learn so much from all your colleagues. My prior boss, who is still a very close friend of mine, he always said to me ‘your strengths are your weaknesses.’  He would also say to me you have to be really fair to the individual, until it’s unfair to the rest of the team. I think about those two things a lot.

Your Strengths Are Your Weaknesses

As a woman this is really applicable. I’m very emotional.  I think that can be a weakness to be too emotional. I cry very easily.  There are times when people say it’s really important that you don’t cry on this one.  When I cry it’s over, I completely let go, not good. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose, and if I lose, it’s not good.

But at the same time, it’s good to really understand that I’m human, this is who I am.  Your capacity to empathise because of that deep emotion, you live it, you breathe it, it’s in your DNA, it’s very authentic.  I think that makes a very strong connection to the cause, to the goals you lay out. It makes for a good employee. 

Your capacity to empathise because of that deep emotion, you live it, you breathe it, it’s in your DNA, it’s very authentic.  I think that makes a very strong connection to the cause, to the goals you lay out. It makes for a good employee. 

Micky Lawler. Photo credit: Jimmie48 Tennis/WTA

She Speaks with Raewyn Topp and Sarah Massey, Pure Purple

For the second edition of She Speaks, we catch up with Raewyn Topp and Sarah Massey, who have some serious #careergoals as they work to facilitate positive change in gender equality in sport with their business Pure Purple.
Both Raewyn and Sarah live and work in Switzerland and spent some time telling us about what the sporting landscape looks like through their eyes as they look to remove the ‘grey’ and work towards a level playing field within the industry. 

About Pure Purple

Sarah and Raewyn’s partnership began while at the International Hockey Federation (FIH), working together on strategic projects across events and marketing.

Sarah: Setting up business together meant combining our skills to deliver to clients what we term the ‘purple approach’. Deciding what Raewyn and I would do was easy – we both love working in sport, enjoy big projects, flexibility and varied challenges.

The story behind the Pure Purple name.

Raewyn: ‘P’ words are very powerful – think Pure, Passion, Purpose, Precision, Practical, Performance, Positivity, Persistence and Projects…the list goes on.

Purple – well, often projects are stuck in ‘the grey’ – too busy, not enough time and lack of resources.  Purple is a rich, empowering and creative colour.

So Pure Purple cuts through the grey, adding momentum and focus to help CEOs and Executive teams deliver on their goals.  By removing the grey, projects come to life and empower organisations, creating better results.

Currently, Sarah and Raewyn are working with the International Tennis Federation (ITF) to deliver a Gender Equality Strategy.

Sarah: Pure Purple gave the strategy a fresh approach and distinct positioning that resonated with both men and women – arming them with language everyone felt comfortable using. 

The result is a powerful platform, ‘Advantage ALL – Tennis is an equal advantage sport’. Since then, Advantage ALL has begun to take on a life of its own within the organisation.  It’s wonderful to hear people talking about Advantage ALL as part of other projects.  You know you are starting to get momentum when Advantage ALL is included in multiple project discussions, not just the gender equality discussions.

Raewyn: One of key deliverables this year is a campaign to raise the awareness of opportunities for women in tennis off the court. This campaign will drive and encourage more women into non-playing  roles. It will be launched at the Fed Cup Final later this year and we are excited to see how the market responds to it.

“Sports that don’t embrace gender equality in leadership, and the potential value of the female game from a fan ‘likeability’ and even from a commercial perspective will be losing opportunities.”

Marketing Women in Sport

On the topic of marketing women’s sport, and whether a different approach is required compared with marketing men’s sport, both Sarah and Raewyn agree that the first step is to make sure there is actually a well thought-out and deliberate approach.

Sarah: History shows that women’s sport has generally been marketed, packaged and bundled along with the men’s, as opposed to it being considered as a separate and distinct product in its own right.  

We are delighted to see this changing, and fans, both male and female, responding positively.  The huge fan numbers turning up and consuming  women’s world cup events  for cricket, rugby and football, as well as the recent unbundling of media rights in football gives us goose bumps.  This shows there is a real appetite and potential for female sport and demonstrates, when packaged correctly, the growing commercial opportunity. 

“The huge fan numbers turning up and consuming  women’s world cup events  for cricket, rugby and football, as well as the recent unbundling of media rights in football gives us goose bumps.”

Gender Equality in Sport

Having worked on gender equality projects across multiple sports, it was interesting to hear Sarah and Raewyn’s views on the challenges facing sports and whether there is a ‘one size fits all’ approach to ensuring more women are both working in, and playing, sport.

Raewyn: In recent years sport has seen a rise in awareness and discussions around the topic. 

But the major challenge remains implementation, the ’how to’, courage, allocation of dedicated budgets and resources to implement long-term and sustainable change.      

Sarah: Yes, implementation is of course easier said than done – especially when you consider that sports organisations have a global membership and hence a significant range of cultural differences and regionally specific barriers to overcome. 

A topic such as gender equality often struggles to find its place in the org chart and have clear decision-making influence and budgets.  In our opinion, sports that don’t embrace gender equality in leadership, and the potential value of the female game from a fan ‘likeability’ and even from a commercial perspective will be losing opportunities.

Raewyn: In our experience most sports are facing the same types of macro challenges when it comes to gender equality to a larger or smaller degree.

These macro issues include: lack of female leaders or decision-makers in the sport’s administration, low pools of women to recruit from, too few women succeeding in off-court/off-field roles and poor commercial value and positioning of their female sports products.

Certainly, as you dig deeper, individual sports can have more specific issues.

But I think there is enough common ground for all sports to learn from each other, and yes, there are key actions and disciplines that sport organisations can adopt ‘across the board’ to promote gender equality, just like there are best practices in many areas of business.

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Encourage your organisation to find language that makes gender equality easier to talk about – it’s about balance, not ‘anti-men’. 

Three challenges for sports wanting to implement change in gender equality

If we were to pick three of the biggest implementation challenges for most sports it would likely be:

  1. Getting women into leadership positions, to help govern, influence and grow the sport.
  2. Generating buy-in from the top so that this is firmly on the agenda. Including men in the discussions is important  – this is a joint challenge and not just one to be led by females.
  3. Keeping it high priority and accessing dedicated resources and budgets.

What will it take for the field to become level within the sports industry?

Sarah: Really the factor that will make the most difference is time and persistence, but we are certain it will reach a tipping point.

  • Time for a critical mass of women to be in leadership positions
  • Time for more females to have higher profiles and visibility
  • Time for sponsors to see the value and invest in women’s sport.
  • Time for female sport and female athletes to be portrayed in the media for their performance and not for other reasons
  • Time for culture to change

Like many of you, we believe it’s already taken too long, so we are keen to speed up the process as much as we can.

What can we do at an individual level?

Raewyn: It’s often difficult to believe that anything we do as an individual can make a difference to an issue as big as gender equality, but here are a couple of ideas, which if we all did, would certainly make an impact.

  • Help make your organisation more aware of any inequalities that exist. Often these are unconscious or historical and it’s only when you raise them that people notice them for what they are. Try and do this in a constructive and positive way.
  • Encourage your organisation to find language that makes gender equality easier to talk about – it’s about balance, not ‘anti-men’. Avoid overly earnest language and approaches, this can be off-putting to everyone and make change seem very onerous. With energy and positivity, it is easier to change organisational culture and generate buy-in.

After chatting with Sarah and Raewyn, we’re more inspired than ever to continue our work to champion the cause of gender equality in our own workplaces but also through She Sports Switzerland.

What’s also come through strongly is that we can all be part of the change. Are you with us?